Air Pollution and Disease

When you think of the dangerous health effects of air pollution, you probably think of asthma, emphysema, and lung disease. What you may not consider are the other, perhaps surprising, diseases tied to air pollution. In fact, air pollution is ranked ninth among modifiable disease risk factors globally, making it more harmful than a sedentary lifestyle, elevated cholesterol, and drug use. The research on cardiovascular disease shows that air pollution not only exacerbates existing heart conditions but also appears to have a role in the development of the disease. Alzheimer’s, too, has an air pollution connection. A new study highlights how environmental and genetic factors participate in the occurrence of this complex disease.

Researchers found that subjects (in this case, women ages 65-79) who lived in areas with high concentrations of the fine particulate matter that easily penetrates the lungs had a significantly greater risk for cognitive decline and dementia than those with the lowest exposure. Women with a specific gene variant, ApoE4, which is strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease, were at greater risk than those without that variant. There is even new discussion about the effects of air pollution on the bacteria that causes respiratory infections, suggesting that air pollution may increase the risk of infection and may also change the way antibiotic treatment of these infections works. There are steps you can take to help protect your health, including tracking your local Air Quality Index (AQI), a nationwide rating based on daily levels of major pollutants. If you must drive in heavy traffic, keep the windows closed and set your car’s ventilation system to “recirculate.” To filter air in your home or office and trap large particles, rely on air conditioning and the use of a HEPA air purifier.