Edinburgh Café Scientifique: Surprising Targets for Harmful Air Pollution Particles with Ken Donaldson

Café Scientifique is a voluntarily run network of science discussion groups based around the UK and the world, which aims to provide an open and informal forum for the public discussion of science and engineering. Cafés follow a common principle, which is to host free talks from eminent individuals in an informal ‘face-to-face’ setting with no complicated visual aids (i.e. no Powerpoint presentations) and plenty of time for questions and discussion.

Cafe scientique

The Edinburgh Café Scientifique takes place on the second Monday of each month. We like to work with partners – usually based in the Edinburgh area – and this month we will be teaming up with Surgeons’ Hall Museum (http://museum.rcsed.ac.uk) with a talk about air pollution and how harmful particles can damage our health.

Come along on the 8th May 2017 to this free event at Surgeon’s Hall Museum (Nicholson Street), doors open at 6.30pm and the talk starts at 7pm. Come along for a drink, a chance to socialise and a talk about the effects of air pollution…

The connection between air pollution and poor health has long been recognised. Since the early 19th century, people realised that the black lungs of the miners were caused by the workers’ exposure to coal dust. The worst episode of London Fog, the Great Smog of London in 1952, is estimated to have caused up to 12,000 deaths. London’s “pea souper” was a thick fog caused by air pollution from coal smoke emitted by domestic chimneys and industries.
It was soon suspected that soot particles in fog were part of the problem, along with toxic gases such as sulphur dioxide present in the pollution cloud. Indeed, recent research suggests that small particles are actually the most harmful component of polluted air. They are generated mainly by human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, power plants and industrial processes. The mechanism by which these particles exert their negative effect on human health has been the subject of intense research. It was hoped that understanding the mechanism would help explain why pollution episodes not only affect people with lung disease but also those with pre-existing heart conditions.
To find out more about the behaviour of particles inhaled in toxic fumes, Dr Mark Miller (who will be at Café Scientifique!) and co-workers from Edinburgh and The Netherlands used gold particles of different sizes and tracked their movement through the body. The authors found that gold nanoparticles were able to escape from the lungs into the blood stream and from there travelled to different organs of the body. Interestingly, the nanoparticles tended to build-up in diseased blood vessels where – it is hypothesized – they could worsen coronary heart disease. These findings go some way to explain the link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease.

Air pollution
Air pollution map


Air pollution is not only a London problem. In January of this year, Friends of the Earth highlighted that some roads in Edinburgh exceeded the European directive for nitrogen in the air (areas seen in red in the below picture, Friends of the Earth (2013 data).

During the Café we will talk about what is known about air pollution and its effect on human health. The presence of three eminent scientists in the field will allow us to discuss the latest data on the harmful effects of small particles at sites other than the lungs, the connection to heart disease and alternative explanations for the mechanism of harm.

The event is free but ticketed. Sign up using the link http://buff.ly/2oxExPb

The speakers:

Café Scientifique attenders will get the benefit of the experience of 3 particle toxicologists. Ken Donaldson is Emeritus Professor of Respiratory Toxicology in the University of Edinburgh, as well as being Senior Research Fellow in the Surgeon’s Hall Museums. He has worked on the toxicology of all the major pathogenic particle types – coal, asbestos, silica, diesel soot and nanoparticles. Before retiring he focused on the cardiovascular impacts of air pollution. Dr Mark Miller is Research Fellow in Cardiovascular Science in the University of Edinburgh, working on the cardiovascular impact of air pollution particles.
Mark’s latest study, showing that gold nanoparticles as a model of air pollution particles can reach atherosclerotic tissue in the cardiovascular system, earned massive newspaper and television coverage two weeks ago. Dr Craig Poland is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Inflammation Research in the University of Edinburgh. He has worked extensively on the toxicology of nanofibres and nanoparticles and has also been involved in the regulatory toxicology of particles. He has comprehensive knowledge of the mechanism of how particles injure the lung and other targets in the body, such as the brain.