Instrument Uses Human Lung Cells to Measure Health Hazards in the Air

Posted: 11/05/2013  browse the blog archive

Researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill have developed a new device to measure air pollutants that uses human lung cells, NPR reported earlier this year.

It begins in a greenhouse, where researchers mix up their own dirty air.  Then it’s fed into a laboratory directly below, into a machine containing human lung cells.  If the air is toxic, the cells send out distress signals that the scientists can measure.  Current tests only measure the chemicals in the air and infer health risks based on assumptions about those chemicals and their effects; they do not take into account, say, the effects of sunlight.

“Cook it in the sun for a day, it becomes anything from five to 12 times more toxic,” says one of the researchers, Professor Harvey Jeffries.

“Not all particles are created equal,” says Will Vizuete, Jeffries’ collaborator.  “Some particles happen to be more toxic than other particles.”

Vizuete says the eventual goal is to build more of the devices and sell them to scientists who will use them in their own cities.  The health effects of particle exposure may be different in New York, or Los Angeles, or Houston.  These instruments will enable scientists to monitor the air for actual biological hazards and their health risks, rather than just what chemicals are in the air.

The Chanler Group represents citizen enforcers who, acting in the public interest, commence actions against businesses offering products for sale in California that contain chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm without first providing the health hazard warning required by Proposition 65. Citizen enforcers bringing Proposition 65 actions in the public interest may obtain a Court Judgment imposing civil penalties, an injunction requiring reformulation of products, and/or provision of health hazard warnings. The Chanler Group has represented citizen enforcers of Proposition 65 for more than twenty years.