Human pollution exposure correlates with accelerated ultrastructural degradation of hair fibers

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Sep 10;116(37):18410-18415. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1904082116. Epub 2019 Aug 26.


Exposure to pollution is a known risk factor for human health. While correlative studies between exposure to pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and human health exist, and while in vitro studies help to establish a causative connection, in vivo comparisons of exposed and nonexposed human tissue are scarce. Here, we use human hair as a model matrix to study the correlation of PAH pollution with microstructural changes over time. Two hundred four hair samples from 2 Chinese cities with distinct pollution exposure were collected, and chromatographic-mass spectrometry was used to quantify the PAH-exposure profiles of each individual sample. This allowed us to define a group of less contaminated hair samples as well as a more contaminated group. Using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) together with quantitative image analysis and blind scoring of 82 structural parameters, we find that the speed of naturally occurring hair-cortex degradation and cuticle delamination is increased in fibers with increased PAH concentrations. Treating nondamaged hair fibers with ultraviolet (UV) irradiation leads to a more pronounced cortical damage especially around melanosomes of samples with higher PAH concentrations. Our study shows the detrimental effect of physiological concentrations of PAH together with UV irradiation on the hair microstructure but likely can be applied to other human tissues.

Keywords: air pollution; cortical damage; transmission electron microscopy.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects
  • China
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis
  • Environmental Pollution*
  • Hair / chemistry*
  • Hair / drug effects*
  • Hair / radiation effects
  • Humans
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / adverse effects*
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / analysis
  • Ultraviolet Rays


  • Air Pollutants
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons