Our lungs do need protection. The cells that allow oxygen to pass into our blood--and carbon dioxide to leave it—have to be very thin and delicate. If they were thicker, it would really slow down the movement of the oxygen. This makes our lung cells vulnerable to damage from particles (tiny things), germs, and chemical vapors.
One line of defense is our nose. When air enters our nose, it is thrown around by a sort of obstacle course. The inside of the nose is broken up into chambers by the turbinate bones. They make the air swirl around. There are also big chambers inside our skull that the air can flow into between when it enters the nose and when it enters the lungs. These are called sinuses.
The respiratory system, including the chambers inside the nose and sinuses, is lined with membranes that produce sticky mucus. When the air hits the mucous membrane, particles stick to the mucus. Then the dirty mucus can either leave out the nostrils or be swallowed. This is helpful with particles like what’s in smoke, or with germs, but isn’t useful for protection from chemical vapors.
When the air is passing through the nose and sinuses, it also gets warmed up and moisturized, so it doesn’t dry out the delicate lung cells.
Tiny little finger-like cilia are on the cells lining the respiratory system. They are constantly beating to move the mucus up out of the lungs towards the mouth. When it gets to the place in your throat where the air tube (trachea) and the food tube (esophagus) meet, the mucus can be swallowed. It can also be coughed up. Cilia in the nose and sinuses beat in the other direction to send mucus out the nostrils or down the throat. Again, this helps with particles and germs, but doesn’t give much protection from chemical vapors.
Unfortunately, the chemicals in cigarette smoke paralyze and kill the little cilia cells, destroying one of the lungs’ protection systems. The cilia can grow back after a person quits smoking, so sometimes ex-smokers start to cough a lot a couple of weeks after they quit. It’s actually a sign that their lungs are recovering.
Chemicals can be very dangerous to our lungs. Here’s one example. In 2000, 8 people who had worked in a microwave popcorn plant developed major lung diseases. The damage to their lungs could not be fixed. Half had to sign up for lung transplants. The cause turned out to be the artificial butter flavor that went on the popcorn. It contained a chemical called diacetyl (pronounced like: dy-uh-SEET-uhl). Later, workers in other places, like coffee roasting businesses, had similar lung damage. There are now more protections in place for workers and diacetyl was removed from the artificial butter. Unfortunately, “popcorn lung” is now being seen in people who use e-cigarette or vaping products. Many of these products contain diacetyl.
What are some threats to your lungs in everyday life?
Thanks for asking,