SEGH Articles

BREATH Study: Air pollution & COPD within Semi-rural Areas

08 May 2019
Carly Woods, a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), tells us about The Border and Regions Airways Training Hub (BREATH)

The Border and Regions Airways Training Hub (BREATH) was initiated with a €7.7m grant from the European Union INTERREG VA Programme.  This consortium was formed as a collaboration between three research centres; the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).  Together, the members of the partnership are dedicated to the investigation of COPD pathogenesis, improvement of public awareness and ultimately alleviation of disease burden.

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) is an umbrella term used to encompass two distinct, often concurring pulmonary disorders; emphysema and chronic bronchitis.  Emphysema develops as a result of deterioration of the alveolar walls within the lung parenchyma, thereby reducing surface area and disrupting gas exchange at the air-blood interface. Chronic bronchitis occurs when inflammation and mucus hypersecretion contribute to bronchi airway narrowing; together, these disorders manifest via symptoms such as breathlessness, wheezing, and productive cough.  Although distinct, these conditions are often categorised together as they share a common primary cause: exposure to noxious particles such as those which comprise cigarette smoke and ambient air pollution. 

Within parts of Scotland and Ireland, the prevalence of COPD is particularly high (e.g. in South West Scotland where death due to COPD is up to 1.68 fold higher than the national average); current estimations suggest that ~20% of cases of this non-communicable disease are not smoking related.  Furthermore, within the UK, elevated ambient pollution levels have been observed to correspond with rates of morbidity and mortality of COPD sufferers. For these reasons, the relationship between the incidence of COPD and fluctuation in air quality is of particular interest, with numerous epidemiological studies already confirming an association in countries such as Taiwan, China and the US. 

Carly Woods setting up an air quality monitor

Carly Woods setting up an air quality monitor

A key BREATH project is focused on the association between airborne xenobiotics and COPD, primarily within semi-rural areas (Ayrshire and Dumfries & Galloway); specifically particulate matter (PM10 & PM2.5) and gaseous pollutants (NO2 & O3). The identified regions have not been declared as Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) but have insufficient monitoring to allow an accurate understanding of air quality dynamics to underpin this investigation.  A network of low-cost air quality monitors will be deployed within these regions to assess air quality based on a number of parameters with samples of PM characterised on the basis of main chemical indicators. UWS PhD student Carly Woods (pictured) is undertaking targeted field observations to follow up on this aspect.  In particular metal ratios in PM will be used to understand PM source apportionment. Based on field observations, PM and gaseous pollutants will be applied to in vitro models. Subsequent analysis of exposure effects of concomitant and singular xenobiotics will allow determination of the propensity of regional tropospheric particles and gases to induce or exacerbate COPD, and also help to identify the most deleterious components.

Initial stage data from this project will be presented at the 35th Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health International Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University in July 2019. Contact Dr Iain McLellan ( for further details.

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Latest on-line papers from the SEGH journal: Environmental Geochemistry and Health

  • Arsenic exposure and perception of health risk due to groundwater contamination in Majuli (river island), Assam, India 2019-07-19


    Island populations are rarely studied for risk of arsenic (As) poisoning. As poisoning, multimetal contamination and people’s perceptions of health risks were assessed on India’s Majuli Island, the largest inhabited river island in the world. This holistic approach illustrated the association of groundwater contamination status with consequent health risk by measuring levels of inorganic arsenic (iAs) in groundwater, borehole sediment and biological samples (hair, nails and urine). Piper and Gibbs’s plots discerned the underlying hydrogeochemical processes in the aquifer. Demographic data and qualitative factors were evaluated to assess the risks and uncertainties of exposure. The results exhibited significant enrichment of groundwater with As, Mn and Fe along with significant body burden. Maximum Hazard Index values indicated severe non-carcinogenic health impacts as well as a significantly elevated risk of cancer for both adults and children. Most (99%) of the locally affected population did not know about the adverse health impacts of metal contamination, and only 15% understood bodily ailments and health issues. Various aspects of the island environment were used to elucidate the status of contamination and future risk of disease. A projection showed adverse health outcomes rising significantly, especially among the young population of Majuli, due to overexposure to not only As but also Ba, Mn and Fe.

  • The contents of the potentially harmful elements in the arable soils of southern Poland, with the assessment of ecological and health risks: a case study 2019-07-19


    Agricultural soil samples were collected from the areas where edible plants had been cultivated in southern Poland. The PHE content decreased in proportion to the median value specified in brackets (mg/kg d.m.) as follows: Zn (192) > Pb (47.1) > Cr (19.6) > Cu (18.8) > Ni (9.91) > As (5.73) > Co (4.63) > Sb (0.85) > Tl (0.04) > Cd (0.03) > Hg (0.001) > Se (< LOQ). No PHE concentrations exceeded the permissible levels defined in the Polish law. The PHE solubility (extracted with CaCl2) in the total concentration ranged in the following order: Fe (3.3%) > Cd (2.50%) > Ni (0.75%) > Zn (0.48%) > Cu (0.19%) > Pb (0.10%) > Cr (0.03%). The soil contamination indices revealed moderate contamination with Zn, ranging from uncontaminated to moderately contaminated with Pb, and, practically, no contamination with other PHEs was identified. The ecological risk indices revealed that soils ranged from uncontaminated to slightly contaminated with Zn, Pb, As, Cu, and Ni. The PCA indicated natural sources of origin of Co, Cu, Hg, Sb, Zn, Cr, and Pb, as well as anthropogenic sources of origin of Cd, Ni, As, and Tl. The human health risk assessment (HHRA) for adults and children decreased in the following order of exposure pathways: ingestion > dermal contact > inhalation of soil particles. The total carcinogenic risk values for both adults and children were at the acceptable level under residential (1.62E−05 and 6.39E−05) and recreational scenario (5.41E−06 and 2.46E−05), respectively, as well as for adults in agricultural scenario (1.45E−05). The total non-carcinogenic risk values for both adults and children under residential scenario (1.63E−01 and 4.55E−01, respectively), under recreational scenario (2.88E−01 and 6.69E−01, respectively) and for adults (1.03E−01) under agricultural scenario indicated that adverse health effects were not likely to be observed. Investigated soils were fully suitable for edible plant cultivation.

  • Using human hair and nails as biomarkers to assess exposure of potentially harmful elements to populations living near mine waste dumps 2019-07-17


    Potentially harmful elements (PHEs) manganese (Mn), cobalt (Co), copper (Cu), lead (Pb), nickel (Ni) and zinc (Zn) were measured in human hair/nails, staple crops and drinking water to ascertain the level of exposure to dust transference via wind and rain erosion for members of the Mugala community living near a mine waste dump in the Zambian Copperbelt. The mean PHE concentrations of hair in decreasing order were Zn (137 ± 21 mg/kg), Cu (38 ± 7 mg/kg), Mn (16 ± 2 mg/kg), Pb (4.3 ± 1.9 mg/kg), Ni (1.3 ± 0.2 mg/kg) and Cr (1.2 ± 0.2 mg/kg), Co (0.9 ± 0.2 mg/kg) and Cd (0.30 ± 0.02 mg/kg). Whilst for toenails the decreasing order of mean concentrations was Zn (172 ± 27 mg/kg), Cu (30 ± 5 mg/kg), Mn (12 ± 2 mg/kg), Pb (4.8 ± 0.5 mg/kg), Ni (1.7 ± 0.14 mg/kg) and Co (1.0 ± 0.02 mg/kg), Cr (0.6 ± 0.1 mg/kg) and Cd (0.1 ± 0.002 mg/kg). The concentration of these potentially harmful elements (PHEs) varied greatly among different age groups. The results showed that Mn, Co, Pb, Cd and Zn were above the interval values (Biolab in Nutritional and environmental medicine, Hair Mineral Analysis, London, 2012) at 0.2–2.0 mg/kg for Mn, 0.01–0.20 mg/kg for Co, < 2.00 mg/kg for Pb, < 0.10 mg/kg for Cd and 0.2–2.00 mg/kg for Zn, whilst Ni, Cu and Cr concentrations were within the normal range concentrations of < 1.40 mg/kg, 10–100 mg/kg and 0.1–1.5 mg/kg, respectively. Dietary intake of PHEs was assessed from the ingestion of vegetables grown in Mugala village, with estimated PHE intakes expressed on a daily basis calculated for Mn (255), Pb (48), Ni (149) and Cd (33) µg/kg bw/day. For these metals, DI via vegetables was above the proposed limits of the provisional tolerable daily intakes (PTDIs) (WHO in Evaluation of certain food additive and contaminants, Seventy-third report of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, 2011) for Mn at 70 µg/kg bw/day, Pb at 3 µg/kg bw/day, Ni and Cd 5 µg/kg bw/day and 1 µg/kg bw/day, respectively. The rest of the PHEs listed were within the PTDIs limits. Therefore, Mugala inhabitants are at imminent health risk due to lead, nickel and cadmium ingestion of vegetables and drinking water at this location.