Scientists have identified a new form of air pollutant which replicates the damage to humans caused by cigarette smoke.
Research presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society finds newly-detected 'persistent free radical' molecules explain why those who do not smoke often succumb to the same diseases as tobacco smokers.
Most of the free radical molecules exist only briefly before disappearing. Breathing in the exhaust from a passing car might result in their inhalation.
H. Barry Dellinger of Louisiana State University is concerned by the impact of the persistent version, which form when gases cool to residues on car exhausts, household chimneys or in smokestacks.
"We found that persistent radicals can last indefinitely on airborne fine particles. So you're never going to get away from them," he explained.
Unfortunately the particles have a lasting damaging effect once inhaled. They damage DNA and cells more widely and, it is suggested, contribute to the cases of lung cancer in non-smokers.
Those who smoke remain more likely to suffer from their effects, however, as they will breathe in as many damaging molecules from the smoke as they do the air itself.
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