Research to study the health effects of forests


New project to research affects of forests on human health The ICTA-UAB, CREAF and the "la Caixa" Bank Foundation recently presented the project "Healthy Forests for a Healthy Society". The multidisciplinary study combines experimental measures in forests and laboratories, drone technology and citizen participation.


Àngel Font, Corporate Director of Research and Strategy at the ”la Caixa” Bank Foundation; Martí Boada, professor and researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), and Jordi Vayreda, researcher at the Centre for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF), recently presented a pioneering project entitled "Healthy Forests for a Healthy Society". The research study will not only analyse the role forests play as a potential source of health, but also how the state of health of forest masses can have effects on the health of humans.

The research, which is the result of a growing social and scientific interest in the effects being in contact with nature can have on our health, will be based on an experimental line and on a participative one. The first line will be directed by the ICTA-UAB and its objective it to learn about how forests can influence the health of a person. With this in mind, researchers will visit forests of the Montseny to analyse the active principles sent out by plants, and in which way these interact with our health. In a later phase, they will measure whether the maturity of the forest, and other characteristics, can cause a variation in these chemical substances and how these substances are incorporated and metabolised within the human body after spending time inside a forest.

The CREAF will study the forests' current state of health and how this may change in a warmer and drier future, as foreseen by scientists. To do so, they will use a citizen science platform known as Alerta Forestal. Thus, a network of forest guards will be created with the aim of taking pictures and sharing them via mobile if the detect any forest affected by the processionary moth, drought, wind or snow; essential information needed to obtain data in real time and in great detail. The project will also incorporate the participation of drone users. These devices can photograph large areas and in great detail. They can even create 3D models, which until recently was unthinkable. This information will serve to create and improve mathematical models which can help to predict the future state of forests and how the relation between forests and humans may vary. "Forests provide such beneficial services and effects, and are so necessary that one can affirm that life in the city would be far worse if we did not have them close by", explains CREAF researcher Jordi Vayreda.
The Montseny mountain range, a natural laboratory for the study of forests and health effects

The experimental part of the research will take place in the Mediterranean forests of holm oaks, cork oaks, pines and in beech tree forests, in areas of the Montseny Natural Park - Biosphere Reserve. This area was chosen for its biodiversity and because it is one of the most visited parks of Catalonia, and the results will be comparable to other regions. Air samples will be taken in order to analyse the chemical substances emitted by the plants of each forest. These will later be tested for maturity, composition of species and other characteristics which can cause variations in the concentrations of these substances. In one of the project's later phases, the research will focus on determining how these chemical substances enter and are metabolised by the human body after a walk in the woods.

The interest in this subject has led to a large variety of activities taking place in natural environments, such as forest baths; activities which until now have not been proven experimentally to have any effects. This project will be the first to try and prove it. According to researchers, this study aims to understand the chemical and physiological mechanisms behind the direct effect forests can have on human health. "We are not going to focus on the forest as a place to go when one is ill”, says ICTA-UAB researcher Albert Bach, “what we intend on discovering experimentally is what happens to anybody who comes in contact with the most common volatile organic compounds emitted by the plants found in our forests", he explains.

Citizens as forest guards

Starting now, all those who visit forests and carry a smartphone, or who like flying drones and taking photographs, can visit the website of Alerta Forestal and notify them on areas which are affected by drought, plagues or strong winds. Until now, part of this information was already collected very accurately thanks to the dedication and expert criteria of rural agents. These campaigns, however, are always of limited duration and sometimes nature reveals the effects of droughts later than expected. For this reason, having an alternative system of alerts in collaboration with citizens will be a highly interesting addition to the information already available, even if it is not of the same precision.

A drought-affected forest or one suffering from a plague, such as the processionary moth, offers worse conditions for walking and other activities than forests which are in a good state of health. For this reason, in order to plan out healthy routes it is necessary to know precisely where the healthy and less healthy forests can be found. In addition, it is necessary to understand the changes in health of the forests depending on the local climate, slope, orientation, forest structure and the existence or absence of management.

All this information will be put together and mathematical models will be used to predict which areas will be the healthiest in the near future, taking into account the ever-changing global environmental and climatic conditions.


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