Surprising Sources of Air Pollution

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February 14, 2018 | 24,638 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Air pollution is insidious, doesn’t recognize borders, travels thousands of miles and may become trapped inside your home, triggering a number of chronic, life-long conditions
  • Researchers have identified a far greater amount of pollution emission from synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizer into the air than was previously measured
  • Synthetic fertilizers pollute waterways, increase nitrogen oxide emissions into the air and disrupt and damage soil microbiome, necessary for healthy plant growth and strong crop yields
  • You may reduce your exposure to air pollution by opening your home’s windows for 10 minutes each day, using the recirculation setting on your car while in heavy traffic, and considering nutritional supplementation, including B vitamins and vitamins C and E

By Dr. Mercola

Air pollution is an insidious problem that doesn't recognize borders and travels thousands of miles. In fact, Americans are producing less pollution but experiencing greater amounts of smog on the West Coast, the result of pollutants originating in Asian countries.1 In 1991, the U.S. and Canada entered into an agreement to address transboundary air pollution that led to a reduction in the production of acid rain.2

A collaboration of more than 40 researchers looking at data from 130 countries has called air pollution the "largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today."3 Nine million premature deaths were attributed to air pollution in 2015 — 16 percent of all deaths worldwide and three times more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Fine particulate matter is the most studied type of air pollution and refers to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

Particles this size are small enough to pass through your lung tissue and enter your bloodstream, triggering chronic inflammation and chronic disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 92 percent of the world's population is breathing polluted air.4 Air quality measurements were based on outdoor sources from transportation vehicles, industrial activity, coal powered plants and burning household fuel.

However, while the numbers are considerable, they may be conservative as WHO did not factor ozone or nitrogen oxides, which are also known air pollutants.5 Emissions of nitrogen oxides combine with oxygen and sunlight to break down into ozone. Levels of this air pollutant has tripled since 1990.6 Scientists have identified a surprising source of nitrogen oxides pollution that contributes a greater number of fine particle pollution than previously anticipated.

High Levels of Nitrogen Oxide Not From Car Exhaust

California has the strictest car emission standards in the U.S. but continues to be plagued by nitrogen oxides pollution. Although pollution levels are declining, they are not going down as quickly as expected. The reason? Researchers now find nitrogen oxides are being released into the atmosphere from synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers.7

California's vast agricultural lands may be responsible for as much as 51 percent of nitrogen oxides off-gassing across the state, especially in areas that use synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers.8 Nitrogen oxides is a catchall term used to designate nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, both of which react with oxygen and sunlight to produce ozone in lower atmospheric levels.

This can trigger respiratory conditions in children to the elderly, including asthma and emphysema. Maya Almaraz, Ph.D., researcher at the University of California-Davis who led the new study on California farmland, said, "The potential impact this could have on health, especially in rural areas, is definitely on our radar."9 First running a mathematical model, Almaraz determined farmland was emitting 52 percent more nitrogen oxides that previously anticipated.

After seeing another study that demonstrated nitrogen oxides may be emitted from the soil,10 Almaraz's team began modeling soil emissions in different areas of the state and then double-checked their findings by comparing them to measurements made by other scientists.11 These high levels of nitrogen oxides may have 300 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.12

Measured Amounts Higher Than Anticipated

Researchers have known soil microbes convert nitrogen-based fertilizers to nitrogen oxides and release them into the air. However, it was estimated that only 1 kilogram of gas was produced per 100 kilograms of fertilizer, or roughly 1 percent. Researchers thought the amount of gas would increase linearly, or stay at 1 percent of the amount of fertilizer used.13 These predictions turned out to be conservative, as emissions were measured at up to 5 percent of the fertilizer used.

Further experimentation found the increase was exponential and not linear, as the original research didn't account for conversion when excess nitrogen fertilizer was applied to the fields.14 To determine if these estimates held up globally, biochemist Philip Robertson, Ph.D., and his team evaluated emissions across 84 worldwide locations, confirming the exponential boost when excess fertilizer is applied.15

This high rate of nitrogen oxides emission is a large departure from what the state of California Air Resources Board had previously assumed was 3.8 percent pollution coming from farmland soil.16 Researchers measured the highest levels of nitrogen oxides pollution in California's most highly-fertilized Central Valley.

As noted by Benjamin Houlton, professor at UC Davis' department of land, air and water resources and one of the authors on the paper,17 six of the U.S. districts with the worst air quality were included in the area studied.

In California, children living in the Central Valley have the highest rate of asthma in the state,18 and the San Joaquin Valley within the Central Valley has the highest rate of asthma in the U.S. California is already poised to mobilize resources to address the problem as groundwater issues associated with synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizers were identified several years ago.19

Scientists alerted the state that excess fertilizer has been leaching into groundwater20 and contaminating drinking water, and that runoff is triggering toxic algae blooms,21 severely damaging the aqua environment.

Synthetic Fertilizers Do Damage Below the Surface

Damage to the environment from nitrogen-based fertilizers includes air, water and soil pollution. When added to the soil, these synthetic fertilizers severely disrupt the soil microbiome, necessary for establishing and supporting strong, healthy plant life.22 Researchers from the University of Toronto have published data that support previous research demonstrating microorganisms living in the soil are critical to the growth and health of plants.

The soil microbiome acts as an interface between the plant and the soil; it plays a significant role in nutrient uptake from the soil, and signals plant development.23 Researchers used 30 species of plants grown in identical soil mixtures in a controlled laboratory setting. The plants were raised for 16 weeks, exposed to permissive and simulated drought conditions.

The researchers looked at the diversity of the root microbiome across the species, finding related plants had more similarity between root microbiomes than diverse species. Lead author, Connor Fitzpatrick, University of Toronto, commented on the results, saying:24

"It's as you would expect. Just as there are more similarities between a human's gut microbiome and an ape's than between a human's and a mouse's, the closer the relationship between plant species, the more similar their root microbiomes. It's important to document as a way to better understand the evolutionary processes shaping the plant root microbiome."

As you might expect, when synthetic fertilizer is added to the soil it adversely affects the soil microbiome,25 reducing the diversity and affecting plant growth. The net effect of synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizers is to reduce the soil's organic matter26 and its long-term ability to store organic nitrogen. Research comparing two crop seasons found the addition of nitrogen-based fertilizer also reduces the pH and decreases bacterial diversity in the soil.27

Modern farming practices rely on monocropping, planting the same crop each year on the same land. Further research has demonstrated the use of organic or bioorganic fertilizer treatments maintains yield during monocropping, while protecting soil diversity.28

Regenerative Agriculture Can Restore Soil Microbiome

Ultimately, regenerative land management allows for a symbiotic relationship to form between farm animals and crops, producing a sustainable food source that protects the land and encourages continued growth each year. In this short video, Will Harris shares the story of how he transitioned from a conventional farmer to a regenerative pioneer producing high-quality grass fed products.

When he farmed conventionally, his land supported 700 head of cattle. Today, the same land supports 100,000 individual animals from several species, made possible since they support each other rather than compete for limited resources. These animals are also far happier and healthier. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition29 demonstrated clear differences between organic versus conventional milk and meat.

The largest differences in nutritional content were the composition of omega-3 fats and certain essential minerals and antioxidants, a finding that validates the idea that how your food is raised makes a significant difference in nutritional quality. When corners are cut during production it impacts the quality of the food, and by extension, your health.

Health Risks Associated With Air Pollution

Exposure to air pollution, including prenatal exposure, is a factor in the development of several chronic conditions. In the short term, some of your symptoms may resemble those of an allergy or cold, such as30 exacerbation of asthma or chronic obstructive lung disease. It may also include cardiac failure and an increased incidence of arrhythmia and stroke. Many symptoms will improve or resolve when you leave the area. However, chronic exposure may result in more chronic and serious conditions, including increased:31

Incidence of heart attack

All-cause mortality

Blood coagulability

Inflammatory markers

Incidence of lung cancer

Incidence of pneumonia

Impaired lung development in children

Development of new asthma

Preterm birth

Low birth weight

Infertility

Birth defects

Protect Against Indoor and Outdoor Air Pollution

Your health is affected by indoor and outdoor air pollution, as pollutants from the outside may be trapped indoors, and your carpet, furniture and flooring outgas chemicals as well. There are several strategies to help reduce your exposure to air pollution at home, in your car and at work, which you'll find in my previous articles:

You may also consider specific nutritional measures that have a protective effect. Seek to include as many whole foods in your daily diet as possible, including anti-inflammatory vegetables and healthy fats. Other interventions you may consider include:

Animal-based omega-3 fats

This fat is anti-inflammatory and may help mitigate some of the adverse effects to your heart and triglycerides triggered by exposure to air pollutants. Healthy sources include wild-caught Alaskan salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines.32

Broccoli sprouts

Broccoli sprouts have been linked to an impressive list of health benefits, including the capacity to help prevent heart disease, osteoporosis, allergies, hypertension and diabetes. In one study,33 researchers found sprout extract could prevent an allergic nasal response after exposure to diesel exhaust, suggesting there may be a protective effect.

Vitamins C and E

Data demonstrates these vitamins help mitigate the impact of ozone exposure on the small airways of children with asthma.34

B vitamins

In one small-scale human trial,35 researchers evaluated the use of vitamins B6, B9 and B12 to offset damage triggered by very fine particulate matter. After four weeks of high-dose B vitamin supplementation, researchers found a reduction in genetic damage at 10 gene locations by 28 to 76 percent, suggesting the vitamins protected mitochondrial DNA from the effects of air pollution.

In addition, purifying your home's air is important. 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.

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.36

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 6 NPR, March 3, 2017
  • 2 Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Markets
  • 3 The Lancet, 2018;391(10119):462
  • 4 World Health Organization, September 27, 2016
  • 5 NPR, September 27, 2016
  • 7 Science Advances, 2018;4(1):eaao3477
  • 8, 12, 13, 14 Science News, January 31, 2018
  • 9, 11 Pacific Standard, January 31, 2018
  • 10 Environmental Sciences and Technology, 2010;44(9):3608
  • 15 PNAS, 2014;111(25):9199
  • 16, 17, 19 Quartz, January 31, 2018
  • 18 California Health Report, March 23, 2017
  • 20 Sacramento Bee, August 14, 2016
  • 21 CBS SF Bay Area, August 12, 2016
  • 22 PNAS, 2018; doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1717617115
  • 23, 24 Science Daily, January 23, 2018
  • 25 Clean Soil, Air, Water, 2012; doi:10.1002/clen.201200021
  • 26 Grist, February 24, 2010
  • 27 Nature, 2017;3267(7)
  • 28 Biology and Fertility of Soils, 2017; 53(8):861
  • 29 The British Journal of Nutrition 2016;115(6):1043
  • 30, 31 Canadian Family Physician, 2011; 57(8):881
  • 32 Environmental Health Perspectives, 2012;120(7)
  • 33 PLOS|ONE, 2014;9(6):e98671
  • 34 American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 2002;166(5)
  • 35 PNAS, March 13, 2017; 114(13):3503
  • 36 Building and Environment June 2010; 45(6):1434-1440