Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Take the train? Microscopic subway dust may pose health risk

New research from the University of Southampton in the UK has found that working or traveling on an underground railway for a sustained period of time could have health implications.

Matt Loxham, PhD student at the University of Southampton, explains: "We studied the ultrafine dust (or particulate matter) found in an underground station in Europe. Typically, ultrafine dust is composed of inert matter that does not pose much of a risk in terms of its chemical composition. However, in the underground station we studied, the ultrafine dust was at least as rich in metals as the larger dust particles and therefore, taken together with their increased surface area to volume ratio, it is of potential significance in understanding the risks of working and travelling in the underground. These tiny dust particles have the potential to penetrate the lungs and the body more easily, posing a risk to someone's health."

While coarse dust is generally deposited in the nasal passages and bronchi, fine dust generally can reach the bronchioles (smaller airways). The ultrafine dust meanwhile, is able to reach the deepest areas of the lungs, into the alveoli. There is evidence that this ultrafine dust may be able to evade the protective barrier lining the airways, and enter underlying tissue and circulation, meaning that the toxicity of ultrafine particles may not be limited to the airways but may involve the cardiovascular system, liver, brain, and kidneys.

"Underground rail travel is used by great numbers of people in large cities all over the world, for example, almost 1.2 billion journeys are made per year on the London Underground. The high level of mechanical activity in underground railways, along with very high temperatures is key in the generation of this metal-rich dust, and the number of people likely to be exposed means that more studies into the effects of particulate matter in the underground railway environment are needed, as well as examining how the levels of dust and duration of exposure might translate to effects on health."

Further work is now being performed to examine the effects of underground dust on airway cells in more detail and the potential mechanisms by which cells may be able to protect themselves.

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