In a new study from the University of Verona in Italy, researchers found long-term exposure to air pollution is linked to a heightened risk of autoimmune disease, particularly rheumatoid arthritis, connective tissue, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
The study is published in RMD Open.
Environmental air pollution from vehicle exhaust and industrial output can trigger adaptive immunity–whereby the body reacts to a specific disease-causing entity.
But sometimes this adaptive response misfires, prompting systemic inflammation, tissue damage, and ultimately autoimmune disease.
Examples of autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis; systemic lupus erythematosus; inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis; connective tissue disease, such as osteoarthritis; and multiple sclerosis.
In the study, the team used the national Italian fracture risk database (DeFRA) and retrieved comprehensive medical information on 81,363 men and women submitted by more than 3500 doctors between June 2016 and November 2020.
Most were women (92%) with an average age of 65, and 17866 (22%) had at least one co-existing health condition.
The researchers were particularly interested in the potential impact of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). Levels of 30µg/m3 for PM10 and 20µg/m3 for PM2.5 are the thresholds generally considered harmful to human health.
Some 9723 people (12%) were diagnosed with an autoimmune disease between 2016 and 2020.
The team found long-term exposure to PM10 above 30 µg/m3 and to PM2.5 above 20 µg/m3 was associated with, respectively, a 12% and 13% higher risk of autoimmune disease.
And long-term exposure to PM10 was specifically linked to a heightened risk of rheumatoid arthritis, while long-term exposure to PM2.5 was linked to a heightened risk of rheumatoid arthritis, connective tissue diseases, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Overall, long-term exposure to traffic and industrial air pollutants was associated with an approximately 40% higher risk of rheumatoid arthritis, a 20% higher risk of inflammatory bowel disease, and a 15% higher risk of connective tissue diseases.
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Another recent study from the University of Denver found exposure to ozone from air pollution has been linked to an increase in depressive symptoms over time, even in neighborhoods that meet air quality standards.
Ozone is a gas that is produced when various pollutants from motor vehicle exhaust, power plants, and other sources react to sunlight.
Higher ozone levels have been linked to various physical ailments, including asthma, respiratory viruses, and premature death from respiratory causes.
Those symptoms may include persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, difficulty with concentration, sleep disturbances, and thoughts about suicide.
The study is published in Developmental Psychology and was conducted by Erika Manczak et al.
In the study, the team analyzed data from a previous study about early life stress with 213 adolescent participants (aged 9 to 13 years old) in the San Francisco Bay area.
They compared data about the adolescents’ mental health over a four-year period with Census tracts for their home addresses and air quality data for those tracts from the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Adolescents who lived in areas with relatively higher ozone levels showed significant increases in depressive symptoms over time, even though the ozone levels in their neighborhoods didn’t exceed state or national air quality standards.
The team says ozone and other components of air pollution can contribute to high levels of inflammation in the body, which has been linked to the onset and development of depression.
Adolescents may be especially sensitive to these effects because they spend more time outdoors.
Because air pollution disproportionately affects marginalized communities, ozone levels could be contributing to health disparities.
Communities also should consider ways to reduce ozone exposure, such as holding youth sporting events indoors when necessary and limiting driving during peak hours of air pollution alerts.
Investment in clean and renewable energy sources that reduce air pollution also could be helpful.
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