Egyptian mummies hold clues of ancient air pollution

June 06, 2011 03:49 pm | Updated December 17, 2016 03:24 am IST - Washington

Picture of an Egyptian Mummy.

Picture of an Egyptian Mummy.

Scientists have found evidence of particulates in the lungs of ancient mummies, suggesting that Egyptians may have been exposed to air pollution hundreds of years ago.

Particulates, tiny microscopic particles that irritate the lungs, have been linked to a wide array of modern-day illnesses, including heart disease, lung ailments and cancer.

A team led by Roger Montgomerie of the University of Manchester, which has so far examined 15 mummified lungs, found particulates in all of them and the particulate levels are not much below what is expected in modern-day lungs.

“I would say it would be less than modern day, but not much less,” Montgomerie was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

“This is quite bizarre if you think about it, considering we have the mass burning of fossil fuels and an awful lot of pollution that has been going on since the industrial revolution.”

In the world of Egyptology, where well-preserved lung tissue is rare, and permission to examine it is rarer, 15 is a significant sample, he said.

These mummies come from a broad cross section of Egyptian life. Some were ordinary workers who lived in a remote outpost called the Dakhleh Oasis, while others were of the upper class - nobles and priests or priestesses.

“Everyone seems to have a degree of it,” Montgomerie said of the particulates, “it doesn’t seem to be confined to one social group.”

The finding, presented at the Current Research in Egyptology conference at Durham University in the UK, suggests the ancient Egyptians may have suffered from a wide range of negative health effects.

“It would definitely increase your chances of getting a lung infection and also probably increase your chances of something like pneumonia as well,” Montgomerie said.

Lung disease has been detected before in Egyptian mummies. One notable case was documented in the 1970s by Eddie Tapp, also from the University of Manchester.

Tapp examined the lungs of a 3,800-year old-mummy named Nekht-ankh. Although this person lived to be nearly 60, his lungs were in bad shape and he may have had trouble breathing, Tapp had found.

The question now facing researchers is, why were particulates so prevalent in Egyptian society?

While ancient Egypt was a preindustrial society, its people did engage in cooking, metal working and mining, all activities that can generate air pollution.

In addition, the Egyptian climate, with its deserts and sandstorms, would have whipped up any grounded particulates into the air where they could easily be inhaled, the researchers believe.

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