New study shows women at higher risk than men from air pollution and diesel fumes

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Today is the first day of the Jean Hailes Women’s Health Week 2022, an initiative dedicated to all women across Australia to make good health a priority.

Diesel exhaust is known to be bad news for lungs, creating inflammation and impacting the body’s ability to respond to respiratory infections. New evidence suggests that these effects may be worse for females than for males.

A collaboration of researchers from two Canadian universities investigated the effects of breathing diesel exhaust fumes at three different concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – 20, 50 and 150 mg per cubic metre – for four hours and compared it to breathing filtered air. The data was collected twice, four weeks apart.

The European Union limit for safe air is 25 mg of PM2.5 per cubic metre – a value often exceeded in city environments.

Read more: Spotlight on air pollution in Europe

After each exposure, researchers examined plasma from the ten volunteers – five females and five males – looking for changes in levels of specific proteins within the plasma.

Researchers found variations in the levels of no less than 90 proteins, many of which are already known to play a role in inflammation, damage repair, blood clotting, cardiovascular disease and the immune system. Some of the level variations between females and males became more obvious with higher concentrations of the diesel exhaust.

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Diesel exhaust contributes to air pollution which may impact women’s health more than men’s. Credit: Toa55/Getty Images

“We already know that there are sex differences in lung diseases such as asthma and respiratory infections,” said Dr Hemshekhar Mahadevappa from the University of Manitoba in Canada. “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.”

This study has shown that diesel exhaust exposure – and air pollution by corollary – could have the potential to be much more dangerous for females than it is for males.

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Research shows different impacts on women’s respiratory health. Credit: Ljubaphoto/Getty Images

“This is important as respiratory diseases such as asthma are known to effect females and males differently, with females more likely to suffer severe asthma that does not respond to treatments,” said Professor Neeloffer Mookherjee, one of the study’s lead researchers who will be presenting the findings at the European Respiratory Society International Congress 2022. “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.”

The research group intend to continue investigating the role these proteins play in the female and male responses to air pollution, including trying to unpack the reasons behind the variation in levels between male and female test subjects.

Understanding the effects air pollution has on health may help governments better legislate and enforce limits in the future – increasing the well-being of everyone.

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