Air pollution has become a major environmental and health issue in recent times. Post-Diwali, owing to the crackers and stubble burning, pollution levels have only reached an alarming high, with AQI levels becoming more severe. The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is having an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.
WHO experts say that air pollution kills “an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year.” It says about 4 million deaths are linked to outdoor air pollution and about 3 million deaths are linked to inside air polution, also called “household air polution.” The WHO adds that air polution harms billions more.
Fine particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller seems to do the most damage. That size is about 3% the size of a human hair or smaller. Scientists often call this kind of air polution PM2.5, for short. The smallest PM can move through tissue.
Because we breathe in air polution, we may think that it only affects the human breathing system. But research shows that the mouth, nose, throat and lungs are not the only body parts affected by air polution.
Many in the scientific community say that PM2.5 can affect every organ and every cell in our body. Researchers have found that PM2.5 can even pass through the barrier that protects our brains. It can also reach the placenta. So, even in the womb, a fetus is not safe from air polution.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 90 percent of the global population is breathing in polluted air, which comprises harmful gases and particles that can be detrimental to our lung health. When we breathe in air pollutants, we expose our respiratory tracts to tiny, harmful particles that can irritate our airways and cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, asthma episodes and chest pain.
Experts believe that there is a direct association between air polution and plaque build up in the coronary arteries, which supply blood, oxygen and nutrients to your heart. When you breathe in air pollutants, the particulate matter can get absorbed in the bloodstream, which then travels to various organs of the body.
Air pollution levels vary around the world, with the highest levels recorded in low-income countries. India, for example, is home to the 14 cities with the highest concentrations of air polution. More than 90% of the world, however, is breathing dangerous amounts of toxic particles.
The main causes of air pollution include burning fossil fuels, waste-burning facilities, agriculture, air conditioners, and chemical factories, according to the National Resource Defense Council.
They reported that older adults with heavy exposure to air pollution performed poorly on tests of brain operations. They said this group showed an increased risk of dementia compared to adults with less exposure.
The reports add that air pollution weakens bones so they break more easily. Air pollution also ages our skin, hurts our eyes and interferes with sleep. It affects the kidneys. And the researchers said living near busy roadways might lead to liver disease.