Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Symposium on ‘Micronutrient interactions and public health’

Dietary antioxidants and environmental stress

Frank J. Kellya1 c1

a1 Lung Biology, School of Health & Life Sciences, King's College, London, 150 Stamford Street, London, SE1 9NN, UK


Air is one of our most important natural resources; however, it is also in the front line for receiving environmental pollution. Air quality decreased markedly following the industrial revolution, but it was not until the great London Smog in 1952 that air quality made it onto the political agenda. The introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956 led to dramatic decreases in black smoke and SO2 concentrations over the next two decades, as domestic and industrial coal-burning activities ceased. However, as these improvements progressed, a new threat to public health was being released into the air in ever-increasing quantities. Rapid motorisation of society from the 1960s onwards has led to the increased release of atmospheric pollutants such as tiny particles (particulate matter of &10 μm in aerodynamic diameter) and oxides of N, and the generation of the secondary pollutant O3. These primary and secondary traffic-related pollutants have all proved to be major risks factors to public health. Recently, oxidative stress has been identified as a unifying feature underlying the toxic actions of these pollutants. Fortunately, the surface of the lung is covered with a thin layer of fluid containing a range of antioxidants that appear to provide the first line of defence against oxidant pollutants. As diet is the only source of antioxidant micronutrients, a plausible link now exists between the sensitivity to air pollution and the quality of the food eaten. However, many questions remain unanswered in relation to inter-individual sensitivity to ambient air pollution, and extent to which this sensitivity is modified by airway antioxidant defences.


c1 Corresponding author: Professor Frank J. Kelly, fax +44 20 7848 3891, email