How Eating Broccoli Can Protect You from Air Pollution Dangers -- Study Reveals Surprising Results

Scientists develop drink for those who just don't want to eat the real vegetable.

Photo Credit: mama_mia/Shutterstock

Daily consumption of broccoli can go a long way in protecting people from the harmful effects of air pollution, a study from Johns Hopkins University has found.

A clinical trial, conducted in Jiangsu Province — one of China’s most polluted regions — found that consuming a beverage that included broccoli sprouts helped participants to excrete toxins associated with particle and ozone air pollution. A compound in broccoli, sulforaphane, has been shown in previous studies to have anti-carcinogenic properties.

The study, which involved nearly 300 men and women, found that daily consumption of a 1/2 cup of beverage containing sterilized water, pineapple, lime juice and broccoli sprout powder, produced significantly higher excretion levels of benzene, a carcinogen, and acrolein, a lung irritant. A control group drank the same beverage without the broccoli powder.

The study, published in the online edition of the journal Cancer Prevention Research, was conducted by the University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Air pollution is a complex and pervasive public health problem,” said John Groopman, Professor of Environmental Health at the school and one of the study’s co-authors. “To address this problem comprehensively, in addition to the engineering solutions to reduce regional pollution emissions, we need to translate our basic science into strategies to protect individuals from these exposures. This study supports the development of food-based strategies as part of this overall prevention effort.”

The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution causes as many as seven million deaths a year worldwide. In many parts of China, air pollution levels have reached perilous levels.

All participants had their urine and blood tested. Researchers found that those who drank the beverage containing broccoli, excreted benzene and acrolein at much higher rates than those that drank the beverage without broccoli. The rate of excretion of benzene increased 61% and the rate of excretion of the acrolein increased by 23% among participants who consumed broccoli.The trial lasted 12 weeks.

Diets rich in cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, are known to reduce risk of chronic degenerative diseases, including cancer.

“This study points to a frugal, simple and safe means that can be taken by individuals to possibly reduce some of the long-term health risks associated with air pollution,” said Thomas Kensler, a professor at the school.

Air pollution is a significant risk factor for a number of health conditions including respiratory infections, heart disease, COPD, stroke and lung cancer. The health effects caused by air pollution may include difficulty in breathing, wheezing, coughing, asthma  and worsening of existing respiratory and cardiac conditions. The most common sources of air pollution include particulates, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.

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Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.