Air pollution is one of the major public health concerns affecting nine out of ten individuals living in urban areas worldwide as per the World Health Organization (WHO) Ambient Air Pollution database. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) revealed that 10 major cities in India including Delhi, Noida, Faridabad, and Lucknow have very poor air quality index. Long-term exposure to poor quality air can not only cause breathing problems but also increase the risk of respiratory illness. Moreover, exposure to air pollution is the ninth leading risk factor for cardiopulmonary mortality. Here’s more on air pollution and its effects on our health.
Who is at risk of air pollution?
Though air pollution doesn’t spare anyone, there are certain groups who are more vulnerable to it. The groups who are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution are:
-Kids because they spend more time outdoors, are more physically active, and inhale more air which makes their developing lungs more prone to damage.
-Older people as they are more susceptible to inflammation and respiratory complications due to air pollution.
-People with pre-existing diseases or conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular disease, and diabetes as they have impaired metabolism and immunity.
-Pregnant women because pollutants present in air can impact the growth of the fetus and also lead to complications such as miscarriage, preterm delivery, and stillbirth.
-People with an increased exposure to pollution such as those exercising outdoors or people working outdoors like labors as they end up inhaling more polluted which causes airway inflammation and increase the risk of respiratory infections.
What are the harmful effects of air pollution?
The sources of pollution vary from small unit of cigarettes and natural sources such as volcanic activities to large volume of emission from motor engines of automobiles and generators, forest or farm fires, wood smoke, and industrial activities. According to the World Health Organization, six major air pollutants include particulate matter, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead.
Ground-level ozone, a colorless and odorless gas, can cause inflammation of the airways. Particulate matter, which varies in size (diameter less than size 2.5μm and around 2.5 μm to 10 μm) penetrate deeper into the lungs. These reach the alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lungs) and can impact breathing. The ultrafine particulate matter can cross the alveoli and enter the bloodstream. These are then transported to various organs increasing the risk of various health complications.
The effects of air pollution on respiratory health is widely known but its impact on other major organs of the body is not known much. Air pollution can cause short-term as well as long-term impact on the overall health. Some of the harmful effects of air pollution on humans include:
1. Respiratory disorders: As the pollutants enter the body through the airways, symptoms of respiratory diseases have resulted first. It can lead to irritation of the airways causing cough, throat irritation, changes in the voice, etc. It can worsen the symptoms of wheezing, asthma, bronchitis, COPD, and other respiratory conditions in people already suffering from the condition. In the long run, air pollution can increase the risk of pneumonia, impaired lung development in kids, and even lung cancer.
2. Eye problems: Chronic exposure to air pollutants can increase the risk of retinopathy and ocular problems such as dry eyes, eye pain, and changes in the vision. It can also lead to irritation of the eyes and in rare cases, can also lead to blindness.
Skin problems: Skin is the first line of defense against any foreign particle and the same is the case when it comes to dealing with air pollutants. These pollutants are absorbed by the skin, which leads to skin irritation, redness of the skin, hives, and allergy. The long-term exposure can cause acne, skin pigmentation, dark spots, and premature skin aging.
Cardiovascular problems: Exposure to air pollutants can increase blood pressure, which is a risk factor of heart disease. It can also lead to swelling of the right and left ventricles, which can impact the functioning of the heart. Other common effects on cardiovascular health include increased heart rate and inflammatory markers, high risk of atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, and cardiac failure.
Immune system: Poor air quality can cause serious complications in the immune system such as an abnormal increase in the serum levels of the immunoglobulin (Ig); IgA, IgM, and other inflammatory markers. Exposure to these immunotoxins can predispose you to various health complications including skin diseases, immune dysfunction, respiratory problems, and heart diseases.
Neurological complications: The toxic substances in air pollution can have damaging effects on the nervous system which include anxiety, aggression, hyperactivity, and neurological impairment in kids.
Reproductive problems: In pregnant women, exposure to air pollution can up the risk of low birth weight babies and preterm birth. If exposed for a long time, it can predispose the kid to respiratory complications and increase the risk of asthma in the fetus.
How can we reduce the harmful effects of air pollution?
Here are a few simple tips to lower the impact of air pollution on overall health.
-Stay indoors, whenever possible, to limit the exposure to outdoor pollution.
-Keep your door and windows closed to prevent polluted air from entering your house.
-Use a face mask or respirators to breathe cleaner air, when outdoors.
-Opt public transport or carpooling instead of private vehicles to reduce traffic and pollution.
-Avoid areas which are highly congested to lower the risk of pollution.
(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, General Physician)
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