Increased Health Risks Caused by Exposure to Traffic Pollution

EPIGENETIC changes linked to diseases caused by long-term exposure to air pollutants take place during even short periods of exposure to exhaust fumes, according to a study by Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands, in conjunction with two London Universities. The research showed that 2 hours of exposure led to 54 microRNAs being affected, a phenomenon associated with a number of health risks.

MicroRNA Changes

In the study, 24 participants equipped with a backpack containing sensors and data processors spent 1–2 hours on Oxford Street in London, which has a large amount of traffic including diesel buses and taxis. The subjects then spent the same amount of time in London’s traffic-free Hyde Park 3 weeks later. Following each visit, blood samples were taken from each participant; this revealed that just 2 hours of exposure to diesel fumes such as black carbon, ultrafine particles, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) caused changes to 54 microRNAs. MicroRNAs can be influenced by diseases and environmental factors like traffic pollution and it is known that these epigenetic particles reflect the toxicity induced by traffic pollution in major organs like the lungs, heart, kidneys, and brain, which increases the odds of a range of conditions developing.

Significant Health Risk

“Our research reveals that even short-term exposure to traffic pollution can pose a significant health risk,” said researcher Dr Julian Kraus, Maastricht University. “And not in general terms either; during the study we estimated the health risks associated with personal exposure to everyday traffic-related air pollution.”

Follow-up Research

The findings could therefore add to pressures for the introduction of new measures to reduce the amount of traffic in big cities. This study is part of an international project called EXPOsOMICS, which has set out to predict the impact of the environment on individual health risks. Follow-up research is currently being conducted on participants in two highly-polluted areas in Barcelona, Spain, with the results expected shortly.

James Coker, Reporter

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