Flanders, Belgium, is densely populated, one of Europe’s main logistic gateways and economically prosperous. As a result the outdoor air quality is highly problematic. In 2019 the Governor of the Province of Antwerp, Cathy Berx, made a compelling argument towards province, counties, university, industry and general public to collaborate and tackle this problem. She indicated that apart from human suffering, the costs related to the effects of air pollution were estimated by experts at a stunning 8 billion euro, or 3% of Flanders GDP.
But even though it is now undisputed that air pollution is a major public health issue, associated with burden of disease, and increased mortality and morbidity, a lot of questions remain. For instance, there is no clear safe threshold under which no health effects occur, it is not easy to directly and unambiguously relate health effects to specific polluents and the impact of air pollution is subject to many variables, such as exposure time, composition and weather conditions. In short, relatively little research exists on immediate and acute respiratory effects due to air pollution.
With the support of the Province of Antwerp, the University of Antwerp and the University Hospital (UZA) are setting up a pilot project to monitor the impact of in- and outdoor air pollution exposure on respiratory functioning in healthy individuals and patients with chronic airway disease (asthma and COPD), by combining air pollution monitoring with lung response measurements and exhaled breath analysis.
Therefore, this pilot project aims at mapping the air pollution in the Antwerp region and assessing the impact of air pollution exposure on health and respiratory functioning of healthy persons and persons susceptible for air pollution (COPD and asthma patients). This will be done by combining air pollution monitoring with lung function measurements and the analysis of exhaled breath. Exhaled breath contains a plethora of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which arise from the human metabolism and form the healthy volatilome. Next to this, VOCs are induced by oxidative stress and inflammation and pathophysiological processes. These are not limited to the lungs but can arise throughout the full body where the VOCs are transported by the bloodstream to the lungs where they can be exhaled. Hence, VOCs could be used to monitor all changes in the healthy volatilome induced by air pollution and may provide causal evidence of exposure to air pollution on human health. The novelty, strength and competitiveness of this pilot project lies in the combination of monitoring atmospheric pollutants, respiratory function responses and non-invasive monitoring of exhaled breath VOCs. Hopefully, this will help determine safety thresholds for environmental pollutants.
To be continued!