PROVO — Nature has given us a temporary reprieve on inversions this winter. But the science on what pollution does to our bodies is hardly resting.

For the past five years, Brigham Young University phlebotomists and volunteers have been taking and giving samples of blood to see what kind of markers pollution leaves behind in our blood and vessels. And they're drawing those samples during both inversions and noninversions.

Blood samples are drawn in one room then taken to another for processing. From there, they're shipped to the University of Louisville for sophisticated laboratory analysis using specialized equipment.

For volunteers like Karen Mengum, Emily Alder and Jessica Stricklan, the study has special significance.

"I like to run a lot and so on days when pollution is bad, I don't go running because physically I can't go nearly as far,” said Mengum.

"I have lived in Salt Lake my whole life, so I'm familiar with inversions," Alder said.

Stricklan has a different perspective. "I'm from out East, and we have our share of pollution there too," she said, "but it's nothing like the valley stuff."

Research on the cardiovascular effects of even moderate pollution is so robust now, it's hard to ignore. BYU environmental epidemiologist Arden Pope is one of the country's foremost experts on pollution and human health. He's authored and co-authored numerous studies, including one of the most recent appearing in the journal Circulation Research.

“The effects of air pollution on cardiovascular disease generally is so strong … at least statistically strong, that you really can't explain it away," said Pope.

Showing up on pollution's doorstep now: an even wider combination of disorders that fall under the umbrella of cardio-metabolic diseases. In addition to heart and lung problems, pollution is now linked to mortality rates from high blood pressure and diabetes.

In research at BYU and around the country, the villain is consistent. "We've seen over the years that exposure to elevated levels of air pollution increases markers of systemic inflammation," Pope said.

Inflammation affects many things, including the cells that make up the inner layer of our blood vessels and their ability to repair damage.

“The answer right now seems to be that air pollution does contribute to subclinical, but adverse effects even in healthy individuals,” Pope said.

In these blood draws, BYU is also testing something else. In another study, some volunteers are taking fish oil to see if it might reduce the markers of inflammation.

“We’re asking if individuals take fish oil or omega-3 fatty acid, does that in some way mitigate the effect of air pollution on systemic inflammation or the activity of the endothelium progenitor cells (those cells lining the vessel walls),” Pope explained.

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Nate Alder, another volunteer participating in the research, makes sure the statistics are valid. The experiment is double blinded, meaning volunteers do not know whether they're taking the fish oil or a placebo.

"I think it's possible it has an effect," he said. "We'll wait and see when the data comes back."

If this part of the study proves out, perhaps those living in affected areas — like the valleys of the Wasatch Front where pollution is common — might take fish oil as a preventive during periods of inversions.


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