Vital mucus membranes damaged by common environmental pollutants

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Major disruptions to our health and quality of life are on our minds at a time when forest fires, floods and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic impact the people of Earth on a daily basis. Amid these glaring threats, the slow but growing increase in air and water pollution that humans encounter and even ingest can be easy to ignore, but research continues to reveal new data proving that these exposures have an impact on human health.

In Biophysics Reviews, by AIP Publishing, researchers at the Technical University of Munich review recent scientific literature on the effects of particulate contaminants on the mucous system, an internal membrane that serves as the body’s lubricant and first line of defense against infections and toxins. These data establish a clear link between exposure to airborne or waterborne particles and several health problems.

“Mucosal barriers are really important in protecting various systems in the body, but that mucosal function is only there if we don’t damage it,” said co-author Oliver Lieleg. “Unfortunately, our native mucosal systems are compromised by the micro- and nanoparticles present in our environment.”

Air and water pollution have four major effects on the mucous system. Structural changes can create holes, causing the mucous barrier to leak. Pathogens and toxins can attach themselves to the particles and enter the body. Cells can produce too much or too little mucus, and none is good for maintaining optimal function (for example, when lubricating the eye to protect against abrasion when blinking). Finally, the quality (eg, stiffness) of the mucus itself may be impaired.

“Mucus is a complex mixture of components, and it’s important to keep the right composition,” Lieleg said. “Imagine if you add too much flour to the recipe when making a dough. The bread would come out hard and brittle. Contamination of mucus with carbon black or microplastic has similar negative effects and can alter the structure and function of the mucus.

Natural processes, such as volcanic eruptions, and human activities can both drive problematic particles and produce air contaminants, such as soot, and water contaminants, such as microplastics that are ubiquitous in waterways. water from all over the world. The simple act of breathing, eating and drinking exposes the body to these contaminants. Some food sources, like honey, can even be surprising in their spoilage potential, and the effects of these foods might be underestimated.

Recent research in humans and animals shows that exposure to particles is often correlated with the development or progression of respiratory and heart disease as well as various types of cancer and impaired embryonic development. The mechanisms by which these occur are still largely unclear, but the effects of particulate matter exposure on mucosal structure and function likely contribute to a variety of negative health effects.

“This is a subject that we must deal with and soon. It’s clear from today, ”said Lieleg. “Nonetheless, we need more research to better understand which particles pose a threat and why. This additional information is needed, so that we can find the best way to mitigate these effects. “

Reference
Marczynski M, Lieleg O. Forgotten but not gone: Particles as contaminations of mucous systems featured. Biophysics Rev. 2, 031302 (2021). doi: 10.1063 / 5.0054075

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