One of the risks of science communication is the inevitable shift in topics to subjects considered to be politically sensitive. Usually, when these issues are brought up, people end up asking a universal question…

urkel(Or, are humans really to blame?)

Usually – and for some, unfortunately – the answer is yes. Mind you, scientists have been clever about hiding the blame behind jargon. For example, instead of saying certain troubles are due to humans, they tend to lay the blame on activities considered to be…

anthro(Which is a fancy word for “performed by humans”)

Sometimes, anthropogenic actions are easy to point out as the cause for troubles. In the last decade alone, our actions have led to…

  • The Ebola epidemic (hunting primates for food)
  • The cholera outbreak in Haiti (foreign rescue workers brought it in)
  • The influenza pandemic (high intensity farming)
  • SARS and MERS (co-habitation with viral vectors)

But when the conversation turns to a much more contentious topic, the mere inference of human fault can turn into…

fight(Trouble…)

There are many topics in which science and human interest collide. It’s also not new as this struggle has been going on in different forms for centuries. Topics such as evolution, the true source of certain diseases, and even the shape of the Earth – round or flat – has resulted in a conflict. But in this day and age, the most prevalent topic pitting the public against the scientist happens to be…

climate-change(The Earth is a changin’…)

Depending on the crowd, mention of this topic can quickly alter the atmosphere from clear, sunny, and calm to dark and gloomy with an excellent chance for verbal storms.

When people bring up the evil double-C, I tend to veer away from the debate as to whether the effects are indeed caused by humans. Instead, I like to discuss consequences of the Earth’s changing environment on our health. Regardless of the cause, we need to deal with the effects on us. I find taking this route helps to keep people calm and not end up…

angry(You get the idea…)

Over the years, I’ve used a number of examples to demonstrate the health effects of climate change without heading into the anthropogenic. Now it seems a new one has developed thanks to a paper released earlier this month. It focuses on a topic we all know and many of us have experienced. It’s a portmanteau of two words, “smoke,” and “fog.” Of course, I’m talking about…

to-cn-smog(Smog…and yes, that’s Toronto in the backdrop…)

Smog is the accumulation of tiny particles, about a millionth-of a metre in size. They float around in the air and obscure our ability to see great distances. As to the nature of those particles they vary but some of the substances can be described as…

chem_compo_pm_e(Nasty…)

When the body becomes exposed to these chemicals, the body ends up being rather unhappy. Most of the time, our focus is on the lungs and the impact on our ability to breathe. But there is another relatively unknown victim of smog…

heart(Cardiovascular health)

This may not seem a little strange considering the chemicals in smog don’t actually get into our blood. Yet, research has shown air pollution can contribute to poor heart health. As to how this happens, it all comes down to the immune system and, you know where this is going…

inflammation(When all else fails…blame inflammation…)

But while we can show smog is related to inflammation, we don’t have a good explanation as to how the immunological condition is initiated. This gap can be troublesome particularly when immersed in a climate change debate.

Now we may have an answer thanks to a fascinating scientific paper released last week. It’s called, Ambient Ultrafine Particle Ingestion Alters Gut Microbiota in Association with Increased Atherogenic Lipid Metabolites and if you click on the title, you can read the whole paper.

The researchers wanted to find out what could be the link between exposure to smog and the higher risk for cardiovascular problems. They could think of no better place to look than…

gut(The gut…and its microbes…)

Although the choice may seem strange, the rational made sense. Research had already shown a lack of proper diversity of the microbial population could lead to an increased risk for heart disease. Perhaps smog was somehow altering that diversity in the gut. All that was needed was to try…which they did…and subsequently found this…

inflammation(It’s pretty frightening…)

Okay, maybe it’s less frightening and more confusing without the appropriate background. Let me explain how the researchers got to this point…

The first step was to get some smog. This was not too difficult as they were located in the smog-capital of Los Angeles. After about a month, they had more than enough particles for the test.

Next, they needed some mice. They chose a strain known to be an excellent model for monitoring cardiovascular disease.

The third step was rather straightforward. They fed the mice the smog…

whatouse(What the…?)

Okay, perhaps this step doesn’t make much sense without context. When we inhale smog, it goes into our entire respiratory tract. Those particles end up trapped in our mucus, saliva, and other protective juices formed in our mouth, sinuses, throat, and lungs. When these surfaces are released, they only have two ways to go. One is out of the body…

spitting(Which may be socially unacceptable…)

The other is to swallow, which we all do at some point. As this happens, the smog particles eventually make their way to the gut where they may alter the normal function in the intestines. That’s why the mice were forced to eat smog.

The doses were similar to a normal smoggy day in LA. The animals were fed the same amount for a period of ten weeks. To ensure the situation closely mimicked humans living in LA, the mice also were fed a standard Western Diet. The only thing the researchers didn’t do was make the mice…

sunglasses(Look the part…)

At the end of the study, the mice were examined for any signs of inflammation. Which brings us back to the frightening figure…

inflammation(So you don’t need to scroll up…)

On the left, the team examined the intestinal cells of the mice and found a higher level of inflammation in those exposed to smog. On the right is an enumeration of inflammatory cells known as macrophages and neutrophils. In relation to the control, those exposed to smog (or as the authors called them, ultrafine particles or UFP), there were significantly more of both cell types.

As to why the inflammation was present, the team found a lack of microbial diversity in the gut. Once this was detected, the rest was simply a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together:

Diversity was down, thus inflammation was going to be up. Because inflammation was up, cardiovascular disease markers were going to be increased. When disease markers are higher, an individual is at a greater risk for a cardiovascular event.

The end result could be summed up in one very easy to say phrase…

unhappymouse(Smog Can Lead To Heartbreak…)

This study is fascinating on its own but for me, it offers yet more ammunition in climate change discussions. We now have a possible microbial link between smog and heart disease, making it easier to point out the effects of pollution on the body.

But more importantly, the information opens up a new direction for the debate. While we may haggle over the cause, we can provide some perspective on how we may be able to prevent the consequences. Put it this way…

If you want to keep your heart healthy, you can do one of two things…

  1. Get rid of the smog, in which you are a part of a global effort.
  2. Get rid of the diversity troubles, which is an individual effort comprised of changing your eating behaviour including reducing the sugars and fats, eating more fruits and vegetables, get those good probiotic bacteria, and increase the amount of that beneficial and yet horrid-tasting fibres.

When faced with these options, it’s incredible how people may decide to choose the global route over the individual one. After all, when faced with a decision, you can always count on people to choose…

easyway(Even if it means going against ideology…)

 

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