Air pollution affects the workings of our genes

27 Januari 2020

Air pollution has been linked to a whole (and growing host) of ailments from relatively minor conditions to debilitating ones. That should come as no surprise even to laypeople. To stay alive, we must keep on breathing and by doing so we keep on inhaling pernicious particles in the air from vehicle exhaust, industrial plants, burning fires and coal-fired power plants.

These noxious particles then accumulate in our bodies over time, affecting the functioning of our organs from our lungs to our heart to our brain. In fact, they even have an impact on our genes, new research shows. A team of scientists from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, investigated how airborne pollutants from diesel exhaust influence the functioning of certain genes.

To do so, they asked some volunteers to breathe diesel fumes for two hours or more in a small closed space to see if doing so would have an epigenetic effect by switching certain genes on or off. The level of pollution to which the volunteers were exposed amounted to that alongside a highway in Beijing, one of the most polluted cities on the planet. Other volunteers were allowed to breathe in more fresh air and less polluted air.

The scientists then took blood samples from both groups. They found that those that were exposed to high levels of diesel exhaust had changes in some 2,800 different points on their DNA, affecting around 400 genes in total. This effect was not observed in people who breathed in clean air.

This experiment showed that air pollution can alter our DNA, although what effect this can have on our health is yet to be explored. It is safe to posit, however, that those changes are hardly beneficial to our overall health in the long term. That should be a grave cause for concern as more than nine people out of 10 worldwide live in areas where air pollution levels supersede those deemed healthy by the World Health Organization.

Throughout history people have always been exposed to airborne pollutants, from cooking fires and other sources. During the era of Ancient Rome, for instance, air pollution levels across Europe shot up measurably. Yet it has only been since the Industrial Revolution, where the burning of coal came to be done on an industrial scale, that more and more people have been exposed to higher and higher levels of air pollution for longer and longer periods.

Since gas-guzzling vehicles arrived in force in towns and cities, air pollution has been growing higher still. These days there is nary a town, much less city, anywhere that does not have at least some degree of air pollution. Meanwhile, in ever-sprawling urban areas airborne toxins now blight the lives of millions upon millions of people.

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