Free Radicals! (and Lung Cancer)
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...
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.
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