Air Pollution Is Becoming More Dangerous

air pollution from vehicle

Story at-a-glance -

  • Nine million premature deaths were caused by pollution in 2015, which is 16 percent of deaths worldwide
  • The majority of deaths — 6.5 million — were caused by airborne contaminants
  • Both indoor air pollution, particularly from household cooking and burning wood for heat, and outdoor pollution, including from coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions, were problematic
  • Certain nutrients, including omega-3 fats and B vitamins, may buffer some of the health effects of air pollution

By Dr. Mercola

Pollution has been named the "largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today" by a collaboration of more than 40 researchers looking at data from 130 countries. The study, published in The Lancet, revealed that 9 million premature deaths were caused by pollution in 2015, which is 16 percent of deaths worldwide — "three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence," the researchers wrote.1

Virtually all of the deaths (92 percent) occurred in low- and middle-income countries where, in the most polluted regions, pollution-related disease caused more than 1 in 4 deaths.

That being said, pollution isn't stagnant; it moves from one country to the next, to the extent that a sizable amount of air pollution in the western U.S. comes from China, for example. Still, as Popular Science noted, "In a classic case of what-goes-around-comes around, some 20 percent of China's air pollution stems from the manufacturing of products for the United States."2

Air Pollution Is the Leading Pollution Killer

While water, soil and chemical pollution accounted for some of the pollution-related deaths, the majority — 6.5 million — were caused by airborne contaminants. Both indoor air pollution, particularly from household cooking and burning wood for heat, and outdoor pollution, including from coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions, were problematic.

Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) refers to dust, dirt, soot and smoke — particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. It's the most studied type of air pollution. These particulates can enter your system and cause chronic inflammation, which in turn increases your risk of a number of health problems, from cancer to heart and lung disease.

In the case of heart disease, fine particulate air pollution may increase your risk by inducing atherosclerosis, increasing oxidative stress and increasing insulin resistance, the researchers noted, adding:3

"The strongest causal associations are seen between PM 2.5 pollution and cardiovascular and pulmonary disease. Specific causal associations have been established between PM 2.5 pollution and myocardial infarction, hypertension, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias and cardiovascular mortality.

Causal associations have also been established between PM 2.5 pollution and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has reported that airborne particulate matter and ambient air pollution are proven group 1 human carcinogens."

The health effects of air pollution don't stop there, however, as the study cited emerging evidence showing that PM 2.5 may play a role in a number of diseases you probably wouldn't automatically associate with air pollution, including:4

Diabetes

Decreased cognitive function

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Autism

Neurodegenerative disease including dementia

Premature birth

Low birthweight

Sudden infant death syndrome

Research presented at the American Thoracic Society (ATS) 2017 International Conference even suggested poor air quality may disrupt your sleep.5 The study looked closely at the effects of two widespread pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is traffic-related air pollution and PM 2.5, which is responsible for reduced visibility. Both of the pollutants had an influence on study participants' sleep efficiency, which is a measure of the time spent actually sleeping as opposed to lying in bed awake.

The people in the top quarter of NO2 exposure were 60 percent more likely to have low sleep efficiency over a five-year period compared to those in the lowest quarter. Among those exposed to the highest levels of fine-particle pollution, there was a 50 percent increased likelihood of low sleep efficiency.

Considering the health repercussions of lack of sleep, this is yet another way that air pollution can devastate your health. Further, pollution is only worsening in many parts of the world, the researchers noted, and without aggressive intervention deaths due to ambient air pollution could increase by more than 50 percent by 2050, they said.

Coal Combustion Remains a Major Polluter

The majority of global airborne particulate pollution — 85 percent — comes from fuel combustion, with coal being the "world's most polluting fossil fuel."6 Even in the U.S., an estimated 200,000 premature deaths are caused by combustion emissions, including that from vehicles and power generation.7

In a study of electric power generation in the U.S., which is coal-intensive, a study published in the journal Energy revealed that switching to natural gas for electricity generation could lead to significant benefits.8 Study author Jay Apt, a professor at Tepper School of Business, Engineering and Public Policy and co-director of Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in The Conversation:9

"Switching from coal to natural gas would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 90 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 60 percent. These compounds are major causes of fine particulate pollution. Reductions on this level would lower the total cost of national annual human health damages by US$20 billion to $50 billion annually. We found that the Southeast and the Ohio Valley, where most of the coal is burned, would capture the lion's share of these benefits."

The Lancet authors, while citing a benefit in shifting the energy sector from coal-fired plants to gas-fired plants, took it a step further, noting that an even better solution would be shifting to low-polluting renewable energy sources such as wind, tidal, geothermal and solar options. "These interventions not only reduce pollution and improve the cardiorespiratory health of entire populations, but they will also sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the efficiency of electricity generation," they wrote.10

Industrialized Farming Is Another Major Source of Air Pollution

Another major cause of air pollution in much of the U.S., China, Russia and Europe is linked to farming and fertilizer — specifically to the nitrogen component of fertilizer used to supposedly enrich the soil and grow bigger crops.11 

Research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters even demonstrated that in certain densely populated areas, emissions from farming far outweigh other sources of particulate matter air pollution.12 As nitrogen fertilizers break down into their component parts, ammonia is released into the air.

Ammonia is one of the byproducts of fertilizer and animal waste. When the ammonia in the atmosphere reaches industrial areas, it combines with pollution from diesel and petroleum combustion, creating microparticles. Concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) workers and neighboring residents alike report higher incidence of asthma, headaches, eye irritation and nausea.

Research published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also revealed that markers of lung function were related to how far they lived from CAFOs.13 The closer they lived to the factory farms, and the greater the density of livestock, the more impairments in lung function were revealed. Lung function of neighboring residents declined in concert with increased levels of CAFO-caused ammonia air pollution, the study revealed.14

What You Eat Can Help Buffer the Effects of Air Pollution

According to a 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) report, only 8 percent of people worldwide are breathing air that meets WHO standards, which means 92 percent of the world population is breathing polluted air.15 While you might not have control over the pollution levels outside your home, you do have control over what you eat.

The latter is good news, because certain dietary measures can have a protective effect. Overall, you should strive to eat a diet of whole foods, rich in anti-inflammatory vegetables and healthy fats. Among the most important dietary interventions to try include:16

  • Omega-3 fats: They're anti-inflammatory, and in a study of 29 middle-aged people, taking an animal-based omega-3 fat supplement reduced some of the adverse effects to heart health and lipid levels, including triglycerides, that occurred with exposure to air pollution (olive oil did not have the same effect).17
  • Broccoli sprouts: Broccoli sprout extract was shown to prevent the allergic nasal response that occurs upon exposure to particles in diesel exhaust, such that the researchers suggested broccoli or broccoli sprouts could have a protective effect on air pollution's role in allergic disease and asthma.18 A broccoli sprout beverage even enhanced the detoxification of some airborne pollutants among residents of a highly polluted region of China.19
  • Vitamins C and E: Among children with asthma, antioxidant supplementation including vitamins C and E helped to buffer the impact of ozone exposure on their small airways.20
  • B vitamins: A small-scale human trial found high doses of vitamins B6, B9 and B12 in combination completely offset damage caused by very fine particulate matter in air pollution.21 Four weeks of high-dose supplementation reduced genetic damage in 10 gene locations by 28 to 76 percent, protected mitochondrial DNA from the harmful effects of pollution, and even helped repair some of the genetic damage.

How to Reduce Air Pollution in Your Home

Attention to proper indoor air quality is important, and purifying your home's air is a good start. Commercially purchased air filters may change measurements of health, include lowering the amount of C-reactive protein and other measurements of inflammation and blood vessel function.22 However, not all filters work with the same efficiency to remove pollutants from your home, and no one filter can remove all pollutants, so be sure to do your research on the different types of air filters to meet your specific needs.

Photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) is one of the best technologies available. Rather than filtering the air, PCO actually acts as an air purifier, cleaning the air using ultraviolet (UV) light. Unlike filters, which simply trap pollutants, PCO transforms the pollutants into nontoxic substances. Typically, this occurs when the UV light reacts with a titanium dioxide film and water, creating hydroxyl radicals that essentially oxidize the pollutants, rendering them harmless.

Research has shown that, in the presence of air pollutants from building materials and furniture, PCO improves indoor air quality based on both sensory assessments made by study participants as well as measurements such as Proton-Transfer-Reaction Mass Spectrometry (PTR-MS).23 Beyond PCO, another option is to add house plants, which help to absorb indoor air pollution.

Further, one of the simplest and easiest ways to reduce the pollution count in your home is to open the windows and let some fresh air in (assuming the outdoor air isn't overly polluted). Because most homes have little air leakage, opening the windows for as little as 15 minutes every day can improve the quality of the air you're breathing. You may also want to consider cracking the window at night while you sleep. Installing an attic fan is another way of bringing fresh air into your home and reducing your toxic load from air pollutants.

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