A new global study has found that air pollution is damaging every cell and organ in the body and is responsible for an array of illness from diabetes, dementia to heart and lung disease.
More than 90% of the global population is subject to toxic air, according to new research released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Guardian reports.
The study, which was published in the Forum of International Respiratory Societies in the two review papers, indicates that as many as 8.8 million deaths a year may be caused by air pollution, killing more people than tobacco.
“Air pollution can harm acutely, as well as chronically, potentially affecting every organ in the body,” “Ultrafine particles pass through the [lungs], are readily picked up by cells, and carried via the bloodstream to expose virtually all cells in the body,” the scientists conclude.
The research looked at the impact of different pollutants carried in the air and indicates that established illness associated with air pollution such as heart and lung disease may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Dr. Maria Neira, director of public and environmental health at the WHO, said she expected many diseases to be linked to air pollution in the future.
“It adds to the very heavy evidence we have already. There are more than 70,000 scientific papers to demonstrate that air pollution is affecting our health. Issues like Parkinson’s or autism, for which there is some evidence but maybe not the very strong linkages, that evidence is coming now,” she said.
Very small toxic particles, once inhaled, penetrate the lungs and are then carried around the body in the bloodstream.
“They land in the organs directly. Animal studies have shown they can even travel right up to the olfactory nerve into the brain,” said Professor Dean Schrufnagel, from the University of Illinois in Chicago, who led the research.
Poor air quality may even be responsible for brain conditions, like strokes, dementia and memory loss.
No Part of the Body is Immune
Once ingested into the bloodstream, pollution particles can cause systematic inflation as the body’s immune system mistakes them for bacteria.
“Immune cells think a [pollution particle] is bacteria, go after it and try to kill it by releasing enzymes and acids. Those inflammatory proteins spread into the body, affecting the brain, the kidneys, the pancreas and so forth. In evolutionary terms, the body has evolved to defend itself against infections, not pollution,” said Shrufnagel.
Toxic air is also responsible for damage to the reproductive organs and can reduce fertility and increase the risk of miscarriages. While Children are also especially vulnerable to air pollution, which can lead to leukaemia, childhood obesity and mental health problems.
But research into the damages of air pollution is at its infancy and many doctors are unaware of the effects of toxic air.
“Some [doctors] have no idea air pollution affects the organs they specialise in. But it affects their organs too and they had better pay attention,” said Shrufnagel.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact many people now live in megacities where air quality is poor.
“We are probably the first generation in history to be exposed to such a high level of pollution. People will say that in London or other places it was worse 100 years ago, but now we are talking about an incredible number of people exposed for a long time. We have megacities where all the citizens are breathing toxic air,” she said. “However, with all the tonnes of evidence we are collecting now, politicians will not be able to say we didn’t know,” said Dr. Neira.