We all believe that protecting the environment around us is something that must only affect others. Most people could not care less if Polar Bears find a patch of ice to live their life’s on or if the rainforest dies as long as the burgers are big and the beer is cold. Let me spoil the great mood right now. Protecting the environment becomes more and more an exercise in self-preservation.
The introduction of modern direct injection engines as well as so called “Clean Diesel” brought an enormous deluge of some of the finest particles we have ever breathed in upon us. They go straight to our cells nucleus and change our DNA which should be sheltered there.
Both, gasoline and diesel engines produces those particulates in high numbers. That’s nothing new so far. However, there are notable differences between the bigger particles (anything with a diameter of more than 2.5 micro meters) and the real fine stuff (below 2.5 micro meters down to sizes like 0,001 micro meters). Again, I have written on this all copiously.
However, modern – so called Clean Combustion Engines – use much higher temperatures and also much higher pressures during the combustion process which produces much more of the really small particles and much less of the bigger stuff. That’s great for engine and vehicles makers because the small particles count for far less than the bigger ones when it comes to compute compliance with emissions limits. That’s a paradox as it’s exactly those small particles that are the most harmful to human health. Let’s trace the way of such a small particles through our body.
Let’s call it Spooky. Spooky is small, real small. It is only 5 Nanometers – how that compares to some other stuff in our bodies will become clear as we go deeper.
Spooky was born in a real hot environment and under very high pressure in the combustion chamber of a modern diesel engine. Right after birth Spooky was subjected to a steeplechase of filters and converters. In the catalytic converter it picked up some Palladium and some Dioxin. At birth, Spooky was just about one Nanometer.
When it left the exhaust shaft of the vehicle it was born in, it cooled down drastically and clumped up with some other co-particles all very similar to it. Now it has grown to its final size of 5 Nanometers and it’s very curious to explore this world. Spooky is very light which makes it easy for it to stay airborne. Gravitational pull on such a small particle is so feeble that it swims in the Atmosphere as we swim in the ocean. Air currents and winds carry Spooky in a faraway valley in the Rockies where it meets Joe, a Wall Street broker who hikes this remote part of the US with his pals.
Joe just takes a break to take in the scenery when he sucks Spooky in together with a couple of billion other particles during the same breath.
It went straight past the Bronchi’s where the bigger brothers hung back as they got stuck in the mucous membranes there. Down to the alveoli’s, many bigger particles remained back in the various membranes but most of the very small ones such as he is got there. Spooky slammed straight into a membrane but as it is so small it passed easily through one of the channels usually here for allowing the exchange of oxygen and CO2. It passed straight into the bloodstream.
Compared to alveoli, Spooky is really tiny. Average alveoli have a diameter of about 100 micrometers. This means that Spooky was about 20.000 times smaller. It’s a bit as if a human zips around in a sphere the size of Boston.
The bloodstream was comfy. Spooky hitchhiked on a red blood cell swimming by. Many of its brethren have attached to a Macrophage (a white Immune cell) and caused inflammation processes to infest the body. Those Macrophages will further on cause acute inflammation to occur in other parts of the body including the heart leading to heart diseases in even otherwise healthy individuals. Your next heart attack might not even be due to burgers or smoking but rather fine diesel particles.
But Spookys red blood cell has a diameter of 8 Micrometers. That’s still 1600 times bigger than Spooky itself. That’s as if a man meets an iceberg the size of Mount St. Helens while swimming. The Macrophage Spookys friends met was about double this size. The red blood cell was fully covered with Spookys friends so that it had a hard time doing its job of bringing oxygen to the cells and hauling CO2 away.
As Spooky is so small, it had no problems slipping through the blood brain barrier which is here to protect the brain. Once there, Spooky enters a Neuron (that’s one of the brains cells). Again, not a hard job for a particle so small, as the channels allowing substances to get in and out of cells are about 40 Nanometers in size. That’s just like walking into the Notre Dame church through its main gate. Not really narrow – wouldn’t you agree?
Inside the cell there is lots of space for Spooky and it is not really alone there. a couple of thousand similar have entered the same cell as Spooky has. They float by a Mitochondria (a cellular power plant) which is about 200 times bigger than them. A bit like the Empire State Building compared to a man. Many particles remain there and start to mutate the free DNA in the Mitochondria. Once mutated, they produce toxins instead of ATP which is the stuff that gives us energy and keeps us alive. The Mitochondria has transformed from being a source of strength and energy for a human person to become a producer of toxins slowly poisoning it.
Spooky goes on and meets lots of other organelles that fare no better than the poor Mitochondrion. As it arrives at the cell’s nucleus, Spooky slips through one of the isotope channels which are still 10 nanometers is size and hence double his own size. Now, Spookys company has reduced to just the very small particles such as itself. Before Spooky was free DNA of the cell and as it is so small, Spooky manages to kick out some base pairs of DNA causing the cell to mutate. Spooky has caused cancer and gave his host a hard time, possibly death.
Our little story is here to illustrate that the ultra-fine particles from so called “Clean Diesel Engines” have no bounds. The human body does not have any mechanism to protect itself or to get rid of them. Only the scalpel of the surgeon will remove Spooky with the tumor it has caused. This story happens every day many billion times. According to the WHO, the net result is close to 300.000 directly attributable deaths in the US alone. This easly tops all deaths from car accidents.
But this is also very avoidable. Let’s get rid of toxin producing diesel and let’s protect ourselves and our loved ones from Spookys cousins. As you read those lines, you carry trillions of Spookys inside you and you will also pass them on to your children. One day, a Spooky will kill you too. And they will tell you – “It’s the burgers”.