Pollution Stunts Lung
Air Pollution Linked
to Genetic Mutations
NEERGAARD, AP Medical Writer,
Associated Press, May 13, 2004
WASHINGTON - Sooty air pollution can
cause genetic damage that can be passed along to offspring, Canadian
researchers reported Thursday in a study on mice.
is needed to learn if people can inherit pollution-damaged DNA that harms
their health. In the meantime, the discovery is sure to increase scientists'
worry about particulates, the microscopic soot particles emitted by
factories, power plants and diesel-burning vehicles.
The good news:
Air filters protected the mice.
"The new work
now adds another area of potential concern" because of the implications for
risks to future generations, said Dr. Jonathan Samet of Johns Hopkins
University, who headed a recent National Academy of Sciences call for more
research into the dangers of this common pollutant.
particles are linked to a growing list of health problems, including asthma
and heart disease, in the people who breathe high levels of them.
But there had
been little evidence that any air pollutant might cause the kind of genetic
damage that can be inherited — until Canadian scientists in 2002 housed mice
downwind from steel mills and tested their offspring. The males passed on
double the DNA mutations as mice living in the cleaner countryside.
Now those same
researchers, from Ontario's McMaster University, report in the journal
Science that they've found the culprit: airborne particulate matter, better
known as soot.
In the new
experiments, biologist James Quinn and colleagues housed two groups of mice
near the steel mills for 10 weeks. One group breathed outside air, while the
other was housed in a chamber equipped with HEPA filters — high-efficiency
air filters designed to catch microscopic particles.
Then, the mice
were bred and their offspring checked for specific DNA mutations that are
passed through the father's sperm.
breathed filtered air had mutation rates 52 percent lower than the mice
exposed to full-strength steel mill pollution.
sperm changes measured aren't linked to disease, but they're similar to a
type of DNA damage that is. Quinn said more study is needed to see if
they're a marker for potential health problems, and whether
pollution-spurred mutations in disease-causing genes could be inherited,
Quinn said the study's practical value may be in showing the effectiveness
of air filtration. The HEPA filters blocked particulates, and nature does
the same thing — particulates adhere to tree leaves — which has implications
for policy-makers who must decide on road-building and tree-cutting
projects, he said.
say if the particulates themselves or toxic chemicals that attach to them
damaged the sperm. But one suspect is a group of particulate-clinging
chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, some of which
are known to be cancer-causing.
showed daily PAH exposure near the steel mills was 33 times as high as in
the nearby cleaner countryside — but HEPA filtering of the urban air blocked
most of those chemicals as well, the study concluded.
Environmental Protection Agency already has ordered tougher curbs on
ultra-fine particulate pollution because of concern about effects on the
elderly, children and people with respiratory illnesses. In December, it
plans to reveal which parts of the country aren't in compliance.
Tiny enough to
be inhaled deeply into the lungs, these particulates enter the bloodstream
and move through the body.
At the moment,
we are grappling with the fact that even though the air is visibly cleaner,
we're still finding adverse health effects" from particulates, said Hopkins'
If those same
particles make it all the way to sperm-forming cells, "that would be quite a
remarkable sequence" — one that needs confirmation, Samet cautioned. Still,
the potential for affecting next generations makes it "both a public health
issue and an issue for the ecosystem," he said.
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