Although lichens are generally considered to be of little use to man, their sensitivity to air pollution makes them good biological indicators. The author describes how this feature can help to establish relative degrees of air pollution. He notes areas where lichens are reduced in number and vigor, and some in which they have disappeared altogether. He challenges the idea that dryness is responsible, since they have also disappeared from damp woodland areas. Experimental work supports the view that sulfur dioxide is the major factor rather than smoke, although there is no definitive proof. Lichen damage correlates best with mean winter levels of air pollution by SO/sub 2/. 16 references, 1 figure.