Put bluntly, modern civilization produces a tremendous amount of waste, much of it in the form of gasses and vapors from our transportation, agricultural, industrial, and domestic activities. One such emission is the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH). It is persistent, and it is carcinogenic. It, and the plethora of other gasses and vapors that have related qualities, led the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to announce this last October that there was sufficient evidence to support the claim that exposure to outdoor air pollution caused lung cancer. They also classified particulate matter (particulate meaning tiny bits, sometimes microscopic and tough to get rid of) generally as carcinogenic to humans. What they didn’t know is that just a few months later OSU researchers would uncover evidence that the problem could be even deadlier than previously thought.
When the WHO made that announcement they knew about the carcinogenic nature of PAHs, but they did not know about the highly mutagenic nitrated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (NPAHs) that have since been discovered by researchers at OSU. NPAH is a PAH that has bonded to one or two nitrogen molecules. While NPAHs have been known about for over a decade, these NPAHs are particularly mutagenic and are byproducts from human activities. Mutagenic compounds are associated with damage to DNA structures via mutation.
“Some of the compounds that we’ve discovered are far more mutagenic than we previously understood, and may exist in the environment as a result of heavy air pollution from vehicles or some types of food preparation,” said Staci Simonich, a professor of chemistry and toxicology in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.
The study found that” NPAHs with one nitrogen group are 6 to 432 times more mutagenic than their parent compound and NPAHs with two nitrogen groups are 272 to 467 times more mutagenic.” While the researchers were unable to determine just how common these novel compounds are in “the wild,” their discovery will shed additional light on the dangers from air pollution.