WVU’s Inhalation Facility Studies Risks in Particles We Breathe

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Each time you take a breath you could have ingested particles that were either helpful or harmful to your body.

West Virginia University’s Inhalation Facility is studying the effects those particles have on us in a new, upgraded location with the help of a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re exposed to a variety of different toxicants on a day to day basis,” said Tim Nurkiewicz, Professor of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience at the WVU School of Medicine. “If we can identify what’s in the air that makes us sick or makes us not feel good then we can either prevent the generation of that emission or we can identify ways in which to protect people from breathing those emissions in the first place.”

In collaboration with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or NIOSH, the Inhalation Facility tests a variety of samples including air pollution and products we encounter daily like e-cigarettes and paints, cosmetics and more, but the research is not just about what’s unsafe.

“We are testing them to identify what the characteristics of the materials are that are safe for use in human endeavors,” Nurkiewicz explained.

So how are the particles tested? A dust sample is taken and put into the particle generator, where it’s broken down into smaller particles that better mimic what we breathe in every day. That sample is then delivered into any one of the facility’s six chambers that mimics the environments we exist in daily so researchers can study the effects on our bodies.

“We may not be able to sense it on a given day, but it’s the cumulative effect,” Nurkiewicz said, speaking about the small amount of toxic particles it can take to harm our bodies.  “A cumulative number of five, six, seven days of low exposure doses that can result in a biological outcome like high blood pressure or chest pain.”

WVU’s Inhalation Facility’s expansion came about as the need for exposures increased. Nurkiewicz and his team had already spent time studying the health effects on humans.

“During the course of our research we were successful in identifying health effects in males but also in female populations and also during pregnancy,” he explained. “We started to identify what the gestational consequences were both on the gestational side and the fetal side.”

The inhalation facility will soon study emissions as well, and Nurkiewicz said he hopes the research continues to grow as our population expands. 

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