COLUMBIA, Mo. — Farmers use ammonium nitrate as a crop fertilizer and plants produce it to use as an energy source in the absence of light. The problem, according to a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher, is that nitrate could be responsible for starting a chain of events in the body that leads to the formation of cancer causing agents.
When nitrate is ingested into the body, either through eating or drinking contaminated water, it is transferred into the blood stream through normal digestive processes. Once in the blood stream, some of the nitrate is transported to the saliva glands where bacteria in the saliva transform the nitrate into nitrite. The nitrite is swallowed back into the stomach again where it combines with certain amino acids that are not combined with any particular protein. It is at this point that nitrolic acid is formed. This newly discovered compound has properties that could lead to the formation of cancer in various areas of the body.
Richard Loeppky, a professor of chemistry at MU, and his research team recently uncovered nitrolic acid. The compound forms when too much nitrate or nitrite is ingested into the body either through plants or cured meats.
“The stomach is an ideal reactor for the kinds of chemistry that we are talking about,” Loeppky said. “In addition, other researchers have suspected that amino acids played a role in forming these cancerous compounds, but until we made this discovery, no one had much of an idea how this happened.”
Loeppky said that nitrate also might form with other compounds in the stomach to form cancer-causing agents, many of which must be metabolized before they are able to cause any damage. Because of this, Loeppky is recommending that producers and consumers limit their use of nitrates as much as possible.
“While we don’t know much about this newly discovered compound, the evidence suggests that it can alter or damage DNA,” Loeppky said. “What is completely unknown is the pathway on how this is accomplished.”
The discovery was recently published in Chemical and Engineering News and presented at the American Chemical Society Meeting this past fall.
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