Scientists discover how ozone gas can kill

After years of uncertainty, scientists have now locked down exactly how ozone gas affects our lungs when we breath it in.

Ozone is a colourless, odourless gas. When it's up in the stratosphere, roughly between 10 and 17 kilometres above our heads, it's a boon, protecting us and all other life on the planet's surface from damaging ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. However, when it's down near the surface it's a bane, as it's one of the key components of smog and can cause severe breathing problems that can send people to the hospital and in some cases even kill.

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For a long time, the effects of breathing in ozone have been known, but scientists didn't know exactly what ozone did to our lungs to cause those effects.

Now, a team of scientists has figured this out, by creating an artificial fluid similar to the layer of fluid that coats the inside of our lungs — the lung surfactant that provides a low surface tension to allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to easily pass between the air and the lung tissues. This fluid contains a chemical compound called POPC (the chemical name is 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine), which has a U-shaped structure. When the fluid the researchers used was exposed to ozone concentrations of 100 parts-per-billion — which would be "Poor Air Quality" according to most standards — it caused one of the sides of the U to break off. This first caused an initial lowering of the surface tension, but then very quickly afterwards the surface tension increased, making it difficult for gases to pass through the fluid.

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"We are not completely sure what causes the second stage of tension increase," said Dr. Katherine Thompson, from the Department of Biological Sciences at Beckbirk College in London, UK, according to a press release. "What we can say is that the slow increase in surface tension that occurs as a result of the ozone exposure would certainly damage the ability of our lungs to process oxygen and carbon dioxide, and could account for the respiratory problems associated with ozone poisoning."

(Photo courtesy: Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

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