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Common air, water pollutants disrupt mucus structure, function

New research suggests common pollutants, including airborne particle pollution, can damage the body's mucosal system. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
New research suggests common pollutants, including airborne particle pollution, can damage the body's mucosal system. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Exposure to common air and water pollutants can disrupt the structure and function of the mucosal system, according to a new study, the body's natural lubricant and first line of defense against infection.

The new paper -- a review of the scientific literature, published Tuesday in the journal Biophysics Reviews -- highlights important links between common pollutants and human health problems.

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"Mucosal barriers are really important to protect various body systems, but that mucosal function is only there if we don't damage it," study co-author Oliver Lieleg said in a press release.

"Sadly, our native mucosal systems are being compromised by micro- and nanoparticles present in our environment," said Lieleg, a professor of biomechanics at the Technical University of Munich.

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Through a review of recent literature on the subject, researchers determined that particulate matter exposure can yield four primary effects on the mucosal system.

Structural disruption can produce holes in the mucosal barrier, allowing pathogens and toxins easier access to the body's cells. Pollutant particles can also serve as transport vehicles for invading pathogens and toxins.

Research suggests exposure to air and water contaminants can cause cells to produce too much or too little mucus, impeding proper cellular function.

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Finally, the quality, or stiffness, of the mucus itself can be altered by particle pollution.

"Mucus is a complex mixture of components, and keeping the composition right is important," Lieleg said.

"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," he said.

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Ash from volcanoes and wildfires, as well as soot from human activities, can also increase the risk of exposure for the mucosal system. Researchers suggest microplastics in water can also disrupt the body's natural lubrication system.

Several studies have found links between particulate matter exposure and a variety of health problems in both humans and animals, including heart and respiratory diseases.

Particle pollution exposure has also been linked with a variety of cancers.

Many of these negative health outcomes could be explained by pollution's impacts on the mucosal system.

"This is a topic we have to deal with and soon. That is clear as of today," said Lieleg. "Still, we need more research to better understand which particles pose a threat and why. Those further insights are needed, so we can figure out how best to mitigate these effects."

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