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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 08/27/2008

Free Radicals! (and Lung Cancer)

By Capital Weather Gang

Wx and the City

By Ann Posegate

Free radicals! Free radicals!

No, I'm not talking about the 100+ protestors who were arrested outside the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Monday. I'm referring to atoms and molecules that can cause lung cancer. As if we didn't have enough environmental health hazards to worry about these days, a scientist at Louisiana State University announced his discovery last week that certain atoms and molecules in the atmosphere deemed "persistent free radicals" can imitate those found in cigarette smoke and cause lung cancer.

Where do persistent free radicals come from? The burning of fuels and the formation of ozone. What to they look like? Invisible. Who can they harm? Anyone who breathes them in. How long do they persist in the atmosphere? The world may never know...

Keep reading for more on free radicals. Also, see our full forecast through the holiday weekend, NatCast for tonight's game at Nationals Park, and SkinsCast for Thursday's preseason game at FedEx.

Free radicals are truly radical. Going back to the basics of chemistry, remember how an atom can assume a negative charge if it has an "unpaired" electron? And that this atom will then attempt to bond to another charged atom (ion) and "share" electrons to become more stable?

Most free radicals, such as a single chlorine or oxygen atom, have an exceptionally strong charge and can become very reactive, attacking the bonds of other molecules. They become a problem when introduced to biological systems. If inhaled, they react with cellular bonds -- a process which leaves more atoms and molecules with unpaired electrons, creating more free radicals and eventually causing a domino effect of damage to cells and DNA.

Even though persistent free radicals are strongly charged, their structures do not allow them to bond to other atoms as easily. Thus, they persist in the atmosphere longer than your typical free radical, and are therefore more likely to be inhaled.

I consider myself a health-conscious person, and since I joined the "I don't own a car" club last year and often walk and bike around the city, I'm especially aware of the Washington metro area's air quality status. Sometimes I feel conflicted about living in a city rated as one of the most polluted in the nation, though I like living here and having the option of public transportation.

According to the LSU study, breathing in free radicals from a day of moderately polluted air can be likened to inhaling smoke from 300 cigarettes. Wait -- didn't D.C. and Maryland institute smoking bans to protect the public health? Perhaps an "excess burning of fossil fuels" ban is even more needed? I'd like radical-free air, please, with extra bike lanes on the side.

Luckily for us, the poor air quality season is nearing dormancy. If you'd like to be alerted of any remaining Code Red or Code Orange air quality days, you can sign up for a free email service from Clean Air Partners.

By Capital Weather Gang  | August 27, 2008; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Posegate, Science, Wx and the City  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Gustav: Katrina Reincarnated?
Next: PM Update: Showers to Finally Arrive?


Chemistry primer: The strongest "free radical" is a loose fluorine atom, but fluorine rarely exists naturally in an un-combined state. Oxygen and chlorine containing radicals are far more common and of these, most chlorine is bound up in salts (NaCl and Mg2Cl) aside from synthetic chlorinated compounds which are nonexistent in nature. Hence the most common naturally occuring free radicals generally involve oxygen. Of these, ozone (O3) at ground level is the main culprit and generally results from interactions involving sunlight, oxygen (O2) and artificially introduced hydrocarbons.

Posted by: El Bombo | August 27, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Nice article but I was looking for an afternoon forecast. You know, CW has not been the same since has WP bought it. Kind has gone down hill.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Thanks. The "PM Update" is posted at 3:15pm every weekday, so you can check back then.

Posted by: Ann, Capital Weather Gang | August 27, 2008 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Anonymous -- As Ann says, the afternoon forecast (PM Update) is almost always posted at approx. 3:15 pm, unless breaking weather warrants something earlier. Our latest forecast can be found and is linked to in various places on the blog.

You're welcome to your opinion of course, but on the old site, the afternoon forecast update was rarely posted before 4 or 5 p.m. So, actually that's been an improvement in terms of timing. On the new site, we also have more forecast updates, more feature posts, and better writing than we ever had on the old site.

Posted by: Dan, Capital Weather Gang | August 27, 2008 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Anonymous-- The amount of forecast content, if anything, has increased since we joined the Post. Everyday (Monday-Friday), we provide forecasts at 5am and 3pm, and more frequently as necessary. You can always scroll to find the latest forecast content and we link to it in the various non-forecast posts.

Posted by: Capital Weather Gang | August 27, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse

That's a lot of bold. :)

It's got to be more work, following a more rigorous update schedule, so I can understand the interest in setting the record straight. Keep up the good work, and let's all root for the first frost, shall we? I saw the UP had a frost warning earlier this week. :)

Posted by: Dave | August 27, 2008 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Anonymous (whatever your name may be) - one more thing. Thank you for your opinion. Now I will tell you mine. I want to commend Jason and the rest of the CW Gang for becoming a feature of the Washington Post weather page. Besides recently becoming a contributor, I have also been a regular reader since's launch in 2004. Though there have indeed been some changes in the last several months, the quality of the blog has remained the same - if anything, it has improved. At WashPo, Capital Weather Gang can provide a better forum for both weather enthusiasts and general readers to discuss the behind-the-scenes of DC weather, in addition to its impacts on daily lives. After all, it's not only the observations, models, and forecasts, but also the experience of weather that make it so fascinating.

I don't have a problem with being "radical" for talking about free radicals in the atmosphere.

Posted by: Ann, Capital Weather Gang | August 27, 2008 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I would agree that aside from the recent commenting issue, this blog has improved since moving to the Post. Moreover, while I have no idea since I am not a "Gang" member, I suspect running the site on their own took an awful lot of work. And none of the Gang is going this as a full time job that I am aware. So who can blame them for wanting to utilize the resources of the Post to help them make the blog better AND easier for them to manage?

I think a lot of this is just knee jerk anit-Post anti-establishment ranting. Like people that protest Nike for its unfair labor practices overseas, then buy Reeboks (also made overseas via questionable labor practices).

Posted by: Southside FFX | August 27, 2008 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Southside FFX: You have it exactly right. Thank you!

Posted by: Jason, Capital Weather Gang | August 27, 2008 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Re: "According to the LSU study, breathing in free radicals from a day of moderately polluted air can be likened to inhaling smoke from 300 cigarettes"

Wow. From moderately polluted air? And "likened to inhaling smoke from 300 cigarettes"?...yikes. That's equal to about 15 packs a day. Unfortunately, it seems that most major cities have moderately polluted air many days out of the year. Time to move to the country!

Posted by: weatherNewbie | August 27, 2008 4:05 PM | Report abuse

I am off to the Patent Office with my new idea! Cars that run on tobacco! Since cigarette smoke is now safer than pollution from cars - at least today, according to the pseudoscientists ...

Posted by: sid bluntley | August 27, 2008 4:17 PM | Report abuse

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