17 terrible ways air pollution can affect your health

Pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter (PM) can have at least 17 adverse effects on human health.

Myupchar October 23, 2019 13:56:33 IST
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17 terrible ways air pollution can affect your health
  • A four-year study in China found that higher levels of air pollution were linked to lower test scores in school-goers

  • Air pollution that enters the lungs and bloodstream weakens the immune system from within

  • A recent meta-study linked exposure to PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, and carbon monoxide with increased risk of dementia or cognitive decline in the elderly

Delhi's air quality has been yoyoing from moderate to unhealthy over the past week - it became better at the beginning of this week, thanks in part to the brightly shining sun and moisture in the air. This is a welcome change from the last few years when the beginning of winter combined with stubble-burning in the farms of nearby states and Diwali crackers played havoc on air quality.

Earlier this month, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote an editorial in a national daily stating that air pollution was actually on a downward trend in Delhi. This is happy news indeed, as pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter (PM) as small as 10 microns and 2.5 microns can have at least 17 adverse effects on human health. (A micrometre or micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre.)

17 terrible ways air pollution can affect your health

Representational image. Image source: Getty Images.

At the time of publishing this story, air quality in south Delhi was an "unhealthy" 189. Here’s a quick look at the health effects of air pollution:

1. Hair loss: Fine particulate matter, especially from dust and diesel, can affect the cells at the base of hair follicles and cause hair to fall out, new research shows.

2. Headache, dizziness and nausea: Air pollution is a cocktail of deadly chemicals from ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, cigarette smoke to particulate matter so small it can enter through the nose and go into the lungs and brain. Exposure to these chemicals can cause any or all of these health conditions.

3. Irritation in eyes, nose, throat and skin: As the farmers in north India burn farm stubble, the fumes produced can irritate the nose, eyes and skin. The fumes contain nitrates and volatile carbon compounds that tend to settle closer to the ground in the winter months.

4. Reduced intelligence: A four-year study in China found that higher levels of air pollution were linked to lower test scores in school-goers - especially in languages and math. The researchers chalked it up to prolonged exposure to ozone, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and coarse particulate matter (PM10).

5. Stress leading to anxiety and sleeping disorders: Research shows that air pollution increases the levels of stress hormones — cortisol, cortisone, epinephrine and norepinephrine — in the body. This, in turn, can lead to anxiety, depression and sleeping disorders.

6. Psychosis: A recent study at the King’s College London found a possible link between exposure to nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide — present in exhaust fumes from vehicles and factories — and psychosis in adolescents.

7. Poor immunity: Air pollution that enters the lungs and bloodstream weakens the immune system from within. Factors like greater stress, difficulty sleeping and repeated infections compound the negative effects.

8. High blood pressure: Particulate matter that is less than 10 micrometres in diameter can enter the bloodstream through the nose. It can irritate, inflame and constrict the blood vessels. As the blood flow gets sluggish, the heart has to beat faster to restore blood supply to every part of the body. This elevated pressure is known as hypertension or high BP.

9. Atherosclerosis: Once the particulate matter reaches the blood vessels and causes inflammation, it can also trigger the build-up of cholesterol plaque on the arterial walls - a condition known as atherosclerosis. In severe cases, atherosclerosis can completely block one or two main arteries of the heart - this is when cardiologists typically suggest an angioplasty.

10. Heart attack: A piece of the cholesterol plaque on arterial walls can break off and form a clot. If this clot blocks the blood supply to a section of the heart, it can result in a heart attack.

11. Stroke: Ultra-fine particulate matter is small enough to go through the nose and into the brain. If it forms a blood clot that interrupts blood flow to the brain, it can lead to a stroke.

12. Emphysema, Bronchitis and Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Tobacco smoke is one of the biggest reasons for COPD - a lung disease that includes emphysema, bronchitis and asthma. According to the Cleveland Clinic, one of the top health centres in the world, chemicals from one cigarette can linger in the air for about 4 hours - enough time for them to cause respiratory diseases.

13. Pneumonia: Research shows that exposure to indoor air pollution — kitchen fuels and cigarette smoke, among other things — significantly increases the risk of pneumonia in children under 5 and adults over 65.

14. Aggravated asthma: Particulate matter can pass through tissue, irritate the airway and lungs and aggravate asthma in people who already have this respiratory illness. Prolonged exposure to industrial and vehicular fumes which contain nitrogen dioxide also exacerbate this condition.

15. Dementia: A recent meta-study (a study of studies) linked exposure to PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, and carbon monoxide with increased risk of dementia or cognitive decline in the elderly. Researchers have also linked air pollution, especially ultrafine particles, with potential risk for Alzheimer’s disease. How does this happen? Research shows that particulate matter inhaled through the nose can enter the lungs, from where it can crossover into the blood. Very fine particulate matter can even cross the “blood-brain barrier” to negatively impact brain function.

16. Miscarriages, premature births, low birth weight and birth defects: Research shows air pollutants like black carbon can travel through the placenta and lead to a host of problems like preemie birth and low birth weight. According to research conducted by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, US, women who were exposed to air pollutants just before and after getting pregnant tended to give birth to babies with malformations like cleft palates and abnormal hearts.

17. Premature death: WHO data show that indoor and outdoor air pollution causes a combined seven million premature deaths every year. Conversely, research shows that reducing the quantity of PM 2.5 can increase life expectancy.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more information, please read our article on Asthma: Stages, Symptoms, Prevention.

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