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Disease-Causing Compound Found in Air Clogged with Smoke from Cigarettes, Fires or Air Pollution

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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smoke compound health impactsInhaling cigarette smoke or smoggy air is clearly not great for your health. And exposure to various kinds of smoke has been associated with cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cataracts.

Researchers have now pinpointed a compound common in disparate forms of smoke that might explain some of the frequent ills associated with it. The findings are described in a new paper published online May 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We found isocyanic acid in a number of places, from air in downtown Los Angeles and air downwind of a Colorado wildfire, to cigarette smoke," Jim Roberts, a chemist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement. Isocyanic acid—abbreviated as HNCO—is a substance known to act in the body along disease-related pathways through a process known as protein carbamylation.

Although the new study did not look specifically at how ambient HNCO might be affecting people’s health, the researchers note that it makes sense that it would have easy access into the human body’s innards. "It dissolves readily in water, which means that humans can be exposed directly if it gets into eyes or lungs," Roberts said.

This is the first time that HNCO had been measured in ambient air, the researchers report. To get specific readings, the team used a negative-ion proton-transfer chemical ionization mass spectrometer.

Roberts and his colleagues measured high concentrations of the compound in the air in Boulder, Colo., during last year’s Fourmile Canyon fire and in the smoggy city of Los Angeles, finding that both had about 200 parts per billion HNCO. Previous findings have indicated that levels higher than one part per billion in the ambient air might have negative impacts on human health. The high levels in L.A. are likely an unintended consequence of efforts to curb nitrogen emissions from diesel trucks. These so-called urea-selective catalytic reduction systems scrub out nitrogen but create HNCO as a byproduct, the researchers report.

In addition to these significant concerns for people living here in the U.S., the risks might be greater for the many people in the developing world who use open-fire stoves, or cook stoves. A lab test of burning biomass produced concentrations of 600 parts per billion when measured close to the flames. "There are literally billions of people in the world who burn biomass for cooking and heating," Roberts said. "If these indoor fires release similar levels of isocyanic acid as the fires we studied in the laboratories, families could be exposed to high levels of the chemical."

The team underscored the need for further research into how HNCO might be affecting human health—especially with the prevalence of biomass-based stoves and the prediction for more wild fires due to climate change. "We may be facing a future of higher amounts of HNCO in the atmosphere," Roberts said. And although that might be bad news for human health, Roberts noted that at least "it is fortunate that now we can measure it."

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/plherrera





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  1. 1. sault 5:54 pm 05/17/2011

    Even more of a reason to speed our transition away from fossil fuels and towards a sustainable economy. The pollution in the air we breathe is a tax on our economy that’s paid in lower productivity, increased sick days, impaired child development, higher healthcare costs and premature death. These costs are NOT paid by the entities that are responsible for the pollution in the first place. In the case of just coal-powered electricity, it would have to be 3x as expensive to cover the direct, quantifiable costs to society it imposes. Remember that when somebody spouts off that renewable energy is too expensive.

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  2. 2. david.jackson3 3:09 am 05/18/2011

    "Previous findings have indicated that levels higher than one part per billion in the ambient air might have negative impacts on human health."

    I’m afraid that as soon as I see ‘might’ or ‘could’ in an article about the deleterious affects of something, I am suspicious of the motives of the author. Virtually any activity we do, or any substance we have contact with ‘might’ have deleterious effects in some circumstances.

    Let’s not panic just yet about the levels of HNCO.

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  3. 3. fdoleza 6:05 am 05/18/2011

    I don’t think this is a fossil fuel issue alone. It says the chemical is also produced when burning wood and other materials. Unless your proposal is to go nuclear/solar, biofuels and other technologies which require burning would yield similar results, I suspect.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 6:13 am 05/18/2011

    Perhaps we should be concerned about the repercussions from trivial activities of the largest human population that’s ever existed on Earth, the population that has doubled since 1970, tripled since 1950 and quadrupled since 1900. The biosphere is now being subjected to experimental conditions that have never before existed anywhere, at any time. If 6.9 billion human beings simultaneously sneeze, what are the potential consequences?

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  5. 5. fdoleza 7:02 am 05/18/2011

    But I have yet to see a concrete offer from those who propose moving urgently away from fossil fuels which makes sense. I think moving away from fossil fuels is inevitable because we are using them, and they are by definition non-renewable, the question is whether to do so with urgency. Thus far, I can’t see anything being proposed that makes any sense whatsoever. What I read and hear are comments saying "we must, we must" but I don’t get what it is we must do.

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  6. 6. bucketofsquid 5:54 pm 05/18/2011

    A good start on reducing the particulates in the air is to cut way back on numbers of children born per mother. This would also reduce long term demand for energy and food and have an abundance of other benefits as well. Limit families to no more than 1 daughter and watch the world population start to shrink to manageable levels. Birth control readily available at low cost is a good start.

    As the brutality of China and India murdering their daughters in the higher income areas takes effect we will see the direct proof of this as energy demands stabilize even as they modernize. All we have to do is require doweries be paid each time a girl child is born. I’m not sure what the countries that face this kind of barbarism plan on doing with the tens of millions of extra men that can’t find wives but I expect a major war will sort them out.

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