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Air Pollution May Negatively Affect 'Every Organ' in the Human Body

A new report finds that inhaling air pollution doesn't just impact the heart and lungs: It can damage all parts of the body, and cause or worsen diseases.
Pedestrians wearing masks walk during a polluted day in Seoul, South Korea.

Pedestrians wearing masks walk during a polluted day in Seoul, South Korea.

A new comprehensive report on air pollution and human health finds that pollution can cause widespread health damage on virtually all areas of the body. While the impact of pollution on the heart and lungs is well established, researchers found pollution is "potentially affecting every organ in the body." Less-established health impacts include damage to organs such as the brain, bladder, and skin.

"I wouldn't be surprised if almost every organ was affected," Dean Schraufnagel, a professor at the University of Illinois–Chicago who led the report, told the Guardian. "If something is missing [from the review] it is probably because there was no research yet."

Published in the journal Chest, the study finds that inflammatory pollutants are circulated throughout the body via the bloodstream, leaving no part of the body untouched. The authors find that various health conditions, such as diabetes, dementia, cancer, and brittle bones, may be caused or worsened by air pollution as well.

Most of the world's population experiences potentially damaging air every day. According to the World Health Organization, more than 90 percent of children in the world breathe toxic air every day, putting their health and development at risk. Air pollution now kills more people than smoking, as Kate Wheeling reported for Pacific Standard earlier this year.

Despite the ubiquity of air pollution, some segments of the population are more vulnerable to its impacts than others. According to the researchers, children, the elderly, and pregnant women can experience more detrimental health impacts from inhaling polluted air.

According to the report, people living in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia breathe higher amounts of pollutants than those elsewhere. Within countries, communities of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be exposed to unhealthy pollutants. And race is an even stronger indicator than wealth: Across income levels, black Americans experience more air pollution than white Americans.

The authors also note that members of marginalized groups—such as minorities or those of lower socioeconomic status—are more likely to work jobs that further expose them to potentially hazardous pollutants. According to the report, the compounding effect of multiple areas of exposure (such as both home and workplace) can be especially damaging.

"Vulnerability is made worse by health inequality and environmental injustice," the authors conclude. They argue that reducing vulnerability to air pollution for certain populations will require a comprehensive approach, targeting environmental factors in addition to poverty and segregation.