We’ve been hearing about the various risks involved in eating grilled meat for a while; cancer, heart disease, accidental ingestion of wire bristles from grill-cleaning brushes (we kid you not). But now researchers at Oregon State University have discovered a new risk; compounds that are hundreds of times more mutagenic – meaning that they can cause DNA damage in cells that in turn can cause cancer – than their parent compounds which are known carcinogens.

The parent compounds, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are a large group of chemicals that are produced during the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage, or other organic substances like tobacco or grilled meat.

What the researchers discovered is that when PAHs become nitrated by chemically interacting with nitrogen, their mutagenicity increases. When these nitrated PAHs (called NPAHs) interact with one nitrogen group, the mutagenicity can increase six to 432 times more than the parent compound. NPAHs based on two nitrogen groups can be 272 to 467 times more mutagenic.

These compounds were not previously known to exist, and raise additional concerns about the health impacts of heavily-polluted urban air or dietary exposure, notes a statement about the research.

“Some of the compounds that we’ve discovered are far more mutagenic than we previously understood, and may exist in the environment as a result of heavy air pollution from vehicles or some types of food preparation,” said Staci Simonich, a professor of chemistry and toxicology in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.

“We don’t know at this point what levels may be present, and will explore that in continued research,” she said.

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