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The unborn baby: Healthy pregnant mothers exposed to air pollution from road traffic inhale toxic particles that may end up in the placenta
Sep28

The unborn baby: Healthy pregnant mothers exposed to air pollution from road traffic inhale toxic particles that may end up in the placenta

By Roberta Attanasio According to a recently published study, carbon and metal particles from road traffic, once inhaled, reach one of the many places where we would rather not find them—the unborn baby’s life support system, best known as placenta. Lead author Jonathan Grigg said: “Our study for the first time shows that inhaled carbon particulate matter in air pollution, travels in the blood stream, and is taken up by important cells in the placenta.” For the study, researchers analyzed placentas from 15 healthy non-smoking women, donated after the birth of their children. All women delivered healthy babies. However, they lived in an environment that exposed them to high levels of particulate matter originating from urban traffic. Indeed, the particles observed in the placental cells closely resemble—in size, shape and composition—those emitted by traffic-related sources or formed from them.   Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash Particulate matter (also called particle pollution) is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air, which come in many sizes and shapes and are made up of hundreds of different chemicals. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope. Some particles are emitted by construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires, but most form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles. The researchers found—within the placental cells—not only carbon particles, but also particles containing carbon with a mixture of chemicals found in vehicle exhaust, such as iron, phosphorus, calcium, silica, aluminum, titanium, chromium, and cerium, which arise from fuel and oil additives. How did these particles get into the placental cells? Particles present in air pollution are inhaled, and then from the lungs translocate to distant organs through the blood stream. Macrophages and trophoblasts— the primary resident phagocytes in the placenta—pick them up. Phagocytes are cells of the innate immune system also known as the “big eaters”—they engulf the particles with the aim of “cleaning up” the placenta. Lisa Miyashita, a study co-author, said: “We have thought for a while that maternal inhalation could potentially result in pollution particles traveling to the placenta once inhaled. However, there are many defense mechanisms in the lung that prevent foreign particles from traveling elsewhere, so it was surprising to identify these particles in the placental cells from all 15 of our participants.” Why is it worrisome to find particulate matter in placental cells? “The placenta is a distinctive and...

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Environmental Toxins and Damage to the Immune System: Transgenerational Effects
Dec05

Environmental Toxins and Damage to the Immune System: Transgenerational Effects

By Roberta Attanasio The hypothesis of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD), also called “Barker’s hypothesis”, was formulated a few decades ago and stimulated interest in the fetal origins of adult disorders. Subsequent research by Mohan Manikkam and Michael Skinner helped establish the principle of transgenerational toxicity by showing that the effects of toxic chemicals can extend even to the third generation of offspring. Photo by Liv Bruce on Unsplash Indeed, it is now clear that early life development is a critical and unique window of vulnerability during which environmental exposures influence cellular programming in ways that shape health and disease later in life. While most research on the transgenerational effects of environmental chemicals focuses on the reproductive, nervous, or endocrine systems, results from a recently published study show that environmental toxins may also impair the immune system. Paige Lawrence, senior author of the study, said in a press release: “The old adage ‘you are what you eat’ is a touchstone for many aspects of human health. But in terms of the body’s ability to fights off infections, this study suggests that, to a certain extent, you may also be what your great-grandmother ate.” To carry out the study, researchers exposed pregnant mice to dioxin, a common by-product of industrial production and waste incineration which is also found in some consumer products. Thus, dioxins are environmental pollutants. They belong to the so-called “dirty dozen”—a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Dioxins are of concern because of their highly toxic potential. In the environment, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. The higher an animal is in the food chain, the higher the concentration of dioxins. Therefore, dioxins are found in greater concentrations in animal-based food products. Once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years.  After exposing pregnant mothers to dioxin, they assessed the production and function of cytotoxic T cells in the offspring. To do so, they infected the mice with influenza A virus, and found that exposure of the pregnant mothers to dioxin resulted in an impaired cytotoxic T cell response of the offspring against the influenza A virus. The impaired cytotoxic T cell response was observed not only in the offspring of the mice whose mothers where exposed to dioxin, but also in subsequent generations, up to the rodent equivalent of great-grandchildren.   Lawrence said: “When you are infected or receive a flu vaccine, the immune system ramps up production of...

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Childhood Asthma and Traffic-Related Air Pollution
Oct15

Childhood Asthma and Traffic-Related Air Pollution

By Roberta Attanasio “I explain it to people like you are breathing through a coffee stirrer straw, and you just can’t get enough breath. The attacks can happen so quickly and out of nowhere, so I feel like I’m really not in control of my own body. Not being able to breathe in and out the way my body is designed to do is quite scary” says one of the 19 million adults who currently have asthma in the US. Asthma is a chronic disorder that causes swelling and inflammation in the lungs—the airways narrow and produce extra mucus, making breathing difficult and causing coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound made while breathing. Asthma attacks, in absence of appropriate treatment, can be life-threatening. Exposure to various irritants and substances that trigger allergies—as for example pollen, dust mites, mold spores, pet dander, smoke and certain medications—can also trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. However, asthma triggers are different from person to person. Photo by Laith Abdulkareem on Unsplash According to the National Center for Health Statistics, asthma also affects 6.2 million children in the US. Indeed, childhood asthma is the most common serious chronic disease in infants and children. Alarmingly, asthma is now the most commonly reported non-communicable disease among children worldwide. Children are especially vulnerable to air pollution, one of the major triggers of asthma attacks. Research indicates that air pollutants suppress genes that regulate the immune system’s ability to differentiate harmless substances from dangerous viruses or bacteria. The immune system then sets up an inflammatory response which leads to asthma. Notably, results from a recent study show that millions of children worldwide develop asthma annually due to a specific type of pollution—traffic-related air pollution. The study, based on data from 2010 to 2015, focuses on a particular type of traffic-related pollutant—nitrogen dioxide, or NO2—and estimates that 64 percent of these new cases of asthma occur in urban areas. NO2 is one of a group of gases called nitrogen oxides. While all of these gases are harmful to human health and the environment, NO2 is of greater concern. It forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment, and irritates airways in the human respiratory system. For the study, researchers used a method that takes into account high NO2 exposures occurring near busy roads. They were then able to estimate the number of new pediatric asthma cases attributable to NO2 pollution in 194 countries and 125 major cities worldwide. Of the 125 major cities, the highest traffic-related air pollution effects on asthma were found in Lima, Peru; Shanghai, China: Bogota, Colombia; Beijing,...

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As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger
Aug02

As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger

By Roberta Attanasio The U.S. coal industry is in rapid decline, a shift marked not only by the bankruptcy of many mine operators in coal-rich Appalachia but also by a legacy of potential environmental and social disasters. As mines close, states, the federal government and taxpayers are left wondering about the costs of cleaning up the abandoned land, especially at mountaintop removal sites, the most destructive type of mining. As coal companies go bankrupt, this has left states concerned taxpayers may have to pick up the environmental cleanup costs. But there are also societal costs related to mountaintop removal mining’s impact on health and mental health. As an immunologist, I reviewed the research literature for specific effects of mountaintop removal mining on the immune system. I did not identify any pertinent information. However, I did find plenty of clues suggesting that health and mental health issues will pose enormous challenges to the affected coal communities, and will linger for decades. Environmental contaminants The communities that reside in proximity to the devastated lands where mountaintop removal mining occurs – some of the poorest in the nation – are concentrated in a 65-county area in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. They are also hit by the economic downturn caused by the decline of the local coal industry. Healthwise, Appalachian populations suffer disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality compared with the nation as a whole. A study that examined the elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas for 1979-2005 linked coal mining to “socioeconomic disadvantages” and concluded that the human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighed its economic benefits. Results from research published in 2011 show that mountaintop mining areas, in particular, are associated with the lowest health-related quality of life even in comparison to counties with other forms of coal mining. So, what makes mountaintop removal mining such a scourge for human health? To remove the top of the mountains, coal companies use destructive processes. In order to extract the underlying coal seams, a peak’s forest and brush are clear-cut and the topsoil is scraped away. The resulting debris is often set on fire. Then, explosives are poured into huge holes to literally blast off up to 800 to 1,000 feet of mountaintops. Draglines – huge machines able to scoop up to 100 tons in a single load – push rock and dirt into nearby streams and valleys, damaging waterways and life associated with them. The result is not only a devastated landscape and the crushing of entire ecosystems, but also the dispersion in the environment of toxic pollutants. To learn more about the...

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Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?
Apr25

Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?

By Roberta Attanasio The problem of contaminated tap water in the U.S. goes well beyond Flint—and also beyond lead. There are many more toxic chemicals in our drinking water that we like to believe. Communities in New York, New Hampshire and Vermont recently found elevated levels of PFOA, a suspected carcinogen, in their water supplies. PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a synthetic perfluoroalkyl chemical used to manufacture nonstick pan coatings and water-resistant clothing. And, even more recent is the finding that water discharged from Burlington’s wastewater treatment plant into Lake Champlain—the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people in the Burlington area—contains concentrations of pharmaceuticals high enough to reflect demographic shifts in the city. The presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water from different U.S. areas has been know for more than a few years. A report publicly released in 2011 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that drinking water in some metropolitan areas contains pharmaceuticals, and raised concerns about their potential impact on human health. According to the World Health Organization “Pharmaceuticals are synthetic or natural chemicals that can be found in prescription medicines, over-the-counter therapeutic drugs and veterinary drugs. Pharmaceuticals contain active ingredients that have been designed to have pharmacological effects and confer significant benefits to society. Pharmaceuticals can be introduced into water sources through sewage, which carries the excreta of individuals and patients who have used these chemicals, from uncontrolled drug disposal (e.g. discarding drugs into toilets) and from agricultural runoff comprising livestock manure. They have become chemicals of emerging concern to the public because of their potential to reach drinking-water.” Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and lead author of a study published in 2013 on the effects of pharmaceutical pollution on aquatic life and water quality, said in a press release: “Pharmaceutical pollution is now detected in waters throughout the world. Causes include aging infrastructure, sewage overflows, and agricultural runoff. Even when waste water makes it to sewage treatment facilities, they aren’t equipped to remove pharmaceuticals. As a result, our streams and rivers are exposed to a cocktail of synthetic compounds, from stimulants and antibiotics to analgesics and antihistamines.” Results from a study published this year in the journal Science of the Total Environment show that water samples from private wells on Cape Cod are contaminated not only by perfluoroalkyl chemicals and flame retardants, but also by a dozen different pharmaceuticals. The researchers found that sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic used to treat urinary tract infections, and carbamazepine, a drug used to treat seizures, nerve pain, and bipolar disorder, were among the most common pharmaceuticals detected. The researchers also found that...

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