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Is Country Air Really Better Than City Air?

One scientist thinks it’s because of toxic plant chemicals

Is air in the country healthier than air in the city? One scientist has a theory as to why that's the case, and it's got nothing to do with pollution. (E. D'Ascoli Photographies/Flickr CC BY 2.0)
smithsonian.com

A little fresh air is good for your health, or so the saying goes. Culturally, the association of fresh air with healthiness dates back centuries. Whether its by the sea or in the country, research is certainly being outside in green space comes with both psychological and physiological benefits.

But, is country air better than city air? And if so, why? Mike Moore, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Exeter in the U.K., has a theory. In an opinion piece in New Scientist, Moore proposes that country air’s healthfulness might actually derive from some of its more toxic qualities. (He also lays out this hypothesis in paper in the July issue of Environmental Research.)

The theory goes like this: Urban areas have higher air pollution rates, but plants, fungi and microbes contribute to air quality, too. All of these organisms produce airborne chemicals—sometimes to defend themselves from threats, sometimes to attract mates or pollinators.

“The presence of these biomolecules in the atmosphere represents a radical departure from the urban environment, which is more likely to contain synthetic pollutants and mildew,” writes Moore in New Scientist.

In particular, plants, algae and cyanobacteria produce compounds called phytochemicals. While many of these chemicals might be poisonous to a predator, modern humans can probably tolerate them at low doses—because of our exposure over millennia, according to Moore. In fact, he thinks inhaling these “biogenic” compounds may influence a specific communication pathway between our cells for the better.

While it sounds a bit out there, Moore might be onto something. Studies suggest that consuming some phytochemicals though plants in our diet blocks the activity of a protein that can overactivate cell growth. Switching this protein signal off suppresses tumors and destroys damaged cells. As Moore explains, since eating these compounds seems to be good for us, it follows that breathing them in could be beneficial, as well.

All that said, Moore’s theory has not been tested (though he’s planned experiments). Efforts to compare health in urban and rural areas often produce conflicting results that can hardly be pinned down to one factor. The fact that not all phytochemicals are created equal (some have been linked to asthma, while others seem to prevent it) also makes things a lot more complicated.

So before urban planners start spraying phytochemicals on city streets, scientists first need to take a deep breath and do a bit more digging.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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