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A look at Air Pollution and Your Body


We have all probably seen stories from China on the horrid air pollution there. Accompanying those reports of course are the statistics for air pollution that deaths have caused. For the record, the World Health Organization estimated that ambient air pollution caused 3.7 million premature deaths (worldwide) in 2012 alone – yet what exactly happens to your body when it encounters pollutants?

Scientists are now studying links between pollution and respiratory disease on a basic molecular level, revealing how pollutants interact with the lining of the respiratory tract.

To keep our air clean, Governments should closely monitor concentrations of dangerous pollutants — including nitrogen dioxide and ozone — which are produced through industrial practices such as transport and the burning of fossil fuels.

Currently, in most of the world the concentrations of pollutants are below the limits set by forth by governments — yet these standards are constantly being updated to reflect new developments in the scientific understanding of the impact of pollution on health.

To this effect researchers have been investigating how nitrogen dioxide and ozone — two common environmental pollutants — interact to cause harmful effects on the body. It is known that when these pollutants are inhaled, they cause oxidative damage in the lining of the respiratory tract, but there was very little research past this.

To examine the process in more detail, the team exposed peptides like those found in the respiratory tract to nitrogen dioxide and ozone– and then examined the results with spectroscopy. This method allowed the group to examine detailed chemical modification at a much higher scale than has previously been seen in this area of research.

Interestingly, the combined interaction of nitrogen dioxide and ozone caused much greater oxidative damage than the two molecules did alone.

When present together, nitrogen and ozone react to form the highly oxidative radical NO3 — which has a much greater impact on biological peptides and amino acids, and consequently, human health. The team hopes this work will help policy makers who control pollution levels make more informed decisions about air quality standards, ultimately reducing the risk to human health.

Which would frankly be nice if the United States and China (two of the world’s largest producers of air pollution) would listen and do something about it. Well besides debating if it’s okay to poison the earth and the people who inhabit it because it is more cost effective than actually doing something about the problem.

Of course, that is nothing but a pipe dream, at least for today.

Gamon LF, White JM, & Wille U (2014). Oxidative damage of aromatic dipeptides by the environmental oxidants NO2˙ and O3. Organic & biomolecular chemistry, 12 (41), 8280-7 PMID: 25207524

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