Dirty Air May be Damaging Every Cell, Organ in the Body: Global Review
Wed, April 14, 2021

Dirty Air May be Damaging Every Cell, Organ in the Body: Global Review

Air pollution is harmful to human health. It has an equivalent effect to that of smoking cigarettes and the even higher effect of eating too much salt, the World Health Organization says / Photo by: nEwyyy via Shutterstock

 

Air pollution is harmful to human health. It has an equivalent effect to that of smoking cigarettes and the even higher effect of eating too much salt, the World Health Organization says. But the impact of air pollution on our health may be far higher than previous studies showed. 

The Damaging Effects of Air Pollution

A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal The BMJ (British Medical Journal) states that the impact of air pollution is far wider than what people previously thought. As the air becomes dirtier, hospital admissions for health conditions such as urinary tract infections and heart failure increase, too.

The researchers analyzed more than 95 million insurance inpatient claims for all fee-for-service beneficiaries in the US from the year 2000 to 2012. They then classified the different causes of hospital admissions into 214 disease groups and determined the link of these causes to exposure to PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter). In air quality standards, PM standards mean particles that are equal to or smaller than 10 microns. The indicator was later on revised by the United States Environmental Protection simply as “inhalable particles.”

Co-author Prof. Francesca Dominici from Harvard University said via The Guardian that the drive behind their new research was to conduct the “most comprehensible” research that looked at all possible causes why a person is hospitalized that could be linked to his or her exposure to fine particulate matter in the air. They found out that air pollution increases the risk of people being hospitalized for heart failure by 0.14%. 

Beyond hospital visits, air pollution was also linked to a yearly increase of 634 deaths and $100m cost for post-acute and inpatient care.

As the air becomes dirtier, hospital admissions for health conditions such as urinary tract infections and heart failure increase, too / Photo by: LightField Studios via Shutterstock

 

Effects of PM2.5 to Organs and Pathophysiological Processes

Doctoral student Yaguang Wei, who is also a part of the BMJ study, said that the effects of PM2.5 were not just restricted to human organs but also the pathophysiological processes, including water-electrolyte balance, infection, and inflammation.

A comprehensive global review published earlier this year discussed Prof. Dominici and the team’s study. The review was conducted by Dean E. Schraufnagel, MD from the University of Illinois at Chicago Pulmonary, Critical Care, Sleep and Allergy Division and colleagues. They said that dirty air may be damaging every cell and organ in the human body. They emphasized the head-to-toe harm that air pollution causes the body. These include lung diseases, dementia, diabetes, liver problems, bladder cancer, damaged skin, and heart disease, among others. The global review has also found that toxic air affects a person’s fertility, children, and fetuses. 

The review by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies’ Environmental Committee highlights that exposure to outdoor fine particulate matter is the fifth leading risk factor for death globally. So far, it has already accounted for 4.2 million deaths and more than 103 million disability-adjusted life years lost. The study cited data from the Global Burden of Disease Report.

How Air Pollution Causes Illness

Prof. Schraufnagel and the team said that pollutants come from different sources and each of these sources has various characteristics that depend on the conditions, sources, and composition. Common gases, for instance, are directly released into the atmosphere from transportation and industrial sources. They are called the primary pollutants. Then, there are also the particle or gaseous pollutants that are found in the atmosphere. These are referred to as secondary pollutants.

Schraufnagel added that the moment dirty air is inhaled, it can result in breathing problems, damage to lungs, heart, muscles, and arteries. The very small particles can also land directly in the organs. In animal studies, the particles can even travel to the olfactory nerve, which conveys special sensory information related to smell, into the brain. The World Health Organization has called air pollution a “silent killer” because of its widespread effects.

The global review further mentioned how the body’s immune cells will think of the air pollution particles as bacteria. So, it will “go after it and try to kill it” by releasing acids and enzymes. When these inflammatory proteins are spread in the body, it can potentially affect the pancreas, brain, kidneys, and so forth. 

Air Pollution: Statistics

WHO published that nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air and air pollution kills 7 million people every year. One-third of deaths from heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke are due to air pollution. Regardless of how rich the area a person lives in is, air pollution is still difficult to escape from. Furthermore, more than 90% (1.8 billion) of children in the world today breathe in toxic air every day. By children, WHO refers to those who are below 15 years of age. 

The new WHO report estimates that 600,000 children died in 2016 due to acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom said that polluted air has been poisoning and ruining the lives of millions of children, something that is “inexcusable.”