How Smog Hurts Our Lungs on a Molecular Level

First Posted: Sep 17, 2015 08:26 AM EDT

What actually happens when you breathe in smog? Coughing, a sore throat and possibly a pain in your chest when you breathe in are all symptoms. Now, though, researchers have taken a closer look at what might be happening to us on a molecular level when we breathe smoggy air.

Smog is made up of ozone, which is an invisible gas and well-known air pollutant made up of three oxygen atoms. Ozone is also the pollutant that leaves a distinctive smell in the air after using a photocopier.

Using a mass spectrometers, the researchers introduced the amino acid cysteine, which is a component of lung proteins, to ozone molecules in a highly controlled, near vacuum environment. The researchers, surprisingly, found an almost instantaneous effect.

"We observed that the cysteine became 'radicalized' in the presence of ozone," said Richard O'Hair, one of the researchers, in a news release. "No one had really noticed that you can form free radicals in the reaction of proteins and ozone, and since these are highly reactive species, you don't want them around. Free radicals can unleash fury and cause many chemical transformations. If they get out of control, they can just chew through a system and destroy it. For example, free radical damage is thought to play a key role in heart disease and some cancers."

For example, when free radicals are formed in the body, such as in the lining of the lung, damage occurs. This may ultimately result in inflammation and breathing difficulties.

The findings reveal a bit more about what occurs when you breathe in smog. More specifically, it highlights the importance of reducing smog levels and pollution in the air.

The findings are published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

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