Are We at Risk From Free Radicals in Our Air?

by Kathi MacNaughton Health Professional

Experts have known for some time that free radicals that exist in tobacco smoke are responsible for cell damage that leads to emphysema, lung cancer and even asthma.

What are free radicals, you ask? According to Wikipedia, a free radical is "any molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell." I know, that sounds a bit technical. Basically, though, it just means that a free radical is a molecule that is missing something (an electron) and is unstable structurally. To gain stability, the free radical interacts with other close-by molecules (like DNA or airway cell membranes) and plunders them to get what it needs.

Your body does have a defense mechanism against free radicals, in the form of antioxidants, substances known to have a number of health benefits. Antioxidants can safely interact with free radicals to stop their actions before vital cells are damaged. Our bodies don't make antioxidants; they must be brought into the body nutritionally. The main antioxidants in our diet are vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C.

OK, so you're wondering -- what does all that have to do with asthma? Well, recent research out of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge suggests that free radicals that are fine particles in air pollution may be 300 times as damaging as those from tobacco smoke. These free radicals can accumulate from burning fuels in smokestacks, car exhaust pipes or house chimneys or from the formation of ground level ozone during hot weather.

These fine particle free radicals linger in the air and travel long distances, so they're particularly frightening. We know that air pollution can be a trigger for asthma, so the thought of an accumulation of free radicals in our air is distressing, to say the least.

So, you're probably wondering if there's anything you can do to stay healthy with your asthma, given the fact that free radicals may be circulating freely outdoors? After all, you can avoid smokers, but you can't really avoid breathing now, can you?

Air pollutants don't usually cause asthma, in and of themselves. But they can be a risk factor for developing asthma in some instances. Some studies have suggested that increasing levels of air pollution worldwide are part of the explanation for the rise in asthma rates. Also, air pollutants can be an irritant that makes already inflamed asthma airways even more irritated.

But there is no need for us to panic over this. There are steps you can take to help you stay healthy, even in light of free radical pollution:

  • Stay indoors on hot days, as that is when free radicals in ground level ozone may be at their highest levels. Keep windows closed & the air conditioning on.

  • Watch the air quality reports and stay indoors on days when air quality is poor too.

  • If you live in an urban environment, where air quality is often poorer than in suburban and rural environments, you might want to consider moving.

  • Take your asthma medication as prescribed to help keep asthma in control, even if you can't avoid free radicals completely.

  • Eat healthy and include foods high in antioxidants in your diet, which will benefit you in many ways.

More research is needed to explore the facts about free radicals in air pollution further. But if the Lousiana scientists are right, it could go a long way towards explaining why people who don't smoke can get lung cancer and why asthma rates have risen so dramatically in the last few decades.

I find it ironic that as we have become more aware of the dangers of smoking and begun to eliminate secondhand smoke from our public environments, we continue to do things that raise the levels of air pollution, such as driving gas guzzling vehicles and burning fossil fuels instead of leveraging renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy. So, I'll leave you with the thought that something else we can do is to work towards achieving a healthier environment for ourselves and future generations.

Kathi  MacNaughton
Meet Our Writer
Kathi MacNaughton

Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she's been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.