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How do Dust Particles Affect the Human Lung?Health Risk in the Air

It is well known that particles from ink cartridges, exhaust fumes, or aerosol spray cans can be harmful to our health. But the actual extent of the negative effect they have on the human body is poorly known. Thanks to a new research approach, scientists at the University of Freiburg are now conducting tests to determine the long-term consequences of such airborne particles on our health.


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 (Foto: Universität Freiburg)

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It is well known that particles from ink cartridges, exhaust fumes, or aerosol spray cans can be harmful to our health. But the actual extent of the negative effect they have on the human body is poorly known. Thanks to a new research approach,
scientists at the University of Freiburg are now conducting tests to determine the long-term consequences of such airborne particles on our health.
On a bicycle we inhale exhaust from cars, in the office particles released from ink cartridges, in the spring dust blown north from the Sahara, and in the bathroom nanoparticles from hair spray:
Each day we breathe in millions of different particles. It is known that they can be harmful to our health, but not enough research has been done to say with certainty how dangerous they really are. Thanks to a new research approach by Prof. Dr. Reto Gieré from the Department of Earth Sciences, it is now possible to determine what long-term effects such airborne particles have on our health.

 

  • Step One: Determining What Dust Particles in Freiburg Are Composed Of

Gieré and a team of scientists from mineralogy, environmental medicine, and pharmacy as well as from the German Meteorological Service are systematically characterizing individual dust particles that fly through the air everyday and determining their mineralogical and chemical makeup with the help of microscopes and x-ray devices. Only then will it be possible to identify the type of particles we breathe in. “Our goal is to find out what the air we inhale in Freiburg and the Rhine Valley is composed of,” explains Gieré, “also in order to determine where all of these particles are blown in from.” On the basis of the mineralogical composition of the particles it is possible to establish whether the dust particles are, for instance, from automobile exhaust fumes, street dust, or smoke from coal-fired power plants. Even the researchers are surprised about all of the occasions on which humans are exposed to dust particles: “Christmas is the worst time of all: Burning candles in the living room let off an unbelievably high amount of particulate matter.” But unlike soot from Christmas candles, other harmful particles we breathe in have a long jour ney behind them: Even dust from the Sahara reaches Freiburg, says Gieré.

 

  • Step Two: Researching Health Consequences

The team of researchers is not only interested in what the particles are composed of. With the help of medical and pharmaceutical specialists they are also studying what influence dust particles have on human health.“Astoundingly,” says the mineralogist, “we know only little about their impact on our health.” But this question is becoming more and more important, because people in industrialized countries produce and release many different kinds of particles every day – and not just those working in industry or construction: Even nanoparticles in our hair spray or deodorant can find their way into our lungs. The mineralogical research project is focusing initially on synthetic particles, because we have a certain amount of influence over the extent of our exposure to man-made dust. In contrast, it is difficult to minimize the influence of natural dust particles for the individual: Wearing a face mask while riding a bicycle or staying at home when dust from the Sahara reaches Freiburg might be prudent precautionary measures, but it is impossible to avoid the natural particles completely. Gieré is thus also determined to research their impact on human health in the future.

 

  • Effects on the Human Lung

In order to determine to what extent the particles found in the Freiburg air are detrimental to our health, the researchers are producing individual types of particles in the laboratory in various sizes and concentrations and then exposing cultures from the human lung to them one by one in test tubes. “We don’t want to expose the lung cells to all kinds of particles at once, because we are trying to find out what effect specific particles have on the human lung,” explains Gieré. Various tests show how the lung cells react: Do the dust particles have an effect on the cells – or even on the genes? The Freiburg researchers are using an electronmicroscope to ascertain whether the particles have penetrated into the cell and where. The foreign matter can reach the cytoplasm or the nucleus, and in the worst case they can cause damage in the nucleus. When this happens, the lung automatically sends out antibodies to defend the cells against the foreign matter. The scientists can then measure the signals created during this process.

 

  • The Smaller, the More Persistent – and the More Dangerous

The size of the dust particles is also an important factor: The differentiation between coarse and fine particles has led to much controversy. Gieré criticizes that politicians and the media often speak of fine particles without knowing how fine a particle actually has to be to earn this name. All dust particles larger than 2.5 micrometers are classified as coarse particles, whereas particles with a size of 2.5 micrometers or less are characterized as fine particles. Those that are smaller than 100 nanometers, are classified as nanoparticles or as ultrafine particles. The smaller a particle is, the more abundant it is generally. Moreover, fine particles float around in the atmosphere longer than coarse particles. Only when it rains is the air washed free of fine particles. But it is not only due to their persistence that the smaller particles constitute a greater danger for human health, but also their size: Dust particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers can accumulate in the alveoli in our lungs – and once they make it there, we can’t get them back out of our bodies. Coarse particles, on the other hand, can’t make it that far into our respiratory tract because they irritate our throats, inducing us to cough them out.

 

  • Particles from Black Ink Cartridges are Genotoxic

Gieré’s team has already published the first sobering results: Theirin vitro tests demonstrated that particles from black ink cartridges cause changes in the cell nucleus and thus have a genotoxic, i.e., gene-changing, effect on the human lung. The mineralogists will still need to conduct many experiments to analyze all of the effects of the various types of dust. In order to be successful, these experiments must transcend the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines, and Freiburg provides ideal conditions for this multidisciplinary research. By no means does Gieré want to spread panic,but he maintains that “it is important to point out concrete dangers, because only so can we react to them.

 

 

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Prof. Dr. Reto Gieré

Reto Gieré has worked at the Section for Mineralogy-Geochemistry at the Department of Earth Sciences since 2004. Other stations of his career include Purdue University in Indiana, the University of Basel, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. In addition to his teaching and research activity, he is a fellow at the Geological Society of London and the Mineralogical Society of America


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The image of a clay mineral from a scanning electron microscope: These natural components of carbon deposits get released into the air during mining processes.  (Foto: Zentrum für Mikroskopie der Universität Basel)  bit.ly/sAOvpA    Parts of industrial exhauste fumes condense  as small particles, that get blown away by the wind and deposite in the avolea of our lungs. (Foto: Universität Freiburg)
     
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Satellite picture of a sand storm that transports large amounts of desertic dust from the Sahara to Europe. Similar wind movements can lead to the deposition of sarah dust in Freiburg.  (Foto: NASA, Visible Earth)   Light microscope image of a aerosol dust sample that was collected during five days along a street. A microscopic analysis kann differentiate particles by their optic qualities. This way it is possible to find the origin of these particles.  (Foto: V. Dietze, Deutscher Wetterdienst, Freiburg)  bit.ly/ryMUug 
     
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The image of a clay mineral from a scanning electron microscope: These natural components of carbon deposits get released into the air during mining processes.  (Foto: Zentrum für Mikroskopie der Universität Basel)  bit.ly/sAOvpA     

 

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