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How pollutants are damaging our body's first line of defense

According to new research, air and water pollutants are disrupting the human body’s mucosal system, which protects it from toxins

Vapor rises from chimneys and cooling towers at the Belchatow coal powered power plant, operated by PGE SE, in Belchatow, Poland, on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Bloomberg)

Findings from new scientific research show that not just air, but common pollutants -- particulate matter -- in the water we consume are also damaging an important system of the human body.

Researchers from the Technical University of Munich reviewed recent scientific literature about the effects of particle contaminants on the mucosal system, an internal membrane that serves as the human body's lubricant and the first line of defense from toxins and infections. The data establishes a clear link between exposure to airborne or waterborne particulate matter and several health conditions, according to findings published in the journal Biophysics Reviews, from AIP Publishing (American Institute of Physics), this week.

Also read: Facing the covid-19 and air pollution ‘twindemic’

Oliver Lieleg, associate professor of biomechanics at the Technical University of Munich and the study’s co-author says mucosal barriers are really important to protect various body systems, but that function is only there if we don't damage it -- he explains in a news release. “Sadly, our native mucosal systems are being compromised by micro- and nanoparticles present in our environment,” he adds.

A pedestrian walks past a wall mural painted to grab attention on the issue of air pollution as the government eased restrictions amidst the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Mumbai on June 13, 2021.
A pedestrian walks past a wall mural painted to grab attention on the issue of air pollution as the government eased restrictions amidst the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Mumbai on June 13, 2021. (AFP)

The researchers say pollution and particulate matter in the air and water affect the mucosal system in multiple ways. Structural changes can create holes, making the mucosal barrier leaky. Pathogens and toxins can piggyback on these particles and enter our body. Cells can produce too much or too little mucus, and neither is good for preserving optimal function (for example, when lubricating the eye to protect from abrasion upon blinking). Finally, the quality (for example, stiffness) of the mucus itself can become altered due to the pollutants, the release explains.

“Imagine if you add too much flour to the recipe when making a dough. The bread would come out hard and brittle. Contaminating mucus with black carbon or microplastic has similar negative effects and can alter mucus structure and function,” Lieleg explains in lay terms.

While there are many natural processes, think volcanic eruptions, that create pollutants in the air, human or anthropogenic activities can also result in problematic particles and produce air contaminants, such as soot. The same applies to water contaminants: like microplastics, which are now found at dangerous levels in water bodies worldwide.

Also read: Air pollution costs Indian businesses billions each year

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