The impact of air pollution exposure, specifically diesel exhaust fumes, may be more severe for females than males.
A new study presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Spain finds that breathing diesel exhaust fumes may have severe consequences for females more than males. This type of air pollution exposure was analysed through changes in people’s blood, and the researchers found differences in inflammation, infection and cardiovascular disease.
Dr Hemshekhar Mahadevappa from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, told the Congress: “We already know that there are sex differences in lung diseases such as asthma and respiratory infections. Our previous research showed that breathing diesel exhaust creates inflammation in the lungs and has an impact on how the body deals with respiratory infections. In this study, we wanted to look for any effects in the blood and how these differ in females and males.”
The effects of air pollution exposure on females
The study involved ten participants, five females and five males, who were all healthy non-smokers. Each volunteer spent four hours breathing filtered air and four hours breathing air containing diesel exhaust fumes at three different concentrations – 20, 50 and 150 micrograms of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) per cubic metre – with a four-week break in between each exposure.
The volunteers donated blood samples after 24 hours of each exposure, and the researchers analysed the blood plasma to record any changes following air pollution exposure. Plasma is the liquid component of the blood that carries blood cells, proteins and other molecules around the body.
The team used liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry to explore any changes in the level of different proteins following exposure to diesel exhaust and compared the changes in the females and males.
What did the researchers discover?
When comparing the samples, the researchers revealed that the levels of 90 proteins varied between the female and male participants following air pollution exposure. Some of the proteins that differed between the two groups played a role in inflammation, damage repair, blood clotting, cardiovascular disease, and the immune system. Moreover, some of the differences became clearer once the volunteers were exposed to higher levels of diesel exhaust.
Professor Mookherjee explained: “These are preliminary findings; however, they show that exposure to diesel exhaust has different effects in female bodies compared to males, and that could indicate that air pollution is more dangerous for females than males.
“This is important as respiratory diseases such as asthma are known to affect females and males differently, with females more likely to suffer severe asthma that does not respond to treatments. Therefore, we need to know a lot more about how females and males respond to air pollution and what this means for preventing, diagnosing and treating their respiratory disease.”
Following this discovery, the researchers are focussing on studying the functions of the proteins to understand its role in the different females and make immune responses.
Professor Zorana Andersen from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, is Chair of the European Respiratory Society Environment and Health Committee and was not involved in the research. She said: “We know that exposure to air pollution, especially diesel exhaust, is a major risk factor in diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There is very little we can do as individuals to avoid breathing polluted air, so we need governments to set and enforce limits on air pollutants.
“We also need to understand how and why air pollution contributes to poor health. This study offers some important insight into how the body reacts to diesel exhaust and how that may differ between females and males.”