What is one thing everyone, without exception, does the most? You might think of tasks to do or errands to run, but the answer is right in front of your nose (pun intended): breathing. On average, a healthy human with a lifetime of 80 years will breathe approximately 670,000,000 times. That's why the quality of the air we breathe has more impact on our health than any other factor. Sadly, the quality of the air around us is worsening every day. From the cosmetics we use to the gases our cars expel, we are polluting the air in hundreds of different ways. So, how exactly can air pollution damage our health? Let’s dive in.
Harmful Airborne Particles
The primary causes of air pollution are the excessive use of fossil fuels, industrialization, and poor urban planning. Oil and coal power plants generate heat and power while releasing gases into the air. Mines, refineries, and manufacturing facilities accompany the release of toxic gases. In the city, cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles contribute to air pollution through fuel combustion.
These factors cause a drastic increase in what we call particulate matter. Also known as particle pollution, PM is the common name for small particles suspended in air, usually in the form of a solid-liquid mixture.
Particulate matter varies in size. While dust, soot, and smoke are large enough for the naked eye, other particles can be as small as 10 micrometers. Regardless of their sizes, these particles carry hazardous chemicals, such as black carbon, ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, Sulphur dioxide, and carbon monoxide1.
The small PMs between 10 and 25 micrometers can enter our lungs and bloodstream without us even noticing. Decades of research linked air pollution to a variety of diseases, including bronchitis, stroke, and cancer.
Air Pollution and Respiratory Diseases
Pollutants are the primary cause of respiratory diseases, as the polluted air has an immediate effect on our lung function. Current research revealed that, on average, air pollution has the same impact on our lungs as one pack of cigarettes. In countries like China, this number reaches up to 63 cigarettes per day2.
Upon inhalation, the small particulate matter can irritate and puncture our respiratory tracks and lungs or facilitate inflammation to hinder oxygen flow.
Studies found strong correlations between air pollution and respiratory diseases like emphysema3, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease4, and chronic bronchitis5.
- COPD, in particular, showed an increased amount of hospital admissions, some of which resulted in death because of extreme lung inflammation5.
- Research about asthma and air pollution proved how exposure to pollutants like NO2 triggered asthma in infants6.
Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Diseases
Beyond our respiratory system, particulate matter can easily infiltrate our natural defense systems and mix into our bloodstream. Once these particles are in our blood, they can accumulate and clog our vessels, damaging their inner layer, and disrupting our blood circulation.
Today, air pollution is the most common cause of cardiovascular diseases besides malnutrition. Countries with increased exposure to pollutants suffer from higher rates of hypertension, chronic artery calcification, stroke, and cardiac arrest7.
The impact of air pollution on cardiovascular function is even more severe in vulnerable individuals, including infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with underlying heart and lung conditions. For example, a report by the National Toxicology Program found a strong correlation between traffic-related air pollution and miscarriage, pre-term birth, and birth defects8.
Air Pollution and Cancer
The accumulation of PM in our body has another deadly consequence: cancer. Through a series of metabolic reactions, hazardous chemicals turn into waste products called free radicals. These are extremely active compounds that can cause damage and mutations in our DNA, which leads to cancer.
Lung and breast cancer are two types associated with air pollution the most. Various studies found a correlation between traffic-related air pollution and adenocarcinomas lung cancer9. Another clinical study showed that women living near highways had an increased risk of breast cancer10. It was also proven that airborne substances in aerosol products and paint removers enhanced the risk of breast cancer11. Finally, a study performed on industrial workers exposed to benzene and gasoline revealed higher risks of leukemia and lymphoma12.
How Bad Is The Situation?
The statistics from the last five years are bothering, to say the least. Here is what the data from health authorities has to say:
- Recent data shows that around 91% of the world's population lives in an area where the air quality doesn't meet WHO standards. In other words, every 9 in 10 people have exposure to air pollution above tolerable levels.
- Between 2016 and 2020, 4.2 million people died every year from diseases attributed to air pollution. This number accounts for 9% of annual global death rates, making air pollution one of the most threatening risk factors.
- The mortality rate from air pollution is more than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
- The difference between high and low-income countries in death rates is drastic. In Europe, 2% of annual deaths are due to air pollution, but this number reaches above 15% in South and East Asia.
- Although the death rate from indoor air pollution halved between 1990 and 2020, it remained the same for outdoor pollution, which has exceeded indoor pollution deaths from 2000 onwards.
- In countries with middle-to-low income and aging populations, the death rate shows an incline. It makes sense since those above the age of 60 are much more likely to suffer from the harmful effects of air pollution.
You can check here for detailed information about air pollution statistics.
Overall, air pollution remains a threat to all of us. There are still ways to prevent it as individuals and as a community. You could try to minimize fuel combustion by carpooling, cycling, or using public transport whenever possible. Also, you can be more mindful of the cleaning and cosmetic products you purchase, making sure they are environmentally safe.
Nevertheless, there will be times where you find yourself in a polluted environment, whether it is a traffic jam or a manufacturing plant. In that case, you should start thinking about filtering the air you inhale.
As the Nosy team, we have come up with a filtration technology that will prevent toxic gases and PMs from entering the body. We believe that Nosy X will create a new benchmark for air filtration and protection against toxic airborne chemicals that threaten more than 90% of the world's population.