Air pollution increases risk of diseases, research shows

Coughing woman

More than 9,000 people were diagnosed with different autoimmune diseases between 2016 and 2020.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • The researchers said the study could not determine whether air pollution is the cause of the autoimmune diseases.
  • The World Health Organisation last year said air quality is the greatest environmental risk to health.

You are likely to get an autoimmune disease if you are continuously exposed to polluted air, a new study shows.

These are diseases caused by an attack of healthy cells by the body’s immune system, which is ideally meant to fight infections.

The study conducted by researchers from the University of Verona in Italy established a link between air pollution and autoimmune diseases. 

More than 9,000 people were diagnosed with different autoimmune diseases between 2016 and 2020. The number represents about 12 percent of the study participants as over 80,000 people were enrolled.

The autoimmune diseases identified are rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, inflammatory bowel diseases, and connective tissue diseases like osteoarthritis. 

Researchers used data on air quality obtained from 617 stations in 110 Italian provinces.

Environmental air pollution is composed of solid particles and gaseous substances mainly derived from burning fossil fuel in industries and vehicle exhaust systems.

Environmental risk

The main component of air pollution is called particulate matter, which is a mixture of different solids and liquids in the air, such as smoke, soot or dust. By measuring the level of particulate matter in the air, scientists can determine how much of it is harmful to one’s health.

When the quality of air is about 30 micrograms per cubic metre, which represents particulate matter 10 (PM10) or 20 micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5, scientists say this would have a negative effect on one’s health.

“We found a positive, yet small, association between exposure to PM10 and the risk of being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. This finding translates into a seven percent higher risk of having any autoimmune disease every 10 microgram per cubic metre increase in PM10 concentration,” said the researchers.

They said air pollution caused by vehicles and industries risks causing rheumatoid arthritis by about 40 per cent, inflammatory bowel diseases by 20 per cent and a likelihood of getting connective tissue sickness by 15 per cent.

The researchers, however, said the study is an observational one and could not determine whether air pollution is the “cause of the autoimmune diseases”, but “it is just linked to it”.

The World Health Organisation last year said air quality is the “greatest environmental risk to health”.

“By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma,” said the WHO.

“In 2019, 99 per cent of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met.”

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