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Air pollution may alter your genetic make-up

At a Glance: Air pollution is a major environmental risk factor that negatively affects our health.

Air pollution is a major human health concern and is a risk factor for several health conditions. The most common causes of environmental air pollution include power plants, manufacturing facilities, fuel burning heaters, and automobiles. Despite increasing government regulations to reduce emissions and modern, cleaner combustion devices, air quality in many areas continues to be poor. This isn’t limited to just major cities either, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 92% of the world’s population lives in areas with poor air quality.

The most common effects of air pollution are respiratory ones, such as coughing, asthma, and exacerbating existing respiratory health issues. In some cases air pollution can be related to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. One of the most dangerous forms of air pollution are fine particles, known as PM2.5, with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers.

Beijing – After a storm (left) and with visible air pollution (right)

Among the potential negative effects of PM2.5, it is known that exposure to these particles can result in epigenetic alterations to DNA that could damage health. Animal models have already shown that the administration of B vitamins (and other methyl rich nutrients) can reduce the negative effects of environmental stressors on DNA.

A study published in PNAS used B vitamins to determine if the results previously observed in animals was relevant in humans. During treatment individuals were given 2.5 mg/day folic acid, 50 mg/day vitamin B6, and 1 mg/day vitamin B12. The individuals were exposed to PM2.5 to determine if epigenetic alterations were attenuated by B vitamin supplementation.

Following exposure to the PM2.5 different locations of the subjects DNA were measured to determine the extent of DNA changes. Supplementation with the B vitamin attenuated DNA changes, in the top 10 locations, by 28-76% compared to placebo.

Although more research in this area needs to be conducted, this study demonstrates supplementation with B vitamins may help protect against the negative effects of air pollution.

Zhong J, Karlsson O, Wang G, et al. B vitamins attenuate the epigenetic effects of ambient fine particles in a pilot human intervention trial. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2017;114(13):3503-3508.

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