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Health Effects of Air Pollution: From Head to Toe

With 1 in 9 deaths worldwide linked to air pollution, have you ever wondered how air pollution is impacting your health?

  • Respiratory System
  • Cardiovascular System
  • Nervous System
  • Bones
  • Reproductive System
  • Digestive System
  • Muscular System
  • Skin, hair and eyes
  • The respiratory system is always the first victim OF AIR POLLUTION

    because particulates and toxic gases immediately start accumulating in the airways, making you more vulnerable to complications in the throat and the lungs.

    Symptoms in the upper respiratory system include nasal congestion, sinusitis, and irritation in the throat

    Accumulation of pollutants in the lungs complicates matters by damaging the lung membrane and causing airway inflammation. Studies linked this to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, allergies, and lung cancer. 

    Between 1990 and 2017, air pollution was associated with 40% of COPD, 35.6% of lung infections, and 25.8% of lung cancer hospitalisations.


  • Air pollution takes the hardest toll on blood vessels and heart

    The majority of heart diseases are either linked to obesity or air pollution. 

    CO, NOx, and PM2.5 particles damage the inner walls of blood vessels, stiffening, and narrowing them. This in turn restricts blood flow, increases blood pressure, and clotting.

    Further evidence demonstrated how pollutants in the bloodstream affected the electrical and physical structure of the heart, resulting in heart arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, and heart failure.

    Statistics from the UK’s polluted areas directly linked 36,000 cardiac death cases to air pollution each year. While there are an extra 124 heart attacks on days of high pollution in the UK.


  • Air Pollution is linked to brain disorders

    Ultrafine particles, UFP or PM0.1 enters the brain through the nerve endings inside the nose contaminating brain tissues and damaging neurons. This leads to cognitive abnormalities, neural death, dementia and brain cancer. 

    Studies showed that exposure to PM2.5 and NO2 increased the risk of dementia by 10% and 30%, while air pollution-related stroke accounted for 50% of dementia cases by restricting the delivery of nutrients and minerals, causing premature aging of the brain.


  • Air pollution is a leading cause of osteoporosis (loss of bone mass)

    When particulate matter (PM2.5) and carbon monoxide accumulate in the bone marrow, they decrease the vitamin D necessary for bone strength and maintenance. 

    Further research revealed that air pollutants even reduced the calcium levels in our bones, making them weaker and more brittle. 

    A complementary study tested using data of 700,000 Medicare beneficiaries found a 4-7% annual increase in osteoporosis-related hospital admissions in areas of high air pollution near busy road networks. This annual increase reached over 20% among people above the age of 46.

  • The effects of air pollution last multiple generations impacting your eggs or sperm

    Studies measuring the secretion of reproductive hormones found that women exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) had fewer healthy eggs and more problems with infertility. 

    As for male fertility, studies show that PM2.5 can change sperm structure and reduce sperm count.


  • Air pollution wreaks havoc with your gut

    Fine particles and soot can leave long-term damage to your digestion. When PM2.5 particles in your blood reach your gut, it kills off good bacteria and punctures the protective membrane of your stomach walls.

    This is linked to Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, appendicitis, bowel disease, stomach and prostate cancers.


  • Air pollution causes muscular inflammation making you lose muscle and gain fat

    Studies conducted in the elderly found a strong correlation between chronic exposure to PM2.5, reduced muscle mass and slower metabolisms.

    The decrease of muscle mass was up to 5% in those with chronic exposure to air pollution. Due to the decrease in muscle mass, it was also found a high correlation between exposure to PM2.5 and a higher likelihood to store higher amounts of body fat.

  • Air pollution can cause skin cancer, hair loss and even blindness

    Harmful air particles like oxides, ozone, VOC, and particulate matter can damage the skin in several ways. Large particles accumulate on the outer layer, clogging our pores to trigger acne and brown spots. Smaller particles, especially PM0.1, can delve deeper and impair the skin barrier, making it susceptible to aging, inflammation, and skin cancer.

    Particulate matter (PM) that builds up in our hair follicles prevents the expression of beta-catenin, a protein responsible for hair growth. Recent studies suggest that through this mechanism and air pollution’s impact on the delivery of vitamins and minerals to hair follicles it may accelerate hair loss.

    Contact with airborne particles has both a direct and indirect impact on the eyes. Not only do nitrogen oxide (No) and ground-level ozone (O3) irritate the eye, but particles in our bloodstream can reach and damage the small veins in our eyes, resulting in glaucoma and even blindness.


Types or Air Pollution

There are various causes of air pollution and the composition of harmful airborne substances can vary depending on your surroundings.

Based on Air Quality Index reports by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) below are the six most common types of air pollutants that you are likely to encounter in your day to day.

  • NITROGEN OXIDES (NOX)
  • PARTICULATE MATTER (PM)
  • SULFUR DIOXIDE (SO2)
  • OZONE (O3)
  • CARBON MONOXIDE (CO)
  • LEAD (PB)
  • A byproduct of Stop-Start Traffic and Traffic Jams

    Today, NOx is one of the main reasons for respiratory diseases in people near busy transportation networks and industrial areas. According to a study by the University of Sussex, NOx pollution caused the death of 23,500 people in the UK every year.

    Nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) form through chemical reactions inside your car engine. Especially in metropoles, vehicle exhausts constitute a significant portion of the emission. Recent data revealed that 50% of the total emission in London was caused by road transport, especially around busy roads and main highways.

  • PM is now everywhere and it builds-up in our organs

    This makes them one of the top reasons for heart and lung disease, resulting in increased hospital admissions and premature deaths. But that is only the tip of the iceberg; with current findings, we are discovering other adverse effects of PM, especially related to cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases.

    A report by the WHO revealed that over 91% of cities fail to have PM within tolerable ranges. While research from UCL, showed that PM2.5 pollution in the London tube could be as high as 88 times above the safe limit. 

  • Trains, ships, and petroleum refineries contribute to the spread of this deadly gas

    According to Greenpeace, countries that have intolerable levels of SO2 emission, include the US, India, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, South Africa, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania.

    6.5 million tons of SO2 are emitted every year in the US through petroleum refining, metal extraction, and diesel engines of trains and ships. SO2 leaves you vulnerable to respiratory diseases like asthma and can react with other airborne chemicals to form sulfate, a type of PM2.5. Penetrating deep into your lungs and circulation, it increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer.

    A clinical study from Brazil revealed that above-average exposure to SO2 for only seven days increased the risk of mortality from circulatory diseases by 3.6%.

  • While ozone is essential for the sustainability of life on our planet, it is poisonous if formed at ground-level

    In the US alone, 132 million people currently live in areas that don’t meet the standard ground-level ozone criteria.

    The ground-level ozone gradually accumulates near the surface and gives rise to the infamous smog mostly attributed to Chinese air pollution. It gets even more severe in the summer months because sunlight accelerates the formation of ozone.

    Besides giving a gloomy feeling to the urban landscape, ozone can reduce our quality of life significantly by bringing down the protective barrier of our lungs and causing chronic respiratory complications. Even an exposure shorter than 8 hours can disrupt the protective tissue in our lungs to trigger inflammation, asthma, and bronchitis

  • CO instead of CO2 is generated when Oxygen is limited

    This means that CO is often found indoors, frequently inside of your car or even near home appliances. 

    Short-term exposure to high quantities of CO can lead to CO poisoning depriving your body from oxygen causing irreversible brain damage and sometimes leading to death. 

    Chronic inhalation of CO is not as deadly, but should not be underestimated. Long-term consequences include symptoms of severe brain damage such as memory problems, concentration loss, hearing and vision loss, and Parkinsonism. The prolonged lack of oxygen also triggers coronary heart disease and even heart attacks.

  • Before the discovery of its life-threatening effects in the 70s, lead was used across all industries

    Although the use of lead has been reduced in recent decades, the recovery of our planet from industrial lead use is not fast enough. In particular, urban soil remains a hurdle because it contains large amounts of lead that is released into the air. With other sources like leaded aviation gasoline of aircrafts and lead-battery manufacturers, lead pollution still poses serious health risks.

    According to Penn State University, 5-10 million children in the US are still exposed to lead suspended in the dust. 

    Lead can’t be processed by the body so even in small quantities it can have irreversible effects ranging from brain damage to cancer.