Moss May Be Big Data’s New Canary in the Coal Mine


Moss may be a sponge for area toxins yielding insights about local pollution.

Moss on trees used to be seen as an idyllic and verdant signature of the outdoors, lending a soft patina and gleam to a forest floor or stream bank or colorful sheen to a sturdy tree.

Bullseye Glass factory in Portland, Ore. Residents near the plant were cautioned last month to forgo backyard gardening after toxic heavy metals were detected in moss samples. CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

Now it may be a detection device for toxins nearby.  In a recent study in Portland, OR, the first of its kind in the world, moss growing on trees has been found to contain heavy metals such as cadmium toxicologists believe are being release from a nearby glass factory where cadmium is used to make red, yellow, and orange glass.

When absorbed or ingested in large quantities by humans, cadmium may impair lung function and increase the risk of lung cancer. Recent studies suggest that the chronic low environmental exposure to cadmium now prevailing in industrialized countries can adversely affect the kidneys and bones of the general population. These studies show cadmium affecting liver and kidney function but not in a way that would explain its long term effects.

Still, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has told nearby residents of the glass factory to forgo gardening or planting vegetables in potentially cadmium-tainted soil. Residents are furious they had not been informed earlier, much like allegations in the Flint, MI lead-tainted drinking water.

What may be more significant is the long-term importance of moss itself, as a relatively low-cost and ubiquitous tool that can, in a way, speak of what they have absorbed, then a new door has been opened to a whole new area of pollution research.  In a way, sea coral allows oceanogrpahers and marine biologists to test ocean pollution and ice cores allow glaciologists and climatologist to test pollution and climate change in Antarctica and other areas containing glaciers.

Already the moss data has sparked medical interest.

Doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center heard about the moss study and asked the researchers to go there and make a grid map like Portland’s, which will be cross-matched against health and development studies in children in various neighborhoods there.

“The first step is creating that map,” said Patrick Ryan, an associate professor of pediatrics at the center. “I haven’t seen anything like it before.”

Chalk another small victory for big data and thinking outside the box.  If Michael Saylor urged seeing the world as software, the takeaway from the Portland moss study is to see the world as a sponge.

Here’s Kirk Johnson’s excellent piece in the NY Times:

This entry was posted in Big Data, Case Studies, Data, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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