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Air Pollution Is Worse Than Smoking

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

air pollution compared to smoking

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research data demonstrate the number of people dying early from air pollution is 1 million more each year than death caused by smoking; nitrogen-based fertilizer, fossil fuels and industrial chemical production are the three largest contributors
  • Rising rates of pollution trigger lower life expectancy, lower intelligence, low birth weight, premature birth and health conditions such as autism, attention deficit disorder, cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer
  • Children bear a greater burden as they are exposed before birth, their respiratory rate is faster, inhaling more air pollution into smaller, developing bodies, and they are expected to live longer, giving more time for diseases to emerge
  • Although you may not control pollution levels outside your home, you can make changes to your diet to mitigate damage, and decrease indoor air pollution originating from cleaners, carpeting, personal care products and furniture

Nearly 95 percent of the world live in areas where pollution levels are higher than deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).1 Fine particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrograms (PM2.5) is one indicator of outdoor air pollution.

Concentrations exceed 10 micrograms per meters cubed (ug/m3) for 95 percent of the world and nearly 60 percent live in areas where particulate matter exceeds even the least stringent WHO quality target of 35 ug/m3.2 Air pollution is a complex mixture a fine particulate matter, droplets and gases.

PM2.5 is one of the most widely studied components of air pollution as it is 20 to 30 times smaller than the width of your hair. These particles are important as they are small enough to be readily inhaled into the lungs and absorbed into the bloodstream.3

Once in your body, PM2.5 may deposit in any of your organ systems and is responsible for triggering inflammation leading to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease,4 obesity,5 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease6 and cancer.7 A recent study evaluating the ambient air pollution in Europe discovered the problem is far worse than previously measured.8

Extent of Air Pollution Far Worse Than Expected

The estimated number dying an early death from exposure to air pollution is nearly double the previous estimate.9 This new data shows air pollution caused 8.8 million premature deaths in 2015. Comparatively speaking, WHO10 estimates the global number of premature deaths from smoking is 7 million per year, less than the number killed by air pollution.

The key focus was air pollution in Europe, where researchers found it triggered an estimated 790,000 deaths, nearly 80 percent of which were from cardiovascular disease. Co-author, Jos Lelieveld, Ph.D., from the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and the Cyprus Institute Nicosia, Cyprus, commented:11

"Since most of the particulate matter and other air pollutants in Europe come from the burning of fossil fuels, we need to switch to other sources for generating energy urgently. When we use clean, renewable energy, we are not just fulfilling the Paris Agreement to mitigate the effects of climate change, we could also reduce air pollution-related death rates in Europe by up to 55 percent."

The study calls for a reduction in the upper limit allowed by the European Union, currently set at 25 ug/m3, which is 2.5 times higher than the WHO guideline. In a joint statement, co-authors of the study point out:12

"In Europe the maximum permissible value ... is much too high. In the U.S, Australia and Canada the WHO guideline is taken as a basis for legislation, which is also needed in the EU. To put this into perspective, this means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking. Smoking is avoidable but air pollution is not."

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Nitrogen-Based Fertilizer Considerable Contributor to Air Pollution

The greatest contributor to air pollution in much of the U.S., China and Russia is agricultural fertilizer, especially the nitrogen component used to supposedly enrich the soil and grow bigger crops.13 Emissions from farming far outweigh other sources of particulate matter.

As nitrogen fertilizers break down, ammonia is released into the air. When it reaches industrial areas, it combines with fossil fuel combustion creating microparticles. Although nitrogen is found in the air, water and soil, reactive nitrogen, a primary component in nitrogen-based fertilizers, is processed using large amounts of energy from fossil fuel burning engines. This also contributes to industrial pollution.14

What's more, when nitrogen-based fertilizer is added to the soil it reduces the amount of sequestered carbon and affects the future ability of the soil to support plant growth.15 Excess fertilizer runoff is also one of the largest contributors to ocean pollution, creating dead zones where oxygen is eliminated and fish and other marine life can't live.16

Relentless Expansion of Chemical Use Threatens Human Survival

Also contributing to the decline in human health are the massive numbers of synthetic chemicals produced and released by manufacturers. Sales are expected to double in the next 12 years, according to a global study by the United Nations Environment Program. Key findings from the second Global Chemicals Outlook report include:17

  • The global chemistry industry exceeded $5 trillion U.S. dollars in 2017 and is projected to double by 2030.
  • Growth is driven by global megatrends in construction, agriculture and electronics causing hazardous chemicals and pollutants to be released in large quantities.
  • The world will not meet its international commitment to reduce hazardous chemicals and halt pollution by 2020 and business as usual is not an option.
  • A comprehensive global framework is needed with coherent indicators and implementation beyond 2020 as the burden of disease from chemicals is high and vulnerable populations are at a particularly high risk. The WHO estimated the burden of disease from selected chemicals at 1.6 million lives in 2016.

Achim Halpaap, Ph.D., led the 400 scientists involved in the study. He told The Guardian that the fastest growth was in construction materials, electronics, textiles and lead batteries. Depending upon the degree of exposure, risks may include cancer, chronic kidney disease and congenital anomalies.18

According to the report, global chemical production, including pharmaceutical business, is the world's second largest industry and is expected to grow over the next decade. Despite the known negative effects on humanity, the projected rate of chemical production is expected to exceed population growth for at least the next 10 years.19

Pollution Damages Intelligence and Life Expectancy

In a recent study20 collecting data from over 20,000 people living in China, researchers found exposure to toxic air triggered a large reduction in intelligence. Language and math skills were most affected, with the average impact on those tested equivalent to losing one year of education.

The members of the team believe the effects may be even worse for the elderly, or those with a low education level. After calculating the loss to those individuals over several years, the study authors concluded:21

"The damage on the aging brain by air pollution likely imposes substantial health and economic costs, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly for both running daily errands and making high-stake decisions."

This has a significant impact, especially in the U.S., where the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to double by 2060. This will increase the percentage of the population from the current 15 percent to 24 percent.22 In this study, language skills were more dramatically affected, and in men more than women.

According to researcher Derek Ho, Ph.D., from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, air pollution likely affects cognition since23 "high air pollution can potentially be associated with oxidative stress, neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration of humans."

Children Bear a Greater Pollution Burden

The burden of air pollution begins before birth. According to research presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress,24 data demonstrated tiny particles of carbon could migrate through the lungs and into the placenta.

Research has also linked air pollution exposure in pregnant moms with premature birth,25 low birth weight,26 infant mortality27 and childhood respiratory conditions.28 Children are exposed to polluted air indoors and out. Emerging evidence demonstrates PM 2.5 may play a role in a number of diseases you may not automatically associate with air pollution, including:29

Children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of air pollution as their bodies are still developing, placing them at greater risk for inflammation and other health damage. They also have a longer life expectancy, giving more time for diseases to emerge. A combination of behavioral, environmental and physiological factors make children particularly susceptible, as the WHO notes:30

"[Children] breathe faster than adults, taking in more air and, with it, more pollutants. Children live closer to the ground, where some pollutants reach peak concentrations. They may spend much time outside, playing and engaging in physical activity in potentially polluted air.

Newborn and infant children, meanwhile, spend most of their time indoors, where they are more susceptible to household air pollution, as they are near their mothers while the latter cook with polluting fuels and devices … In the womb, they are vulnerable to their mothers' exposure to pollutants. Exposure before conception can also impose latent risks on the fetus."

Strategies to Help Mitigate Air Pollution

While you might not have control over the pollution levels outside your home, you do have control over what you eat and may be able to improve the air pollution in your home originating from pressure-treated wood, household cleaners, carpeting, furniture and personal care products.

Not only will you reduce your risk of developing chronic health conditions, research shows improving air quality also benefits your mental health by reducing psychological stress.31,32 Since certain dietary measures may have a protective effect, strive to eat a diet of whole foods, rich in anti-inflammatory vegetables and healthy fats.

Most of the dietary suggestions and strategies listed below are very cost-effective in the short run and may help significantly reduce your health care costs long-term.33 For more strategies to reduce your indoor air pollution see my previous article, "Reduce Indoor Air Pollution."

Omega-3 fats — These fats are 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, occurring with exposure to air pollution (olive oil did not have the same effect).34

Broccoli sprouts — Broccoli sprout extract demonstrated the ability to prevent a common allergic nasal response occurring with exposure to diesel exhaust. The researchers suggested broccoli or broccoli sprouts could have a protective effect against air pollution's role in allergic disease and asthma.35

A broccoli sprout beverage demonstrated the ability to enhance detoxification of some airborne pollutants among residents living in a highly polluted region of China.36

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.37

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.38

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 helped repair some of the genetic damage.

+ Sources and References