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Is Air Pollution Killing You?

BATON ROUGE, La. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- We all know that cigarette smoking is hazardous to our health, causing lung cancer and a variety of other illnesses. But could we be inhaling something equally dangerous every day without even knowing it? New research is looking at health hazards found in air pollution.

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For college freshman Matt Watson, riding a bike to class every day is part of a healthy lifestyle, but he says it's hard to enjoy the fresh air if somebody's smoking a cigarette.

"You kind of unintentionally hold your breath when you walk by," Watson told Ivanhoe.

Would he ever smoke? Not a chance.

"All I know is it's not good for you," he said. "It can cause lung cancer, it reduces your life."

But what about air pollution? Louisiana State University (LSU) environmental chemist Barry Dellinger, Ph.D., says that persistent free radicals, or PFRs, in the air could damage our lungs the same way cigarette smoke does.

"We actually find that combustion processes in general form free radicals that are very similar to cigarette smoke," Dr. Dellinger said.

Most of the free radicals from tailpipes and smokestacks last for only a second in the atmosphere, but these newly discovered PFRs contain metal which helps them stay in the air much longer. Dr. Dellinger found areas with the worst air pollution have the greatest potential health hazard, which could explain the 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer cases that can't be attributed to smoking.

"If we do just a very simple calculation, it looks like breathing air for a day in Mexico City would be about the same as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day," Dr. Dellinger explained.

Dr. Dellinger recently received a patent for a process that destroys the free radicals from cigarette smoke. He believes the same concept could be applied to smokestacks and tailpipes.

"We're exposed to the free radicals in cigarettes," he said. "We're exposed to them from air pollution. I think we actually have the knowledge and the ability to stop that."

It's research that will help us breathe a lot easier.

Further research at LSU may answer more specific questions about how free radicals from air pollution affect human health and how that compares to the health hazards from smoking cigarettes.

The American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report. This report has also been produced thanks to a generous grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.

Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:

Barry Dellinger
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
(225) 578-6759

American Meteorological Society
Boston, MA 02108-3693
(617) 227-2425

Peter Weiss
American Geophysical Union
Washington, DC 20009-1277
(800) 966-2481

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