What Air Pollution Does to Your Body

By | April 17, 2019

In April 2019, London launched an ultralow emission zone in central London, which will charge motorists more than $ 16 a day to drive into the area, unless they meet certain strict emissions standards. The move is expected to cut emissions from motor vehicles by about 45 percent in central London.1

Seventy-two percent of London adults said they supported the measure to charge vehicles that pollute, as London mayor Sadiq Khan described air pollution in the city as a “public health emergency.”2 In the U.K., air pollution causes about 40,000 deaths annually,3 echoing death rates from air pollution across the globe.

Research 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.4

Damage From Air Pollution Starts in the Womb

Breathing polluted air causes insidious damage that starts in the womb and adds up over your lifetime. In the U.S. alone, more than 3% of premature births haven been attributed to air pollution, specifically particulate matter (PM 2.5).5

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.

Costs attributed to the 3.32% of premature births linked to air pollution were estimated at $ 5.09 billion. As researchers noted, “Reducing rates of PTB [preterm birth] is important to prevent not only neonatal complications such as respiratory distress syndrome, sepsis and intraventricular hemorrhage, but also adverse psychological, behavioral, and educational outcomes in later life, mostly related to cerebral palsy and neurodevelopmental delay.”6

Exposure to air pollution has also been linked to low birth weight babies, intrauterine growth retardation, stillbirth, congenital anomalies and problems with fetal brain growth.7

It’s long been questioned how developing babies could be harmed by their mother’s air pollution exposure, but research presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress revealed that pollution particles may enter the placenta and possibly harm the developing baby in utero.

The study was small, involving placentas from five London women, but revealed what researchers believe to be carbon particles in some placental macrophage cells. Study author Dr. Norrice Liu of Queen Mary University of London explained:8

“Our results provide the first evidence that inhaled pollution particles can move from the lungs into the circulation and then to the placenta. We do not know whether the particles we found could also move across into the fetus, but our evidence suggests that this is indeed possible.

We also know that the particles do not need to get into the baby’s body to have an adverse effect, because if they have an effect on the placenta, this will have a direct impact on the fetus.”

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Air Pollution Is Deadly to Children

Air pollution is responsible for respiratory diseases that kill 543,000 children aged 5 years and younger each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Breathing polluted air also causes asthma in 14% of children around the globe.9

“Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “This is inexcusable. Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfil their full potential.”10 Sadly, WHO estimates that about 93% of the world’s children (or 1.8 billion) live in areas that have such polluted air their health and development are at risk.

Even in children living in one of London’s low-emission zones, researchers found their lung capacity was reduced by about 5 percent when pollution rose above legal levels — and no improvements in lung capacity were seen even when small improvements in air quality occurred. “Interventions that deliver larger reductions in emissions might yield improvements in children’s health,” the researchers concluded.11

Researchers in London are now giving air-monitoring backpacks to 250 London schoolchildren, who will wear the bags for one week. The scientists are trying to determine where children are exposed to the most air pollution in order to make recommendations to curb their exposure and hopefully improve lifelong health.

“Air pollution has been found to restrict lung growth in children. Low lung function in childhood can persist into adulthood and is often associated with other health problems including chronic obstructive lung disease in later life, said Ben Barratt of King’s College London in a news release.12

How Corn Is Polluting the Air

Vehicle emissions are a commonly referred to culprit in air pollution, but corn, a major agricultural crop used for animal feed, ethanol biofuel and food, is another, often-overlooked source. Air pollution that results from growing corn is associated with 4,300 premature deaths per year in the U.S. alone, researchers wrote in Nature Sustainability — with associated damages estimated at $ 14 billion to $ 64 billion.13

Most of the pollution is due to emissions of ammonia from the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer. “Ammonia from fertilizer application accounted for about 70 percent of attributable deaths,” study author Jason Hill of the University of Minnesota told NPR. “Some of that nitrogen washes into waterways, and some of it gets released into the atmosphere as ammonia.”14

As nitrogen fertilizers break down into their component parts, ammonia is released into the air. 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.15

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.16

Corn is a double-edged sword, polluting the air not only on the farm but also at the CAFOs where it’s used for animal feed. There are other trickle-down effects as well. “Growing corn in Minnesota results in emissions in Florida, where phosphate fertilizer is produced,” Hill said.17

Agriculture Is the No. 1 Source of Air Pollution

The No. 1 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.

In fact, research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters demonstrated that in certain densely populated areas, emissions from farming far outweigh other sources of particulate matter air pollution.18

Researchers have long 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.

However, 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. In California, 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.19

CAFOs are also highly problematic, as they vent manure-laden air into the surrounding environment 24/7.20 In addition to ammonia, other toxic compounds commonly released by CAFOs include:21

  • Hydrogen sulfide, which has a rotten egg odor and can cause inflammation of eye and respiratory tract membranes, loss of olfactory neurons and even death
  • Methane, an odorless but highly flammable greenhouse gas
  • Particulate matter, including particles from feed, bedding, dry manure, soil, animal dander and feathers, which can cause chronic bronchitis and respiratory symptoms, declines in lung function and organic dust toxic syndrome, a severe flu-like illness

Air Pollution Linked to Diabetes, Damage to Brain and Heart

Breathing polluted air is detrimental to your health at all ages, including in adulthood. While lung function is known to decline gradually with age, there is evidence that air pollution accelerates this decline. Living in an area with higher levels of air pollution is also linked to the development of Type 2 diabetes in adults, as well as decreased cognitive function22 and sleep disturbances.23

“Evidence that exposure to air pollution affects brain structure was found by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of participants in the Framingham Offspring Study, indicating that higher exposure to PM2.5 is associated with a reduction in total brain volume,” according to a Royal College of Physicians report.24 As for the damage air pollution does to your heart, researchers explained:25

The evidence for the effects of both short- and long-term exposures to air pollution on cardiovascular disease in adults is strong. Exposure to air pollution can exacerbate existing heart conditions and contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease, resulting in increased hospital admissions and deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

Ways to Combat Air Pollution’s Drain on Your Health

In an ideal world, we’d all live in an environment with fresh, clean air to breathe. Unfortunately, this is far more the exception than the rule. In your home, indoor air can be a major source of contaminants, so I recommend taking steps to keep your indoor air clean, including opening windows to let fresh air in and avoiding the use of known air pollutants like chemical cleaning products, air fresheners and scented candles.

Purifying your home’s air is also a wise step, as is leading a healthy lifestyle. What you eat can help combat air pollution’s health effects, for instance, including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, which may help protect your heart from air pollution.26

Other nutrients to eat plenty of, especially if you live in a polluted area, include vitamins C and E, which may be beneficial to children with asthma,27 and B vitamins, which in high doses have been show to completely offset damage caused by very fine particulate matter in air pollution.28

At a more foundational level, the researchers of the corn study suggested “strategic interventions” in corn production, “including changing the fertilizer type and application method, improving nitrogen use efficiency, switching to crops requiring less fertilizer, and geographically relocating production.”29

On a personal level, be sure to choose organic, biodynamic grass fed foods as much as possible, and avoid those from industrial farms, which are making air pollution problems worse instead of better.

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