Common Environmental Pollutants in Air and Water Damage Our Mucus Structure and Function

Sources of particulate matter and effects they can have on the human mucosal system.
Credit: Matthias Marczynski

Air, water contamination disrupts body’s first line of internal defense.

Major disruptions to our health and quality of life are front of mind in an era when wildfires, floods, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic impact Earth’s population daily. Amid these glaring threats, the slow but rising creep of air and water pollution that humans encounter and even ingest may be easy to overlook, but research continues to reveal new data proving these exposures do impact human health.

In Biophysics Reviews, from AIP Publishing, researchers from the Technical University of Munich review recent scientific literature about the effects of particle contaminants on the mucosal system, an internal membrane that serves as the body’s lubricant and the first line of defense from infections and toxins. These data establish a clear link between exposure to airborne or waterborne particulate matter and several health conditions.

“Mucosal barriers are really important to protect various body systems, but that mucosal function is only there if we don’t damage it,” said co-author Oliver Lieleg. “Sadly, our native mucosal systems are being compromised by micro- and nanoparticles present in our environment.”

Pollution in the air and water has four major effects on the mucosal system. Structural changes can create holes, making the mucosal barrier leaky. Pathogens and toxins can piggyback on the particles and enter the body. Cells can produce too much or too little mucus, and neither is good for preserving optimal function (e.g., when lubricating the eye to protect from abrasion upon blinking). Finally, the quality (e.g., stiffness) of the mucus itself can become altered.

“Mucus is a complex mixture of components, and keeping the composition right is important,” said Lieleg. “Imagine if you add too much flour to the recipe when making a dough. The bread would come out hard and brittle. Contaminating mucus with black carbon or microplastic has similar negative effects and can alter mucus structure and function.”

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