Air pollution from cars and factories could worsen lung diseases

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The health effects of air pollution are serious.

According to the World Health Organization, one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease are due to air pollution.

In a study from the University of Pittsburgh, scientists found people with a certain type of lung disease are more likely to die in areas with higher levels of air pollution composed of chemicals linked to industrial sources and vehicular traffic.

The study is the first to link the chemical composition of fine particulate air pollution to worsened fibrotic interstitial lung disease (fILD) outcomes.

Some people with these lung diseases have an expected lifespan from diagnosis to death of only a few years, and yet it’s a mystery as to why they developed the disease, and why their lungs become so scarred.

The study points to air pollution—specific pollutants from factories and vehicles—as potentially driving faster disease progression and premature death in these patients.

The team obtained data from 6,683 patients with fILDs in the U.S. and Canada and linked their home addresses with air pollution data.

The team specifically looked at a pollutant known as PM2.5, which refers to particulate matter that measures less than 2.5 microns across, a size invisible to the naked eye.

This type of pollution is so small that it can infiltrate deep into the lungs and even cross into the bloodstream, where it can contribute to other diseases outside of the lungs, such as heart disease.

The team found that increasing levels of PM2.5 were linked to more severe disease at diagnosis, faster disease progression as measured by lung function decline, and a higher likelihood of dying sooner.

Pollution high in sulfate (typically produced by factories, such as the coal and steel industries), nitrate (primarily from fossil fuel combustion), and ammonium (usually produced by industry or agriculture) were linked to worse outcomes, whereas chemical signatures from more naturally occurring particulate matter—such as sea salt or soil dust—didn’t carry as high of an association.

After pollution leaves a smokestack or tailpipe, the team noted that sulfate- and nitrate-containing aerosols can be formed in the atmosphere from those and other gaseous pollutants and can be acidic, which can be very damaging to the tiny air sacs of the lungs.

The team is now doing laboratory studies looking at the impact of these pollutants on lung cells at the molecular level to better understand why they are particularly damaging to the lungs of certain people and whether exposure to the pollutants triggers changes to how certain genes work that could cause runaway scarring.

According to the team’s calculations, if exposure to industrial pollutants hadn’t occurred, most premature deaths among participants living in areas of North America with a heavier burden of the industry—including Pittsburgh—could have been avoided.

If you care about lung health, please read studies about why Viagra may be useful in treating lung diseases, and scientists find a herbal supplement to treat lung cancer.

For more information about health, please see recent studies about gum disease linked to impaired lung function, and results showing  COVID-19 is not just a respiratory illness, it can cause strokes too.

The study was conducted by Gillian Goobie et al and published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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