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Air pollution can cause harm to DNA, UBC study finds

People wearing masks walk on a street amid heavy haze and smog in Beijing, October 11, 2014. For the study, published in this month’s Particle and Fibre Toxicology, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health put volunteers in a small room with diluted and aged exhaust fumes comparable to the air quality along a Beijing highway, or a busy B.C. port.

Kim Kyung Hoon/REUTERS

Just two hours of exposure to diesel exhaust fumes can result in fundamental changes to parts of a person's DNA, according to a new B.C. study – a finding that has implications for long-term exposure to air pollution, but also methods of reversing the damage.

For the study, published in this month's Particle and Fibre Toxicology, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health put volunteers in a small room with diluted and aged exhaust fumes comparable to the air quality along a Beijing highway, or a busy B.C. port.

They found that in just two hours, the exposure affected the chemical "coating" attached to many parts of a person's DNA – triggering a process called methylation that can silence or dampen a gene, preventing it from producing a protein.

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Two hours of exposure would not significantly harm a person's health, but the study provides a glimpse at how longer-term exposure might affect people living in Beijing, or miners regularly subject to diesel exhaust, for example.

Chris Carlsten, the study's senior author and associate professor of medicine and chair in occupational and environmental lung disease at UBC, said the study's results may help scientists find ways of managing the air pollution that comes with population growth and densifying urban environments.

"Let me be clear: The most important thing we can do is reduce air pollution," Dr. Carlsten said in an interview on Wednesday. "However, because we know that we can't simply remove air pollution instantaneously … in the mean time, would like to have some way to moderate the impact."

He said the fact that DNA changes happen so quickly suggests scientists could find ways to prevent or reverse the impacts of air pollution.

Those measures could potentially take the form of anti-oxidants, or other pharmacologic or natural supplements, Dr. Carlsten said. The researchers will be looking at that as part of their next set of studies.

Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist and B.C.'s lone Green MLA, said the study should serve as a reminder of the alternatives to driving gas-fuelled cars.

"Why would we not want to power our vehicles with things other than fossil fuels?" he said. "Vancouver is a jurisdiction like Victoria, where it is perfect for electric vehicles. This is yet another example of how to avoid the [adverse] health affects associated with the combustion of these fossil fuels."

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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