Science News

Here’s how pollution from coal-fired power plants can clog lungs

A new experiment conducted by a professor at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine confirms that burning coal can cause serious lung damage. Specifically, the researchers conducted experiments on mice by exposing them to ashes or fumes of burnt coal.

Irving Coy Allen, along with colleagues from various other American institutes and a university in Shanghai, has discovered that very small titanium oxide particles can prove highly toxic. These particles would be present in the ash and smoke of burnt coal. Lung damage to mice also occurred after a single exposure while long-term damage occurred in just six weeks of exposure.

Current coal-fired plants have very complex filters to avoid most of the emissions of nanoparticles into the atmosphere following the combustion of coal. However, when these filters are not present or not efficient, these particles can expand into the air and easily enter the lungs.

Especially the smallest particles, known as titanium suboxide nanoparticles, are of most concern to scientists. These are very small particles, which reach a diameter of 100 millionths of a meter. Once they enter the lungs, they come across macrophages, the defensive cells that are supposed to counteract foreign particles.

Against these particles, so small, macrophages go into difficulty. They cannot decompose them and begin to die, a process leading to increased recruitment of macrophages.

It is a “surprising discovery,” as Allen himself defines it, and a phenomenon that occurs after only one exposure. And even after long periods of time, these buildups remain in the lungs. This phenomenon, of course, raises concerns about urban pollution produced by coal-fired power plants.

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