World's Plants Are Atmospheric 'cleansers'

BOULDER, Colo., Oct. 22 (UPI) — The world’s plants play a bigger role in cleansing the Earth’s atmosphere of common air-polluting chemicals than previously thought, U.S. researchers say.

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., used observations, gene studies and computer modeling to show that deciduous plants absorb about a third more of a class of air-polluting chemicals known as oxygenated volatile organic compounds than previously believed, reported Friday.

These compounds form in the atmosphere from hydrocarbons and other chemicals emitted from both natural sources and human activities, and can have long-term impacts on the environment and human health, researchers say.

“Plants clean our air to a greater extent than we had realized,” research center scientist Thomas Karl, the lead author, says. “They actively consume certain types of air pollution.”

By measuring levels of the atmospheric compounds in a number of ecosystems in the United States and other countries, the researchers found that deciduous plants appear to be absorbing them at an unexpectedly fast rate — as much as four times more rapidly than previously estimated.

“This really transforms our understanding of some fundamental processes taking place in our atmosphere,” Karl says.

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