Louisville, Kentucky doesn’t have smog-filled skies like Los Angeles or Beijing. But people who live there know the air is often unhealthy to breathe. Signs along the interstate highways leading to the city warn of low air quality. Residents share stories of persistent coughs that went away while they were on vacation, only to reappear when they arrived home. They joke about living in Coronary Valley. “The air in Louisville takes years off your life, regardless of your overall health status,” says Veronica Combs, director of the Institute for Healthy Air, Water, and Soil, a local nonprofit focused on the connections between environmental and human health.
Where You Live Determines How Long You Live
Where you live in the city can have dramatic effects on your health. Residents in the city’s poorer neighborhoods — those closest to Louisville’s industrial areas — live 11 years less than those in more upscale neighborhoods where trees, parks, and green spaces are common. That dichotomy caught the attention of Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar of University of Louisville Medical Center. Would planting more trees make people healthier, he wondered? “There has never been a rigorous scientific study that quantified the health effects of urban greening,” says Bhatnagar. “This will be the first attempt to understand, is nature a viable, replicable therapy?”
The Green Heart Project Has Begun
At first, his colleagues laughed at him, but now the idea has turned into the Green Heart Project. It will be the first large-scale scientific study of the relationship between trees and human health in the world. “What we learn in Louisville is going to affect people all over the world,” says Ray Yeager, a researcher with the University of Louisville Medical Center laboratory that is in charge of the program. “Essentially, we’re designing a big clinical trial where nature is the pharmaceutical,” says Pascal Mittermaier, head of the Global Cities program at The Nature Conservancy.
The first part of the project began in October with the collection of baseline data on the neighborhoods involved. 50 passive air monitors will be used together with more sophisticated sensors on cell towers around the area. The network will monitor temperature, the level of particulates in the air, and the amount of volatile organic compounds present.
Once that data is collected, 8,000 trees will be planted in selected neighborhoods, based on input from The Nature Conservancy and the Hyphae Design Laboratory, which is adding its experience in urban planning and green infrastructure design to the Great Heart Project. Then 700 neighborhood residents will allow themselves to be monitored using blood and urine samples. The tests will collect data on dozens of chemicals, including cortisol and adrenaline — both of which are produced when the body is under stress.
Urine Into Data
“This is where we transform urine into data,” says Ray Yeager. “We’re essentially relying on people to volunteer as human environmental monitors.” The project will take place over a 5 year period. Some of the chemicals and compounds the researchers are looking for appear right away in the body but some require months or even years to make their presence known. At the end of the study, data from neighborhoods where trees were planted will be compared to that from neighborhoods where no new trees were planted.
Trees do more than just convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis. The tiny hairs on each leaf also trap some of the particulates in the air. We are just becoming aware of the health impact of particulates as a result of the notoriety surrounding the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal that broke in 2015. Particulates smaller than 2.5 microns can actually pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream, leading to coronary disease. Particulate pollution can be as much as a third lower in the vicinity of trees. Planting trees and shrubs along highways can reduce pollution from passing vehicles by up to 60%, according to a study by a local school in Louisville.
Who Pays For Trees?
You might think that any government would feel obligated to take measures that could add years to the lives of its citizens, but you would be wrong. Louisville, like most urban areas, has spent no money on planting trees over the past several years as other budget priorities like salaries for police and fire, trash pickup, and money for schools have shouldered their way to the front of the line. The ultimate goal of the Green Heart Project is to provide Louisville with a canopy of trees that will clean the air and promote the health of all residents. But that will cost millions, money the city doesn’t have.
The scientific community says that better health and fewer sick days will offset the expense, but that is like saying taking a vacation will make you happy and happy people live longer. It may be true, but there is no direct connection between healthy lifestyles and municipal budgets.
Chris Chandler, urban conservation director for The Nature Conservancy in Louisville, says, “We don’t have a choice. Our friends and family all breathe this air.” He believe the findings from the Green Heart Project will help communities prioritize their efforts and open doors to new sources of funding for urban greening as conservationists build partnerships with the public health community. “All cities are cash-strapped. They’re looking for information on the right place to plant the trees to see the best return on their investment, the biggest benefit for their people,” Chandler says. “Towns like Louisville are where you roll up your sleeves and get things done.”
Stop Voting For Incompetent Idiots
Louisville has another option. It could stop electing people like the hateful and hate-filled Mitch McConnell, who votes for policies that cause his constituents to live in poor health and die prematurely so he can continue to get fat campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies. Voting for McConnell is like playing Russian roulette with the lives of your children but most Kentuckians seem to be perfectly fine with that. Go figure.
Source: The Nature Conservancy