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5 Ways the Environment Can Damage DNA

written by: Balachandar Radhakrishnan•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 5/13/2009

Our body is under constant attack from harsh environments. Although we do not feel these attacks all the time, our molecular machinery is chugging away at fixing these breaches. Let's take a look at 5 factors in the environment that cause damage at the DNA level, and how we can protect ourselves.

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    Environmental Chemicals

    The environment is an important part of our health. In fact most people do not understand the significant role that the environment plays in several important facets of human life - from psychology to physiology. Environmental factors can accelerate aging, and cause increased risks of cancer for example.

    Chemical pollutants in the environment can cause many types of health hazards including DNA damage. Our DNA is constantly exposed to adverse environmental conditions; however the body has repair mechanisms that help us to cope. Chemicals like butadiene emitted from rubber factories, dichloroethane an industrial solvent, vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride from plastic manufacturing plants can seriously damage DNA since they affect the repair machinery involved in fixing DNA damage.

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    Sunlight & UV radiation

    Well this one has been a hot issue for a while. Our bodies need sunlight for making proteins such Vitamin D which is synthesized on exposure to sunlight. However, harmful UV radiation from the sun can do some serious damage. On exposure to strong sunlight the body produces what is called a reactive oxygen species (ROS) which tends to damage cellular systems as well as DNA.

    UV radiation present in the sunlight can also damage DNA. The electromagnetic spectrum from 200 to 400 nanometers consists of UV radiation, which is further subdivided into UV-A, UV-B & UV-C. UV-C radiations are usually blocked by the atmosphere, however UV- A & B can cause some serious damage.

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    Forest fires!! really?

    Most people would be surprised to know that forest fires can damage DNA! However a recent study by scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington has shown that forest fires are similar in nature to any other environmental pollutants released by industrial manufacturing plants. People living downwind of forest fires are exposed to fine aerosols that are released by the combustion of trees and plants and these could turn out to be mutagenic in nature.

    It has been suspected for some time that some plant alkaloids can affect DNA, however this is the first report to state that they could still be harmful if released via a forest fire into the atmosphere. At this point paper is reporting damage caused by classes of compounds, not specific chemical compounds.

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    Overcooked Meat

    Summers are not fun without grilling and barbecuing. But, over cooking meat could be harmful too. Meat products should be cooked properly so that any bacterial or parasitic life forms can be destroyed. However, overcooking may result in the formation of harmful compounds. Charring or over cooked meat produces compounds like polycyclic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines that do not breakdown. Polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are also present in tobacco smoke, vehicle exhausts and burning of fossil fuels . These substances have been shown to cause cancer in animal models by causing damage to the DNA and hence these are also termed as genotoxins.

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    Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) & Smoking

    Smoking has been a leading agent of DNA damage in humans, and it not only affects the person who smokes but also people in the immediate surroundings. Cigarette smoke has been shown to have tar-phenolic compounds that can cause breaks in the DNA. These compounds can be inhaled by second hand smoking.

    Suggested Reading:

    http://apha.confex.com/apha/130am/techprogram/paper_43608.htm

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-happens-when-you-get

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=plastic-cattle-dna&page=2

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=environmental-dna-damage