There are numerous diseases caused by air pollution, a fact corroborated by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Research points to the fact that long-term exposure to pollutants in the air increases one’s risk for respiratory diseases, among others. The NIEHS found that seniors and children are highly vulnerable to the ill-effects of ozone, fine particulate matter and other toxicants in the air. Pollution-stimulated diseases can range from mild to chronic and can severely affect an individual’s quality of life.
Causes of air pollution: There are several causes of air pollution, such as:
- Ground-level Ozone: Ground-level ozone forms when Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides that react with the ultraviolet rays of the sun. These VOCs and nitrogen oxides are emitted from cars, buses, trucks, agricultural and construction equipment.
- Particulate Matter (PM): This complex and dangerous mixture contains soot, metals, sulphates, smoke, nitrates, water, dust and tire rubber. It can be part of the air directly as smoke from a fire or it can be a part of the atmosphere due to nitrogen oxide reactions.
The size of these particles may be small or fine particulate matter, represented as PM2.5. They are dangerous as they can enter the lungs and the bloodstream. Exposure to these particles can severely affect the heart and lungs.
- Burning of Fossil Fuels: One of the major causes of air pollution is sulphur dioxide, emitted from burning fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and other factory flammables. Carbon monoxide, emitted when combustion is incomplete is generally emitted from vehicles along with nitrogen oxides, produced by natural and manmade methods.
- Agricultural systems: A common agricultural by-product, ammonia is a very hazardous gas released in air. Besides, by using insecticides, fertilizers and pesticides which emit harmful chemicals, we add to the air pollution already present.
- Exhaust from factories and industries: Industries release large quantities of carbon monoxide, chemicals and hydrocarbons into the air, thereby reducing the quality of clean and breathable air. Manufacturing industries and petroleum refineries pollute the air with dangerous chemicals and gases that deplete the quality of air we breathe.
Top 10 diseases caused by air pollution:
- Asthma: Asthma is a disease triggered by air pollution. It can be chronic, debilitating and inflammatory to the airways. It is brought on by air pollution on the roads from emissions of cars, factories or power plants. Other common air pollutants that could trigger asthma are ground level ozone, fine particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and tobacco smoke.
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD): This is another respiratory disease in which the patient’s airways and air sacs lose shape and turn floppy. Common forms of COPD are severe bronchitis and emphysema. Women facing automobile exhaust have a high risk of decreased lung function, COPD and premature death. This also makes truck drivers, railroad workers and dockworkers more prone to lung cancer, heart disease and COPD.
- Lung Cancer: Also due to fine particulate matter in the air due to motor vehicle emissions, lung cancer develops due to the unrestricted growth of abnormal cells in either or both lungs. Over time, these cells form tumors and prevent the lung from functioning normally.
- Cystic Fibrosis: High levels of air pollution aggravate the development of cystic fibrosis, a serious disease. This disease, hereditary in nature, affects the mucous glands all over the body and in the lungs. Thick mucous areas develop in the lungs, allowing harmful bacteria to flourish there. Consequently, patients with cystic fibrosis have a large number of lung infections and breathing issues, chiefly because of their respiratory problems due to this condition and because they live in cities where the concentration of air pollution is very high.
- Cancers: Cancers are chiefly caused due to environmental factors, a fact borne out by the various kinds of cancer that result due to air pollution. They are:
- Pulmonary cancer: This develops when people inhale different kinds of carcinogenic matter through polluted air.
- Liver cancer: The effect of fine particulate matter for a sustained period is known to cause liver cancer, apart from breast and pancreatic cancer too.
- Leukaemia: Benzene vapors that escape into the air through vehicle emissions cause this blood cancer.
- Mesothelioma: People who are exposed to asbestos particles in the air are prone to developing mesothelioma.
- Cardiovascular problems: People living close to busy traffic areas run a higher risk of cardiovascular deaths. Exposure to fine particulate matter or PM2.5 is linked with deaths due to coronary heart disease. Pre-existing cardiovascular problems, coupled with poor air quality and several poisonous gases and particulate matter hanging in the air are chief causes of heart disease and stroke. Among women, air pollution is linked with death due to ischemic heart disease.
- Smoking: Tobacco smoke in the air emits fine particulate matter, which is extremely dangerous for health. Cigarette smoke releases 40 carcinogens and toxins into the air, polluting it and making it lethal for animal and human life.
- Pneumonia: It has been found by researchers that protracted exposure to high pollutant levels from car exhaust fumes and industrial pollution leads to pneumonia in adults, 65 years and above.
- Birth defects: Due to constantly breathing polluted air, birth defects and those of the immune system are common. Research points to the fact that pregnant women living in areas of high concentration of carbon monoxide or nitrogen were doubly likely to give birth to children with neural tube defects, such as those of the brain and spinal cord than those who lived in cleaner environments.
- Autism: Research has proved that pregnant women in their third trimester who are exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter double their risk of having an autistic child than women living in areas of low particulate matter.
By being aware of the pollutants in the air that cause our health to be depleted, we can take steps to clean the air we breathe or wear face masks or keep away from areas of high levels of gas emissions and busy traffic areas. In small ways, we can help ourselves to lead a healthy life.