Last week we talked about the impact of toxic air. How it affects your health and well-being. This week we are going dive deeper into how air affects us.

Air is linked to the leading causes of death in Australia. But how can air be so dangerous to our health? To get a better understanding of this we need to understand how toxins enter our system.

One of the most common and harmful forms of pollution is particulate matter (PM). PM is a mix of solid and liquid droplets often produced by fuel combustion and road traffic. Levels of PM in the air rise dramatically during dust storms and bushfires.

We measure particulate matter in microns. One micron is a millionth of a millimetre. To give you an idea of how tiny that is, a human hair measures approximately 75 microns across. A particle that is 10 microns or less (pm10) can enter the lungs and lodge deep within the lung tissue. A particle that is 2.5 microns (pm2.5) can pass into the bloodstream!

Long-term exposure to PM affects our physical and mental health. This is mainly due to oxidative stress. We experience oxidative stress when the antioxidants in our body are overwhelmed by free radicals.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the ways our bodies are affected.

The Brain

Pollution affects our brains in all manner of ways. Recent research links air pollution to vascular damage, inflammation and degenerative brain diseases. It can even exacerbate mental illness[1].

A more indirect effect on mental health is our reduced time outdoors and in open spaces. This leads to vitamin D deficiency, social isolation and reduced physical activities.

Particle that are pm2.5 are small enough to enter into our blood cells and the central nervous system. As we age, it increases the risk of Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and stroke[2].

Reproductive System

Air pollution affects male and female reproductive systems. It can lead to hormonal disturbances, oxidative stress, and DNA damage. This can cause low-quality sperm and/or eggs, leading to fertility problems. It can also increase the risk of miscarriage, pre-term birth and low birth weight[3].

Bone Density

Bone demineralisation and osteoporosis are directly linked to oxidative damage and inflammation.

A study published in 2017 found a direct link between prolonged exposure to pm2.5 and hospital admissions for bone fractures. Studies have even shown lower bone mineral density and increased rates of fractures in people who live in urban areas, compared to those in rural areas where the air is cleaner[4]

Skin damage

The skin is the largest organ in our body and our first line of defence against invaders. Particulate matter can enter directly through our skin and even through hair follicles.

Exposure to toxins is a well known contributor to dermatitis and psoriasis. It has also been implicated in skin cancer and contributes to ageing[5].

These are just a few of the ways toxic air can be damaging to our health. Come back next week when we look at how to improve the air around us and steps we can take to reduce our overall toxic load.

References:

  1. The Effects of Air Pollution on Individual Psychological Distress
  2. The Adverse Effects of Air Pollution on the Nervous System
  3. Does air pollution play a role in infertility?: a systematic review
  4. Association of air particulate pollution with bone loss over time and bone fracture risk: analysis of data from two independent studies
  5. Particulate matter 2.5 damages skin cells by inducing oxidative stress, subcellular organelle dysfunction, and apoptosis

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