Pollution harm to health, risks, danger, how to reduce harm from toxins, by Ray Sahelian, M.D.
September 20 2016

The air we breathe is laced with cancer-causing substances and is being officially classified as carcinogenic to humans, according to the World Health Organization's cancer agency. Furthermore, as traffic piles up, so does air pollution.

It appears that living in major urban areas such as New York or Los Angeles increases the risk of developing cancer. New Yorkers' risk of developing cancer from air toxins is estimated to be 68 residents per million. In California, the risk is 66 residents per million. The national average is 41 per million, according to the report based on emissions of 177 chemicals in 1999, the most recent data available. Oregon, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey had the third, fourth and fifth worst air in the nation, respectively, the EPA has said. Rural residents of Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana breathed the cleanest air. The EPA assessment evaluated toxins including heavy metals, such as lead; volatile chemicals, such as benzene; combustion byproducts, such as acrolein; and solvents, including perchloroethylene and methylene chloride. Benzene alone contributed a quarter of the individual cancer risk identified in this assessment, the primary source of it being vehicles. The National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) is a screening tool that estimates cancer and other health risks from exposure to air toxins. It provides a snapshot of air quality and the risks if 1999 emissions levels remained unchanged. It does not reflect reductions in air toxins that may have occurred since 1999.

Indoor air has gases
Exposure to certain common indoor air pollutants may impair older adults' lung function. Volatile organic compounds might exacerbate lung or heart disease symptoms in older adults. Volatile organic compounds are chemicals emitted from a range of products, including paints, varnishes, household cleaning agents, glue, inks and building materials. Because concentrations of the chemicals are up to five times higher indoors than outdoors, volatile organic compounds are generally considered indoor air pollutants. European Respiratory Journal, online March 29, 2010.

Overweight children exposed to high levels of certain household chemicals may be more likely to develop certain risk factors linked to heart disease and diabetes. Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), used in stain and water repellants for carpets, furniture and textiles, can interfere with the endocrine system of overweight children. These kids are more likely to develop early warning signs of metabolic syndrome, a condition that involves a group of risk factors for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Endocrine Society, news release, Feb. 25, 2014.

House toxicity
Household dust has several toxic chemicals that have been linked to an increased risk of a range of health hazards, from cancer to problems with fertility. The chemicals are shed from a host of common products, from flooring to electrical goods as well as beauty and cleaning products. Children are vulnerable to the health effects of contaminated dust as they often play or crawl on the floor and frequently touch their mouths.

Damage to health, longevity, shortening of lifespan
Dr. Sophie Larrieu of the French Institute of Public Health and Surveillance in Bordeaux says the link between dirty air and illness and death from cardiac and respiratory causes is clear but little is known about whether pollution might trigger less severe but more common health effects. To investigate, Dr. Sophie Larrieu looked at patient visit data gathered by 60 general practitioners in Bordeaux between 2000 and 2006, comparing it to information on local air pollution levels for the same time period. After a rise in particulate matter or nitrogen dioxide levels, more people visited the doctor for upper and lower respiratory tract disease. Rises in both pollutants, as well as in ozone levels, were also associated with increases in visits for headache, malaise and weakness. Increases in particulate matter and in ozone boosted visits for skin rash or conjunctivitis. Effects often lasted for several days after the rise in pollution. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2009.

Check the Air Quality Index (AQI) for your area and limit time outdoors when the rating is above 100.

Breathing in tiny particles of toxic chemicals from the air leads to an increased risk of premature death. Particulate matter is really harmful to health, increasing overall mortality, mostly deaths from cardiovascular disease, as well as deaths from respiratory disease in nonsmokers.

Wear a face mask
When people are exposed to air polluted with diesel exhaust, arteries temporarily stiffen, blood pressure rises and heart rhythm is altered. However, when individuals wear a facemask like those worn by construction workers to keep from breathing dust, the effects of the air pollution are reduced. Particle and Fibre Toxicology, 2009.

Allergy Asthma Immunol Res. 2016. Environmental Exposure and Genetic Predisposition as Risk Factors for Asthma in China. China has undergone dramatic changes in the past few decades. The traditional lifestyle and living environment have changed in ways that directly affect the prevalence of asthma. The prevalence of asthma is lower in Chinese children and adults than in developed countries, but the prevalence has been on the rise during the past 30 years. The prevalence significantly varies among different parts of China. Polymorphisms of multiple genes, outdoor air pollution caused by PM2.5, PM10, SO₂, NO₂, environmental tobacco smoke, and coal, indoor pollution, and inhaled allergens, such as house dust mites, pollen, and cockroach particles, are risk factors for asthma.

Air pollution and atherosclerosis
The closer a person lives to heavy traffic and resultant air pollution, the more likely he or she is to have atherosclerosis. Large population studies have shown pollution from the exhaust of trucks, buses and coal-burning factories increases the risk of fatal heart attacks and strokes. The atherosclerosis risk associated with living near a busy street is may be greater than the risk associated with second-hand smoke exposure. Tiny particles of air pollution -- less than one tenth the width of a human hair -- can trigger clotting in the blood. This may explain how air pollution increases the risk for heart attacks and strokes.

According to a report in the Sept 13, 2007 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, in men with a history of coronary heart disease, inhalation of pollution in the form of dilute diesel exhaust increases myocardial ischemia and inhibits fibrinolysis. Lead researcher Dr. Nicholas L. Mills, from the University of Edinburgh in the UK, and colleagues conclude, "In light of these findings, environmental health policy interventions targeting reductions in urban pollution should be considered in order to decrease the risk of adverse cardiovascular events."

Air pollution and brain function
Inhaling diesel exhaust may damage brain function. Small particles of soot, or nanoparticles, are able to travel from the nose and lodge in the brain. The long-term effects of exposure to traffic nanoparticles interferes with normal brain function and information processing. Air pollution and inhaling of car exhaust may be another cause of cognitive decline.

Heart disease and stroke
Pollution from industry, traffic and power generation increases the risk for strokes and heart attacks, and people should avoid breathing in smog. Fine particulate matter from burning fossil fuels such as gasoline, coal and oil is the clearest offender. Dr. Robert Brook of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, reviewed several year's worth of medical research. He found strong evidence that pollution can help clog arteries, and a "small yet consistent" association between short-term exposure to air pollution and premature death. Dr. Robert Brook says "It's possible that certain very small particles, or chemicals that travel with them, may reach the circulation and cause direct harm. These responses can increase blood clotting and thrombosis, impair vascular function and blood flow, elevate blood pressure, and disrupt proper cardiac electrical activity which may ultimately provoke heart attacks, strokes, or even death.

N Am J Med Sci. 2013. The Emerging Role of Outdoor and Indoor Air Pollution in Cardiovascular Disease. Outdoor and indoor air pollution poses a significant cardiovascular risk, and has been associated with atherosclerosis, the main underlying pathology in many cardiovascular diseases. Although, it is well known that exposure to air pollution causes pulmonary disease, recent studies have shown that cardiovascular health consequences of air pollution generally equal or exceed those due to pulmonary diseases. The objective of this article is to evaluate the current evidence on the emerging role of environmental air pollutions in cardiovascular disease, with specific focus on the types of air pollutants and mechanisms of air pollution-induced cardiotoxicity. Published literature on pollution was systematically reviewed and cited in this article. It is hoped that this review will provide a better understanding of the harmful cardiovascular effects induced by air pollution exposure. This will help to bring a better understanding on the possible preventive health measures and will also serve regulatory agencies and researchers. In addition, elucidating the biological mechanisms underlying the link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease is an essential target in developing novel pharmacological strategies aimed at decreasing adverse effects of air pollution on cardiovascular system.

A reduction in fine-particulate air pollution in the last few decades is credited with significantly increasing life expectancy in the United States. For every decrease of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate air pollution in a city, its residents' average life expectancy increases by more than seven months. Moreover, this improvement is largely unaffected by changes in demographic, socioeconomic or smoking variables.

Lung Cancer
Tiny metallic bits of air pollution could account for some cases of lung cancer. Texas researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas aren't sure exactly how dangerous the particles are, nor do they fully understand their potential relationship to tobacco smoke. About 10 percent to 15 percent of lung cancer cases occur among nonsmokers. One possible explanation: Inhalation of air pollution, especially fine particulate matter -- bits of metal that are too small to be seen with the naked eye but can still enter the lungs. Mining, smelting and petroleum production all produce this type of pollution.
   Radon is a radioactive gas that can cause bodily harm.

Air pollution increases the risk that an elderly person will be hospitalized for pneumonia. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, January 1, 2010.

Rheumatoid arthritis
Exposure to sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide or nitrogen oxide increases the risk for rheumatoid arthritis.

The risk of death due to hemorrhagic stroke is associated with exposure to high concentrations of particulate matter about 2 hours before death. Dr. Shin Yamazaki, an epidemiologist at Kyoto University, and associates collected data from the 13 largest cities in Japan regarding concentrations of suspended particulate matter 7 m diameters or higher (PM7), ambient temperature, plus other components of air pollution, from January 1990 to December 1994. According to their analyses, the odds ratio (OR) of death from ischemic stroke was associated with temperatures above 30 degrees centigrade in the warmer months compared with moderate temperatures of 15 to 22 degrees (OR 1.333). In contrast, the risk of death due to intracerebral hemorrhage was increased in cold weather (0 to 8 degrees, OR 1.225). However, during warmer months, a 1-hour mean concentration of PM7 > 200 g/m increased the risk of death from intracerebral hemorrhage (OR = 2.397), an association independent of 24-hour mean PM7 concentrations. In contrast, death due to ischemic stroke was not associated with 1-hour PM7 levels. Dr. Yamazaki's team suggests this discrepancy may be due to the longer interval from ischemic stroke onset to death, or to the fact that inhaled particles raise blood pressure, a risk factor for intracerebral bleeding. Moreover, they write, "during the 4 years covered by this study, there were 443 hours in which the concentration of PM7 was over the 1-hour air quality standard (in Tokyo), and that 49 of those hours (11%) occurred on days when the 24-hour mean concentration of PM7 was within the air quality standard for 24-hour periods." Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2006.

Air Pollution and Pregnancy, and premature delivery
Pregnant women who are exposed to low levels of air pollution seem to have an increased risk of giving birth before term. Women who live in areas with high carbon monoxide or fine particle levels - pollution caused mainly by motor vehicle traffic -- are more likely to have preterm birth (delivery before 37 weeks of pregnancy), compared with women who live in less polluted areas. This is especially true for women who breathe polluted air during the first 2 or 3 months of pregnancy or during the last weeks before delivery.

Water Pollution and testosterone inhibition
Testosterone-inhibiting chemicals are present in UK rivers, possibly helping to feminize male fish. In tests of treated sewage wastewater flowing into 51 UK rivers, almost all of the samples contained anti-androgen chemicals -- substances that block the action of the male sex hormone testosterone. Past studies have suggested that estrogen-disrupting pollutants -- from sources like industrial chemicals and birth-control pills -- may be leading to the feminization of some wild fish. Researchers have discovered river-dwelling male fish with female characteristics, including eggs in their testes. Environmental Health Perspectives, online January 7, 2009.

Air pollution in children
Traffic pollution can prevent the lungs of children who live near busy roads from developing properly, making them more likely to suffer respiratory and heart problems later in life. Children who live within a few hundred yards of a highway have less lung function when they reach adulthood than children exposed to much less traffic pollution.
   Toddlers who breathe polluted air are more likely to be diagnosed with bronchitis than children living in cleaner environments. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are strongly linked with cases of bronchitis among children aged 2 to 5. PAHs are produced when fuels that contain carbon such as wood, coal, diesel or tobacco are burned.

Air pollution from driving on freeway
A driver on a busy morning freeway inhales more pollution than in the entire rest of the day. Drivers in heavy traffic are  exposed to diesel and ultrafine particles. On freeways, diesel-fueled trucks are the source of the highest concentrations of harmful pollutants. Ultrafine particles are of particular concern because, unlike larger particles, they can penetrate cell walls and disperse throughout the body. Particulate matter has been linked to cardiovascular disease, but the ultrafine fraction on roadways appears to be more toxic than larger sizes. Driving with the windows closed and using recirculating air settings can modestly reduce the particle pollution exposures but does not reduce most gaseous pollutants.

Pollution from school buses
School buses can be a major source of pollution exposure for children. Ninety-five percent of the nation's school buses are diesel-powered, and some are recommending that they be refitted with fuel oxygenators or other anti-pollution equipment. The oldest buses seem to pump out soot every time they climb a hill or accelerate. Those buses produce as much as 20 times the pollution of newer models. Several states are using alternative-fuel buses, replacing older buses with cleaner-burning models or retrofitting buses with devices that trap emissions. A considerably more low-tech method also can reduce children's exposure to bus pollution, especially as they wait in the parking lot for a ride home.

Air pollution in California's San Joaquin Valley imposes $3 billion annually in health-care, lost productivity and other costs on the farm-rich region. University researchers used measures such as premature deaths, asthma attacks, cases of acute bronchitis, hospital admissions, school absences and lost work days for their estimates on the effect of air pollution in the valley.

Fish and marine life
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in fish tissue may be an indicator of plastic contamination in marine habitats. Sci Total Environ. Feb 2014.

Air Pollution in Hong Kong keeps getting worse
Hong Kong's air pollution may be responsible for a jump in children being admitted to hospital for asthma, a six-year study has found. The study, published in the June, 2006 issue of the medical journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy that is soon to be distributed, is certain to heighten concerns over the city's worsening air pollution. Companies in Hong Kong have blamed the territory's air pollution for driving away some expatriates and making it more difficult to recruit foreign workers in recent years. Using hospital admission records in the years 1997 through 2002, researchers at the University of Hong Kong found that a total of 26,663 children were admitted into hospital for asthma during the six-year period. After days when pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone and respirable suspended particulates were especially high, the numbers of children admitted for asthma would rise by 13 percent on average, according to the study. "Air pollution is triggering such bad asthma that they need to be admitted into hospital. (And these cases) are just a tip of the iceberg," says Lee So-lun, honorary clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

Roadside air pollution in Hong Kong hit record highs in the first six months of 2010, hurting public health and economic competitiveness compared with Asian rivals. The city's air quality hit "unhealthy" levels about 10 percent of the time between January and June, the highest level in five years

Air pollution from fire
When a fire burns it generates carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other chemicals. And the wind can carry those particles to areas far from the fires. People with asthma or other lung conditions can see their condition getting worse by inhaling the pollution from the fire.

Atrazine weed killer and birth defects
Living near farms that use the weed killer atrazine may up the risk of a rare birth defect. About 1 in 5000 babies born in the U.S. each year suffers from gastroschisis, in which part of the intestines bulges through a separation in the belly, according to the March of Dimes. The rate of gastroschisis has risen 2- to 4-fold over the last three decades.

More girls than boys are born in some Canadian communities because airborne pollutants called dioxins can alter normal sex ratios, even if the source of the pollution is many miles away.

Fracking danger
Hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to cancer, infertility and a slew of other health problems have been found in water samples collected at and near hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," sites. There are elevated levels of chemicals -- known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) -- in surface water and groundwater samples.

Pollution natural treatment and prevention questions
Could alpha lipoic acid be helpful in reducing toxin damage from air pollution?
   It's difficult to say, I am not sure.

I heard about a chemical called bisphonal, is it safe?
   See bisphenal a for a discussion on this topic.

What are your thoughts on the effect of electromagnetic radiation and ways to protect the body utilizing nutrition?
   We are exposed to countless types of harm to our bodies through electromagnetic radiation, pollutants, toxins, chemicals, radon, through air, skin, food, drinks, water, etc. The best way to deal with these is to minimize exposure to all these but it is impossible to eliminate it. A practical approach regarding nutrition is to eat as healthy as possible, organic foods when possible, and have good lifestyle habits of deep sleep and exercise and low stress, but to not worry too much about the specific types of harms that occur to our bodies by living in this modern world. I am not aware of natural treatments of prevention methods specific to protect the body from electromagnetic radiation, but just living a healthy lifestyle should be a good approach.