On the basement of the Biomedical Research Institute in Diepenbeek, Hannelore Bové (28) peeps through a Zeiss microscope to a few drops of urine from a boy from Brussels. She projects the results on her screen. At first glance, a monotonous black rectangular plane appears. But Bové points us to a small white dot, like a lone star in a dark sky. “Here, that’s one.”
The dot is a glowing soot particle that floats in the urine. Slightly lower we see another dot.
One small point in such a large black area. But Bové puts things immediately in perspective. The surface corresponds to 10 to the minus 15 liters, or 0.0000000000000 liters. ‘The concentration of soot particles is 178 percent higher for the Brussels boy than for those who grew up in Limburg’, she says.
For her PhD she wanted to investigate the effect of soot particles on the lungs, but to her surprise there was no reliable way to measure the internal exposure to soot. ‘Under a microscope you could recognize black particles, but they could be so much more than soot. And the smallest soot particles were invisible anyway. ‘
Hannelore points to a large and elongated white appliance on the table. It is connected to her microscope via vacuum-cleaner tubes. ‘It is a special laser that sends fast and short light flashes through our microscope,’ she says. ‘We discovered that these laser beams light up the soot particles as light bulbs. That was a huge breakthrough. For the first time we could actually observe and count those particles, for example in the blood and urine. ‘
Until then, there was great uncertainty about the effect of soot particles. That they caused damage in the lungs was well known. But there was discussion about what happened in the rest of the body. Some scientists held indirect effects from the inflammation in the lungs, others suspected that the soot particles spread throughout the body.
Bové’s research of three hundred Limburg children proved beyond doubt that the latter were right: particles were detected in the blood and urine. “And when it gets into the urine, it means that the particles have traversed the entire body, and can therefore end up anywhere.”
Soot particles consist of a core of carbon to which easily pollutants such as benzene and metal attach. Medically, there are increasing indications that such small toxic particles play a major role in cardiovascular diseases, and in brain disorders including dementia.
Particulate matter, of which soot particles are an important component, is regarded as one of the top ten risk factors for premature death, accounting for 4.2 million deaths per year worldwide. The soot particles are caused by incomplete combustion in diesel engines or in wood stoves, among other things.
‘We have now developed a technique to detect the soot particles in the body, but we are not very far in the investigation into the actual harmful effects’, says Bové. ‘It has not yet been proven whether they can also be carcinogenic. Only when there is official scientific evidence, the political world will take further steps in the fight against air pollution. Only then will it become clear whether the European standards for particulate matter are not too lax. Or will the government realize that you have to build new schools far enough from busy roads. ‘
Bové and her colleagues focus on the placenta of pregnant women in their further research. They want to see to what extent embryos are already contaminated, depending on the place of residence, lifestyle and travel behavior of the mother. “We are now following almost 2,000 children from birth in a research project by Professor Tim Nawrot.” At the same time, the team is overwhelmed with requests from colleagues from, among others, Brazil, the United States and France who want to apply her technique.
‘With our current device, it takes twenty minutes to examine a sample. We want to build a new laser microscope that automates the entire process to allow us to do a hundred in one day. “Bové’s ambition is to develop Limburg into a knowledge center for soot particles in the body. ‘The nomination by Forbes strengthens me in that ambition.’
In time, there may also be a concrete application for companies. ‘I am thinking of prevention research among bus drivers or fire fighters. That’s why I find it so interesting to be in that Forbes list. There is also a category for young entrepreneurs, which can generate interesting contacts.
We measure soot (Black Carbon – BC) when we analyse and measure indoor air quality in offices and buildings, contact us for more info