RBG Edinburgh releases clean air-testing lichen kit

The ability of lichens to make invisible pollutants visible is being harnessed by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to make more people aware of the state of the air they breathe.

Frances Stoakley. Image: RBGE
Frances Stoakley. Image: RBGE

Air pollution is recognised by the World Health Organisation as one of the biggest current environmental health issues, contributing to around 40,000 UK deaths every year - but it's impossible to tell with the naked eye if air is truly clean.

Now researchers at RBGE have published an easy-to-use air quality self-assessment package that could ultimately help save lives through people power and lichen. These organisms are very sensitive to pollution, so a researcher who knows the hallmarks of pollution in lichen can quickly assess the state of the surrounding air.

The free kit (available to download from the RBGE website) can be used by individuals, schools and community groups. It provides the tools for anyone to investigate the evidence for and against polluted air in their surroundings.

The survey, which also offers resources for practical action to improve environmental health, has been developed at RBGE by Frances Stoakley, a Natural Talent trainee with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) and RBGE Head of Cryptogams, Dr Chris Ellis. Information delivered by it will contribute to the Edinburgh Living Landscape initiative.

Having switched careers from the performing arts, Stoakley brought new perspectives on biodiversity engagement. She explained: "My career change happened because I wanted to start communicating more widely and in new ways about the need to protect the environment and this led me to a full time three-year BSc in Countryside Management at Aberystwyth University.

"Then, I undertook a Natural Talent UK traineeship, funded by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which brought me to Edinburgh. During my training I was increasingly aware of a barrage of reports on air pollution, including the worrying statistic that outdoor air pollution contributes to 2,000 deaths annually in Scotland according to the NHS: Health Protection Scotland briefing paper of 2014.

"I also partnered-up with Sustrans Scotland, Edinburgh Council and the Field Studies Council to undertake lots of public engagement work: stalls, talks, events and activities throughout my traineeship year to discover what people want, or need, to be able to do the survey, and how best to communicate the story of lichens as indicators of air quality.

Lichen is an excellent indicator of air quality. Image: RBGE

"Unlike the air pollution of the past, which was hard to ignore because it was smelly and visible as smog, today's is almost invisible and can be easily overlooked - which is where lichens come into their own. These extraordinary organisms that colonise trees and many other surfaces in both rural and urban areas are mostly very sensitive to air pollution because they absorb everything they need to live and grow directly from the atmosphere.

"As they have no mechanism to control and filter out harmful toxins found within the atmosphere, they are good indicators of environmental health and local air quality: if you know what to look for."

John McFarlane, TCV Environment Development Officer, added : Air pollution is a huge global environmental health issue and while the air quality in Scotland is generally very good, we do have hot spots in our cities that regularly exceed national and EU limits for air pollution. If members of the public can be enthused and encouraged to participate in finding out about their local air quality we can start to make a real difference."

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