Diesel fumes could cause changes in DNA methylation

A recent UBC study has shown how a brief exposure to diesel exhaust can create significant alterations within a person’s DNA methylation.

The study exposed a volunteer to diesel exhaust for two hours at levels similar to that of a Beijing highway or an industrial mine. When examining the volunteer’s DNA before and after exposure, the study revealed that the methylation marks within the epigenetic compliant of the volunteer’s DNA were altered.

Through this study, scientists were able to get a greater perception of the biological and technical mechanisms that drive these changes within a person’s genetics.

“If you understand [what’s driving these changes], then you may better understand how to prevent it, and you may transfer this knowledge base and the methods behind this kind of technique to other scenarios that may have to do with air pollution,” said Chris Carlsten, the study's main author.

While the effects observed are not enough to provide a direct causal link to adverse health effects, a repeated exposure to these levels of diesel exhaust could lead to harmful effects over a lengthier period of time.

“The importance of this is that it proves plausibility that on a long term basis, if there are repeated exposures, that may lead to longer-term and more truly significant changes or problems to the health of the person” said Carlsten.

Carlsten also said that a great amount of exposure to diesel exhaust over a long period of time could have an effect on a person’s protein production.

“Epigenetic changes can affect the production of proteins associated with those genes and changes in the production of proteins associated with these genes are going to have inevitable effects, because proteins are basically what run your body,” said Carlsten.

Although the average Canadian would rarely be exposed to these levels of diesel gas emissions, people who work in certain industrialized occupations and citizens of certain countries can potentially be exposed to such levels of air pollution.

For example, mining and construction workers are often placed in closed environments with poor ventilation and diesel exhaust fumes, which can expose them to pollution levels similar to that of the study.

Similarly, densely populated and highly industrialized cities such as Beijing or Karachi have high amounts of diesel pollution.

Carlsten believes that future work to reverse the effects of the exhaust fumes could be possible, but our present focus should still be geared towards minimizing exhaust levels.

“The most important measure is to prevent any of this, and the big picture is to lower the exposures.”