Posted on May 20, 2019, 12 a.m.
A global comprehensive analysis has found air pollution to cause harm from head to toes, including dementia, heart and lung diseases, fertility problems, and reduced intelligence; air pollution may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell within the human body according to this new international review: Air Pollution and Noncommunicable Diseases published in CHEST JOURNAL in two parts.
Between all of the scientists they represent every continent, and this study has found there to be body wide harm ranging from heart and lung disease, diabetes, dementia, liver problems, bladder cancer, brittle bones, damaged skin, fertility issues, and foetuses are also affected by the toxic air. Consequences of exposure to dirty toxic air pollution leads to systemic damage as the result of pollutants causing inflammation that floods throughout the body and ultrafine particles being carried around by the blood stream.
Air pollution is a public health emergency with more than 90% of the global population enduring toxic outdoor air, according to W.H.O air pollution is the silent killer as its widespread effects are not often ascribed to toxic air; new analysis indicates 8.8 million early deaths each year making air pollution a bigger threat than smoking. Impact of the various pollutants on many ailments remains to be established suggesting heart and lung damage is only “the tip of the iceberg.”
“Air pollution can harm acutely, as well as chronically, potentially affecting every organ in the body. Ultrafine particles pass through the lungs, are readily picked up by cells, and carried via the bloodstream to expose virtually all cells in the body.” says scientists from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if almost every organ was affected. If something is missing from the review it is probably because there was no research yet.” says Prof Dean Schraufnagel of the University of Illinois.
“The review represents very strong science. It adds to the very heavy evidence we have already. There are more than 70,000 scientific papers to demonstrate that air pollution is affecting our health.” says Dr. Maria Neira of W.H.O. Adding that she expects even more impacts to be shown in future research: “Issues like Parkinson’s or autism, for which there is some evidence but maybe not the very strong linkages, that evidence is coming now.”
Dirty air results in breathing problems from asthma to emphysema and lung cancer. There is overwhelming evidence of air pollution resulting in harm to the lungs and heart where it increases the risk of heart attacks as arteries narrow and muscles weaken.
“Small particles can penetrate the lungs to be carried around the body and land in the organs directly. Animal studies have shown they can even travel right up the olfactory nerve into the brain.” An emerging area of research also suggests air pollution can affect how genes function,” says Schraufnagel.
Dementia, strokes, reduced intelligence, and poor sleep are all conditions affecting the brain that have been linked to the consequences of breathing in toxic air pollution, the far reaching damage is due to systemic inflammation.
“Immune cells think a pollution particle is a bacteria, go after it and try to kill it by releasing enzymes and acids. Those inflammatory proteins spread into the body, affecting the brain, the kidneys, the pancreas and so forth. In evolutionary terms, the body has evolved to defend itself against infections, not pollution.” says Schraufnagel.
The study links air pollution to damaging many organs and numerous cancers including in the liver, bladder and gut where an increase of IBS was found; skin and bones are also affected, with skin aging, hives, and brittle bones being associated with toxic air pollution.
One of the most troubling findings of the impact of toxic air was the damage done to foetuses, children, and reproduction; fertility is reduced and miscarriages increase with exposure to air pollution. Pollutants have been found in placentas that nourish the foetuses, and air pollution is strongly linked to low birth weights which has lifelong consequences. Children are especially vulnerable, exposure leads to stunted lungs, increased obesity, leukemia, and mental health problems.
Many doctors are not aware of the wide ranging damages that are associated with air pollution. “Some have no idea air pollution affects the organs they specialise in. But it affects their organs too and they had better pay attention. They need to educate their patients and then they should speak up in favour of action.” says Schraufnagel.
Many studies show significant associations between the consequences of breathing poor air quality and disease but they cannot absolutely prove cause and effect due to researchers not being able to experiment on humans. However, compelling evidences can be provided from three types of study: 1)where air pollution and illness change in tandem over time; 2)where the dose of pollution correlates with levels of disease; and 3)from animal studies.
Government action to lower air pollution before the 2008 Beijing Olympics led to a rise in birth weights within the city.
“Harmful effects occur even at levels below air quality standards previously considered to be safe. The good news is that the problem of air pollution can be addressed. The best way to reduce exposure is to control it at its source. Most air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, heat homes and power transport,” explain the scientists who together represent every continent.
“We need to work on these factors in a very dramatic way. We are probably the first generation in history to be exposed to such a high level of pollution. People will say that in London or other places it was worse 100 years ago, but now we are talking about an incredible number of people exposed for a long time,” adds Neira. “We have megacities where all the citizens are breathing toxic air. However, with all the tonnes of evidence we are collecting now, politicians will not be able to say we didn’t know.”
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