The effect of air pollution on human health is a topic that has been discussed for years, yet the gravity of its impact continues to be underplayed. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that air pollution is the “single largest environmental health risk” and is responsible for approximately 7 million deaths annually. Unfortunately, teenagers are among those who are most vulnerable to its effects, especially those living in highly polluted areas.
Recent Studies and Evidence
The discovery has caused concern among researchers as it suggests that even when air pollution levels are considered acceptable, heart arrhythmias may still occur, potentially leading to heart disease and sudden cardiac death.
In a study, led by doctors at Penn State College of Medicine, involving over 300 healthy teenagers in the US, doctors examined their heart activity and the quality of air they were breathing over 24-hour periods. During the study, participants were equipped with both heart monitors and mobile air sampling kits, which they carried with them for 24 hours. This included both indoor and outdoor activities, whether they were being physically active or passive.
The heart monitors were able to detect two types of arrhythmias that can create the sensation of a skipped heartbeat. One type is characterised by premature contractions in the upper chambers of the heart, while the other involves premature contractions in the lower chambers, known as ventricles. Although these arrhythmias are typically left untreated unless they cause noticeable symptoms, premature ventricular contractions have been associated with an increased risk of future heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and sudden cardiac death.
For every 10 micrograms per cubic metre increase in PM2.5, the risk of experiencing premature ventricular contractions within two hours of exposure rises by 5%. This alarming effect was observed even at an average daily PM2.5 level of 17 micrograms per cubic metre, which is considered relatively low-level pollution in the UK.
Furthermore, elevated levels of air pollution have been found to lead to a surge in hospital admissions for life-threatening conditions such as cardiac arrests, strokes, and asthma attacks in England. Additionally, particulate air pollution has been linked to the activation of dormant mutations that trigger the growth of lung tumours, increasing the risk of lung cancer.
Disturbingly, projections suggest that air pollution-related strokes and heart attacks could result in over 160,000 deaths in the next decade based on estimates by the British Heart Foundation in 2020.
In another study, researchers from King’s College London examined the findings of eight studies involving approximately 15,000 children between the ages of 10 and 19. The study focused on the impact of pollution on children, specifically their exposure to PM2.5 and PM10 particles. These particles are commonly found in car exhaust fumes and from sources like car tire fragments and wood-burning stoves. The results showed that children who had higher long-term exposure to PM2.5 and PM10 particles had significantly higher blood pressure at the age of 12.
The impact of ozone pollution and sulphur dioxide on blood pressure is significantly higher in overweight and obese children compared to those with normal weight. These pollutants, which are emitted from car fumes and coal burning, contribute to almost a twofold increase in blood pressure among children who are overweight or obese.
Factors Contributing to Air Pollution
Air pollution is caused by various human activities, including burning fossil fuels, industrial processes, and transportation. In particular, diesel emissions have become a significant contributor to air pollution. Diesel engines emit particulate matter, which is a mixture of extremely small particles of chemicals, metals, and organic matter. These particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, causing significant health issues. It can be recalled that the severity of the issue led to the exposure of Dieselgate and the rampant use of defeat devices by car manufacturers in their vehicles. The severe effects of diesel emissions on the environment prompted several environmental groups and individuals to hold manufacturers accountable for diesel claims.
Other notable contributors to air pollution include industrial emissions, power plants, and agricultural activities. Industrial emissions release a wide range of toxic chemicals, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and heavy metals, into the air. Power plants generate electricity by burning coal, emitting a significant amount of carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Agricultural activities release nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
How Can Citizens Take Action?
It is essential to ensure that citizens living in high-polluted areas take the necessary precautions to minimize the risk of developing irregular heartbeats and other health problems. Citizens can access Emissions.co.uk, which provides detailed insights into the dangers of air pollution and ways to combat them through legal action. Only by taking a comprehensive approach to air pollution can we protect the health of teenagers and other vulnerable groups in our society.