Agricultural Area Residents in Danger of Inhaling Toxic, Lung Cancer-Causing Aerosols

According to the findings of a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology excess selenium from fertilizers and other natural sources can aerosols that could lead to diseases such as lung cancer, asthma, and Type 2 diabetes.

The research team conducted studies in the Salton Sea area, which contains selenium rich wetlands as well as soils toxic to avian and aquatic life. Their findings showed that studies of the area’s concentration of aerosols, which are solid or liquid particles suspended in air, have increased in recent years. Because the full chemical makeup of the aerosols remained unknown, the team decided team to create similar aerosol particles in the laboratory and study them.

The team’s new paper details the composition of the selenium-rich aerosols and describes the multiple ways these particles can damage human lungs. Although the Salton Sea-area aerosols are likely to be unhealthy, UCR Associate Professor of Atmospheric Science Roya Bahreini said in a press release that people in nearby San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and Riverside counties are likely safe. “Typically, the air masses from the Salton Sea area don’t reach these cities.”

According to Prof. Bahreini, dangerous aerosols can occur anywhere there’s excessive selenium in the soil, making agricultural workers and those living near contaminated soils more vulnerable to illnesses.

Moreover, along with naturally occurring selenium in the environment, the excess from man-made sources gets digested by soil microbes and processed by plants. Once excreted, the selenium-containing vapors, which include the compound dimethyl selenide, collate other airborne chemicals and eventually become the toxic selenium-containing aerosol, which stays in the air for roughly a week.

According to Ying-Hsuan Lin, an assistant professor of environmental toxicology at UCR, this newest study also shows how dimethyl selenide can form aerosols and affect humans. “If people are exposed to this long enough, or in high enough concentration, they have a greater risk of lung cancer,” Lin said. “There is also evidence that the aerosols can cause allergic inflammation of the lungs, and disturb glucose metabolism, which are linked to asthma and Type 2 diabetes.”


In addition, Lin cautioned it is important to identify other sources of selenium-containing aerosols, noted that this current study only identified one source. Lin said: “We need to control this to improve public health.”