Air pollution has been linked to a wide (and growing) set of injuries, from relatively minor to debilitating conditions. Even babies in the womb can be affected by it.
This should not surprise even the laity. To stay alive, we must continue to breathe, and as we do so, we continue to inhale harmful particles into the air from the exhaust gases of vehicles, industrial plants, fires, and coal-fired power plants.
These harmful particles accumulate in our bodies over time, affecting the function 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 pollutants in the air from diesel exhaust influence the functioning of certain genes.
To do this, they asked some volunteers to breathe diesel fumes for two hours or more in a small enclosed space to see if doing so would have an epigenetic effect by turning certain genes on or off. The level of pollution to which the volunteers were exposed was similar to that of a road in Beijing, one of the most polluted cities on the planet. Other volunteers were allowed to breathe more fresh air and less polluted air.
The scientists then took blood samples from both groups. They found that those who were exposed to high levels of diesel exhaust had changes at about 2,800 different points in their DNA, affecting about 400 genes in total. This effect was not seen in people who breathed clean air.
This experiment showed that air pollution can alter our DNA, although what effect it can have on our health has yet to be explored. However, it is safe to say that such changes are of little benefit to our overall health in the long term. That should be of grave concern, as more than nine people out of 10 worldwide live in areas where air pollution levels supersede those considered healthy by the World Health Organization.
Throughout history, people have always been exposed to pollutants in the air, from kitchen fires and other sources. During the era of Ancient Rome, for example, air pollution levels across Europe skyrocketed considerably. However, only since the Industrial Revolution, where it burned coal on an industrial scale, have more and more people been exposed to ever-higher levels of air pollution for ever-longer periods.
Since gas-burning vehicles came into force in towns and cities, air pollution has increased even more. These days there is not a town, much less city, anywhere that does not have at least some degree of air pollution. Meanwhile, in ever-expanding urban areas, airborne toxins now ruin the lives of millions and millions of people.
Daniel T. Cross. Article in English