Air Pollution: The Public Health Threat We Don’t Talk About Enough

Last week among the historic rulings that the Supreme Court made declaring the EPA limits on what companies release into the air as unconstitutional maybe most egregious to our health. Air pollution is a public health concern.

When I started following how air pollution can affect our health eight years ago, studies about polluted air effects on cardiovascular health caught my attention. Now research as linked our poor air quality to asthma (duh), anxiety, diminished mortality and other respiratory issues.

Our bodies on air pollution

“Air pollutants work in numerous ways,” said Dr. Anoop Shah, a cardiology research fellow in the Centre of Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, Little France, and co-author of recent research published in the British Medical Journal that links strokes to pollution exposure. Scientists all over the world are trying to figure out how the chemicals in the air behave once they are inside the body. And when you think that the air in China has a different make up of the air in New York, those are a lot of chemical puzzle pieces to put together. In the last year, there have been numerous studies that give us a glimpse of what those pieces could create. For instance, in the case of vascular disease, some studies suggest that it causes chemical changes to cholesterol in our blood and makes platelets more sticky and likely to clot.

“Air pollutants most likely induces low grade inflammation which results in accelerated blockage of the arteries supplying blood to important organs such as the brain and the heart,” Dr. Shah explained. “A spike in air pollution however may actually also trigger acute blockages of these arteries causing a more profound clinical effect such as stroke or a heart attack.” His research found that the more polluted the air the more your risk for strokes can increase. Specifically, for every 10 unit increment in pollutant concentration the risk of stroke rises by about 1%. New York University researchers found this to be true when they analyzed the medical records of 307,444 people in the tri-state area. Those who lived in zip codes with the highest average levels of fine-particulate-matter pollution tend to show signs of narrowing in their carotid arteries—the ones on either side of your neck that provide blood to the brain—compared to those living in low pollution levels.

Another potential way pollution causes havoc was recently revealed at the 13th European Respiratory Society Lung Science Conference in Portugal this March. A group from Imperial College in London uncovered a possible mechanism linking the inhalation of diesel pollution to respiratory distress. Basically, the researchers found that an extract of diesel exhaust particles and gases stimulated a channel that affects airway sensory nerves and respiratory reflexes. This causes oxidative stress that is linked to many diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.

But major cardiovascular events and disease aren’t the only havoc pollution can wreak. Our allergies, which some complain are worsening each year, could be due to our compromised air. The gases, nitrogen dioxide and ground level ozone, that make up pollution may provoke chemical changes in airborne allergens that could increase their potency, suggests research presented by German scientists from the Max Planck Institute at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) held in Denver this March.

Pollution may also affect our mental state. That same oxidative stress and inflammation responsible for medical conditions may also cause anxiety, suggests a study in the British Medical Journal. Looking at responses from 71,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study, researchers discovered that those who lived in zip codes with high air particle matter (the scientific way to say pollution) had higher odds of experiencing increased anxiety symptoms. “Air pollution has been linked to a variety of medical conditions.  Our study suggests air pollution may also be related to mental health conditions,” Melinda C. Power, ScD, a post-doctoral fellow in the epidemiology department of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the neurology department of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told me while I was reporting a story about pollutions effects on the body for Life by Daily Burn .

What can be done

“We now know that air pollution not only affects the lungs but also the circulatory system. It is a potent environmental toxin that the whole population is exposed to with adverse effects on health,” Dr. Shah told me. Unfortunately, the only way to diminish the particles in the air is through government regulation. “It is very difficult to control personal exposure. The main pathway to reduce atmospheric air pollution is via government policies,” said Dr. Shah. Dr. Powers has a more hopeful outlook: “I believe that the best way to reduce everyone’s air pollution exposures is through a combination of government regulation, industry partnerships, and consumer efforts aimed at reducing emissions.”

So now that SCOTUS has deemed government regulation as unconstitutional it looks like we may have to rely on industry and our efforts.Companies that are taking measures to reduce their carbon footprints include Microsoft, United Airlines, Ben & Jerry’s, and others. By doing business with these companies you are supporting their efforts.

And luckily, there is a lot that we can do to launch our own pollution protection plan. Doing these things does not guarantee that pollution will not effect your health, but they might help.

Pay attention to local air quality alerts and take action to reduce emissions on poor air quality days; for example: conserve electricity, drive less, use public transit, or carpool,” Dr. Powers said.

Know how polluted your locale is. You can do this by typing your zip code into NPR’s Poisoned Places Map or download The American Lung Association’s State of the Air app. It can help you look up the air quality in your area as well as send you air quality alerts. Eventually there may even be an app that allows your smartphone to detect the pollution levels where you are, according to a report in Environmental Science & Technology.

Exercise. University of Copenhagen researchers examined the physical leisure activities of 52,061 residents of the two major cities in Denmark from 1993-1997. Of the residents they studied, 5,500 of them died before 2010, but of those who exercised there was 20 percent less mortality than those who did not exercise, even if they lived in some of the most polluted areas of the cities or close to busy streets, according to their report published in Environmental Health Perspectives. It is healthier to go for a run, a walk or to cycle to work than it is to stay inactive, even for those living in the most polluted areas of Copenhagen, the researchers concluded.

But don’t exercise next to busy roadways or during rush hour. “Highly polluted regions are likely to experience large variation in the pollutant concentration especially near high traffic regions,” Dr. Shah said. And as his study found: Higher air pollution levels equated to higher risk of stroke. Another study found that exercising in near roadways can increase blood pressure. Living in a large city, this is a hard one for me to do but I head to the park for my walks. Trees naturally clean the air and may decrease the amount of pollutants in it.

Eat broccoli sprouts. I do this because it is so simple and here is the research that inspired this habit: When Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health gave 300 Chinese men and women living in one of the most polluted areas in the country a half cup of broccoli sprout beverage, they excreted higher levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen, and acrolein, a lung irritant. This means that they peed out the pollution found in their Chinese air! Specifically they did so at a rate of 61 and 23 percent more, respectively, compared to when they were not drinking the broccoli sprout beverage. Researchers reported in Cancer Prevention Research that the plant compound sulforaphane—found in broccoli sprouts as well as in cauliflower, kale, bok choy, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts and radishes—is helping the body’s cells adapt to and survive environmental toxins.

Finally, lobby your local officials to make pollution a priority. Rules and regulations do work—just look at Los Angeles, where local air quality improvements help improve children’s breathing rates. Until the government jumps on board, eating healthfully, exercising and conserving energy will be our best defense.


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