How can air pollution affect your health?

Air pollution is on the rise, and it is having an increasingly negative effect on human health. There is a surge of pollutants and toxins found in the air, released by both human activity and natural phenomena. Although many different types of pollutants are released daily, one of the most harmful to human health is PM2.5 particulates.

Particulate matter consists of microscopic solid particles or liquid droplets that float around in the air. The particles are considered hazardous to human health as they are small enough to penetrate deep into the human respiratory system. These particulates are 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter, around 3% of the diameter of a human hair. The smaller they are, the deeper they can travel into the respiratory system, and the more harm they can do to the body. Exposure to these particles, especially on a regular basis, can affect the lungs and the heart of everyone, however, people with pre-existing conditions, along with young children and the elderly are most at risk.  Additionally, those who participate in outdoor activities and strenuous exercise tend to breathe in more particulate, increasing their chances of developing health problems.

Effects on the respiratory system

Urban dwellers in high pollution areas are at increased risk of developing respiratory and heart problems. The tiny size of the particulates allows the pollutants to enter the body through the nose or mouth and work their way down deep into the respiratory system.  These particles irritate the lungs which then increase permeability in the lung tissue. This irritation can cause problems with the airways, increase coughing and disrupting normal mucous production which can lead to difficulty breathing.

Immediate effects on health caused by air pollution can include aggravated respiratory and cardiovascular problems, damaged respiratory cells and added stress put on the heart and lungs as they need to work harder to supply the body with more oxygen. Long term exposure can bring about more permanent health effects such as the decrease of lung capacity, onset of asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and also the accelerated aging of the lungs. Not only can short and long term exposure to air pollution be highly detrimental and bring about new health problems to previously healthy people, but it can quickly worsen existing conditions

PM2.5 particulates can cause the onset of asthma and those who suffer from asthma already will notice that their condition becomes aggravated. The same can be said for those who have pre-existing breathing problems or lung disease, the irritation in the lungs and airways caused by the PM 2.5 particulates will only worsen their condition. Possibly the most common among the ailments of air pollution is the worsening of health for those with chronic lung disease, and the faster loss of airway function. The particulates also increase a person’s susceptibility to both viruses and bacteria, leading to an increase in pneumonia in those who are vulnerable, and whose immune systems are not strong enough to fight off infection.

Link to diabetes

Through a new global study, reports have shown that air pollution, particularly exhaust emissions, can be responsible for diabetes. Around 14 percent of all diabetes cases were attributed to air pollution in 2016, and over 150,000 cases of diabetes caused by air pollution were found in the United States. The small size of the PM2.5 particles allow them to travel into the lungs and penetrate the bloodstream. This can then cause inflammation which increases insulin resistance. Over time this resistance can become so severe that the pancreas cannot handle the influx of insulin, resulting in diabetes.

In extreme circumstances, exposure to air pollution can be fatal, as with the case of nine-year old Ella Kissi-Debrah from the UK. The young girl suffered from asthma and made 27 hospital visits due to asthma attacks in three years.  Ella lived in London’s South Circular road, an area where air pollution levels exceed the legal limits. An air pollution and asthma expert, Professor Stephan Holgate from the University of Southampton, studied the timing of Ella’s asthma attacks and death. He found that Ella’s emergency hospital visits coincided with recorded spikes in nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in the air. Unfortunately, one of the worst spikes of air pollution in the area resulted in Ella’s death.

The onset of diabetes and the tragic loss of a young life show how devastating exposure to elevated air pollution can be.

Effects on the heart

It is not only the lungs that are heavily affected by air pollutants, the heart can also suffer from the constant exposure. The inflammation of the lungs can result in a release of chemicals that can have a negative effect on heart function.

As air pollution is on the increase, there are more and more studies being conducted on the impact it has on human health. Many of these studies have found that the increase in air pollution, and prolonged exposure to the PM 2.5 particles can lead to nonfatal heart attacks and can even cause an irregular heartbeat. As a result of this, there have also been numerous premature deaths for those who suffered with heart or lung disease previously.

Irritation in the lungs caused by air pollution can also cause a change in blood chemistry leading to clots in the blood vessels, a primary cause of heart attacks.

Monitoring exposure

Living in an urban area usually means you are exposed to higher levels of outdoor air pollution. Factories, wood fires, road traffic and many other factors contribute to the amount of pollution in the air. Going indoors doesn’t protect you as indoor fires, stoves and wood burners also release PM 2.5 particulates that become trapped in homes, schools and offices due to the high level of insulation in modern buildings.

Monitoring your exposure to pollution is one of the best ways of reducing the chance of suffering from these negative health effects. If you have a way of knowing when pollution is heightened, you can proactively put measures in place to reduce the amount of harmful air you are breathing in.

Limiting your exposure will reduce the concentration of PM2.5 particulates making their way into the respiratory system and therefore the chance of suffering from the related harmful effects on your body