Scientists find link between air pollution and genetic mutations

Researchers at McMasters University in Canada have published research which suggests that smoke from steel mills may cause genetic damage in humans and animals.

The smoke from steel mills may not only make it hard to breathe, but may also cause genetic damage, according to new research by McMaster University biology researchers.

Scientists have long suspected that industrial pollution poses a significant risk to the health of human and animal populations, although much of the evidence is anecdotal or confounded by factors other than air pollutants.

McMaster associate professor James Quinn and colleagues previously found a high rate of heritable mutations in herring gull populations nesting near steel mills. However, it was unclear whether the observed effect was due to emissions in the air or contaminants in the water.

To isolate and examine the effect of air pollution, Quinn, PhD student Chris Somers and colleagues from Health Canada housed laboratory mice in ambient air one kilometre downwind from two integrated steel mills near Lake Ontario and a rural location 30 kilometres away.

Mice exposed to air pollution from the steel mills had offspring with a greater number of DNA mutations compared to rural mice. Also, steel mill mice had slightly smaller litters than rural mice.

Although the potential health effects of the mutations remain unclear, these findings suggest that some component of industrial air pollution has the potential to cause genetic damage that could adversely affect generations to come.

The study, Air pollution induces heritable DNA mutations, by Christopher M. Somers, Carole L. Yauk, Paul A. White, Craig L.J. Parfett, and James S. Quinn is published in the <A HREF=’’>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</A> the week of Dec. 13, 2002.

On the web