Mice DNA harmed by soot

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, May 14, 2004

WASHINGTON - Sooty air pollution can cause genetic damage that can be passed along to offspring, Canadian researchers report in a study on mice.

Follow-up work is needed to learn if people can inherit pollution-damaged DNA that harms their health. In the meantime, the discovery is sure to increase scientists' worry about particulates, the microscopic soot particles emitted by factories, power plants and diesel- burning vehicles.

"The new work now adds another area of potential concern" because of the implications for risks to future generations, said Dr. Jonathan Samet of Johns Hopkins University, who headed a recent National Academy of Sciences call for more research into the dangers of this common pollutant.

These airborne particles are linked to a growing list of health problems, including asthma and heart disease, in those who breathe high levels of them.

But there had been little evidence that any air pollutant might cause the kind of genetic damage that can be inherited - until Canadian scientists in 2002 housed mice downwind from steel mills and tested their offspring. The males passed on double the DNA mutations as mice living in the cleaner countryside.

The question was why.

Now those same researchers, from McMaster University in Ontario, report today in the journal Science that they've found the culprit: airborne particulate matter, better known as soot.

In the new experiments, biologist James Quinn and colleagues housed two groups of mice near the steel mills for 10 weeks. One group breathed outside air, while the other was housed in a chamber equipped with HEPA filters - high-efficiency air filters designed to catch microscopic particles.

Then, the mice were bred and their offspring checked for specific DNA mutations that are passed through the father's sperm.

Mice that breathed filtered air had mutation rates 52 percent lower than mice exposed to full-strength steel mill pollution.

The specific sperm changes measured aren't linked to disease, but they're similar to a type of DNA damage that is. Quinn said more study is needed to see if they're a marker for potential health problems, and whether pollution-spurred mutations in disease-causing genes could be inherited, too.

The Environmental Protection Agency already has ordered tougher curbs on ultra-fine particulate pollution because of concern about effects on the elderly, children and people with respiratory illnesses. In December, it plans to reveal which parts of the country aren't in compliance.