Air pollution is one of those things that we know is awful for our bodies, but it can be hard to see the actual impact. So even though about 3.7 million people died prematurely from air pollution in 2012 alone, it’s easy to forget day-to-day just how deadly that smoggy air can be. Scientists at the University of Melbourne are studying air pollution, however, and taking a close-up look to show people just how those airborne particles are harming our bodies.

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Associate Professor Uta Wille and PhD candidate Luke Gamon at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science have started examining pollution at the molecular level. According to their research, when an pollutant is inhaled, it damages the respiratory lining. After exposing peptides to nitrogen dioxide and ozone and examining the peptides with spectroscopy, they were able to look at the chemical damage in much more minute detail to see that damage as we’ve never seen it before.

Related: India’s Smog is Killing Off Crops that Could Have Fed 94 Million People

The research revealed that nitrogen oxide – the free radical that results from auto exhaust and fossil fuel power – and ozone caused much greater damage to the peptides than either molecule alone.

The United States has a variety of regulations in place to control air pollution, but they are constantly changing as science reveals new information about pollution. The researchers said that they hope the work they are doing will help policy makers make better decisions about controlling air quality, since we can better see exactly what is happening to our lungs when we breathe in pollutants.


Lead image via Shutterstock, image via BK