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The Quint

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How The Air You Breathe Is Killing You

As the COVID restrictions ease, and the world goes about its business as usual, pollution season is back – and with a vengeance.

Brain, lungs, heart – extensive research shows that air pollution impacts every part of our body. In fact, it could damage our very cells.

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HOW DOES AIR POLLUTION
IMPACT YOUR BODY?

Heart

In the short run, air pollution mainly worsens pre-existing heart conditions in the elderly and vulnerable, and ups the risk of heart attacks.

In the long run, pollution is believed to have inflammatory effects on the heart, causing chronic cardiovascular problems.

Air pollution has a multifactorial effect on the heart. Not only are the pollutants and gases directly toxic to the heart (causing arteries to harden and blood to thicken causing clots and blockages, it also doesn’t allow you to exercise.

Dr Vishal Rastogi
Dr Vishal Rastogi, Director, Interventional Cardiology, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, New Delhi

Brain

Mounting evidence suggests exposure to lead, PM2.5 particles, and ozone from air pollution may be a key factor in causing:

- Increased risk of stroke
- Cognitive issues like dementia
- Parkinson's disease
- Alzheimer's disease

BIG FACT

Exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of serious mental health issues such as schizophrenia and depression, found a recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Scientifically, it has been shown that pollution will reduce the thickness of the grey matter which is on the outer side, which is responsible for all our cognitive capacities. It makes the white matter, which is on the inside, fragile and moth-eaten. It reduces the size of vital memory areas of the brain and causes an overall shrinkage of the brain.

Dr Manjari Tripathi
Dr Manjari Tripathi, Neurologist, AIIMS Delhi

Lungs

In the short run, breathing in air pollutants can irritate your airways and may cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, asthma episodes and chest pain.

Prolonged exposure can lead to serious:

- Lung damage
- Risk of bronchitis
- Asthma, particularly in children

BIG FACT

Ambient air pollution accounts for 4.2 million deaths globally every year, mostly due to acute respiratory infection.

I don't remember when I last saw a pink lung in the operation theatre. The clinical manifestation of that (air pollution) is the increase in the number of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) cases.

Dr Aravind Kumar
Dr Aravind Kumar, Chairman, Institute of Chest Surgery and Lung Transplantation, Medanta Hospital, Gurugram

Gut Health

The ecosystem in our guts is extremely complex. It is hence difficult to pin down exactly what is causing a disbalance and stomach issues.

Urban airborne particulate matter (PM) ingested via contaminated food can lead to inflammation in the gut and alter gut microbiome and immune function.

Research shows that air pollution is linked to change in the gut microbiota which are living in our digestive tract. When there is a change in the gut microbiota, then diseases like Crohn's disease, IBS, and in some cases some liver diseases have also been linked to the change in the gut microbiota.

Dr Ashwini Setya
Dr Ashwini Setya, Gastroenterologist

Reproductive health

Strong evidence links air pollution to a higher risk of miscarriages, premature birth, and decreased fertility in men.

BIG FACT

A study, conducted last year, with 18,571 couples who were part of the China Fertility Survey of Married Women, found that women exposed to small particle pollution had a 20% greater risk of infertility.

Another study in China found that exposure to PM 2.5 particles decreased sperm motility in men.

Young and middle-aged men are more affected by air pollution, and the possibility of damage to sperm at this age will be higher.

Dr Richard Shaw
Dr Richard Shaw, male reproductive health expert, Sheffield

Blood

Air pollution has also been linked to anaemia in women in middle and lower-income countries. Every ten microgram/meter cube increases in ambient PM2.5 exposure, the average anaemia prevalence among women increases by 7.23 percent.

This may be especially indicative, and detrimental in a country like India where, according to the WHO’s data, over 50 percent of women have anaemia.

HOW PROTECTED ARE YOU?
Some measures that can help you protect yourself
  • Using well-fitted N95 Masks
  • Avoid using desi nuskas like burning camphor or incense sticks, that can worsen irritation in the airways.
  • Check daily air pollution forecasts in your area. Avoid exercising outdoors on days when pollution levels are high.
  • Carpool, use public transportation, bike, whenever possible.
  • Be sure your tires are properly inflated.
  • Check the ingredients in paints to make sure they are lead free.
  • Avoid smoking indoors/ being in closed spaces with others who are smoking.

DID YOU KNOW?