Air Pollution Is Slowly Killing Us All, New Global Study Claims

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A comprehensive global study by the International Respiratory Society’s Environmental Committee and published recently in CHEST, the official publication of the American College of Chest Physicians, claims that air pollution may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in the human body. Here’s the executive summary of the report.

Air pollution poses a great environmental risk to health. Outdoor fine particulate matter (particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter < 2.5 μm) exposure is the fifth leading risk factor for death in the world, accounting for 4.2 million deaths and > 103 million disability-adjusted life years lost according to the Global Burden of Disease Report. The World Health Organization attributes 3.8 million additional deaths to indoor air pollution.

Air pollution can harm acutely, usually manifested by respiratory or cardiac symptoms, as well as chronically, potentially affecting every organ in the body. It can cause, complicate, or exacerbate many adverse health conditions. Tissue damage may result directly from pollutant toxicity because fine and ultrafine particles can gain access to organs, or indirectly through systemic inflammatory processes.

Susceptibility is partly under genetic and epigenetic regulation. Although air pollution affects people of all regions, ages, and social groups, it is likely to cause greater illness in those with heavy exposure and greater susceptibility. Persons are more vulnerable to air pollution if they have other illnesses or less social support. Harmful effects occur on a continuum of dosage and even at levels below air quality standards previously considered to be safe.

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Fine Particulate Matter

It wasn’t that long ago that most of us had never heard of fine particulate matter, or FPM. It’s a term that first appeared in news reports surrounding the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal. FPM emissions from diesel engines are significant, but they are a byproduct of burning all fossil fuels.

Some, like coal, create more. Some, like natural gas, create less. But all create some fine particulates. Whether its generating electricity, powering airplanes, or fueling cars, buses, trucks, and trains, fossil fuels fill the air with crud that is bad for us to breathe.

Research Is Hard

Research is hard to do on living humans. Many of the conclusions in the report are inferential. For instance, when Beijing shut down many of the more egregious sources of air pollution in the run-up to the Olympics in 2008, median birth weights in and around the city increased.

That makes it easy for fossil fuel apologists to attack the conclusions of reports such as this. Taking lessons learned from the tobacco industry, those who suck on the teat of Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute find it ridiculously easy to suggest that unless and until a particular FPM has been conclusively linked to a particular health issue, no action can be taken that would damage the economic interests of their clients.

That’s a little like saying that unless scientists can identify the particular photon that strikes the retina of a human eye as coming from the sun, dawn is just a theory. Such distortions have worked for more than half a century now. No need to abandon such tactics now when they are working so well.

Acute & Chronic Harm

“Air pollution can harm acutely, as well as chronically, potentially affecting every organ in the body,” the researchers conclude. “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.”

Prof Dean Schraufnagel, at the University of Illinois at Chicago and who led the reviews, tells The Guardian. “I wouldn’t be surprised if almost every organ was affected. If something is missing [from the review] it is probably because there was no research yet.”

The review represents “very strong science,” says Dr. Maria Neira, director of public and environmental health at the World Health Organization. “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.”

The danger from FPM pollution is that those tiny particles are so small, they can cross directly into the bloodstream in the lungs. From there, they get transported to virtually every cell in the body. Unborn children are especially at risk as they are completely dependent upon the mother’s bloodstream for sustenance.

“Animal studies have shown they can even travel right up the olfactory nerve into the brain,” Schraufnagel saya. He adds that an emerging area of research suggests air pollution can affect how genes function as well. Strokes, dementia, and reduced intelligence are all conditions affecting the brain that have been linked to air pollution. Poor sleep can also be a consequence of breathing toxic air.

“Immune cells think a [pollution particle] is a bacteria, go after it and try to kill it by releasing enzymes and acids,” he explains. “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.”

Many doctors are unaware of the wide-ranging damage associated with air pollution, Schraufnagel says. “Some have no idea air pollution affects the organs they specialize in. But it affects their organs too and they had better pay attention. They need to educate their patients and then they should speak up in favor of action.”

The report warns that “Harmful effects occur even at levels below air quality standards previously considered to be safe. The good news is that the problem of air pollution can be addressed.” Schraufnagel says, “The best way to reduce exposure is to control it at its source.”

Addressing The Problem At Its Source

Since most air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, heat homes and power transport, “We need to work on these factors in a very dramatic way,” Dr. Neira. “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. However, with all the tons of evidence we are collecting now, politicians will not be able to say we didn’t know.”

Well, yes, Dr.Neira, that’s exactly what they will say, because that’s what those who fund their continued political careers will require them to say so in order to keep the flow of campaign dollars flowing.

The difference is that whereas before climate activists could only talk about some inchoate climate emergency, starving polar bears, and thinning ice shelves at the poles, now we can say “STOP POLLUTING OUR BODIES AND KILLING OUR CHILDREN!” Those are words that even the most feckless politician can understand.

The solution should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. Electrify everything with renewable energy and stop burning fossil fuels. D’uh.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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