THE HEALTH EFFECTS OF POLLUTION AND HOW TO MITIGATE THEM
Every time that I come back in the UK from a holiday abroad, I notice how bad the air quality is in London. I have to cover my nose when walking along trafficked roads and I struggle to breathe. So, when few days ago I read a paper on risk factors for lung cancer, I wasn’t surprised to see that pollution as one of the causes.
This scientific study from UCL, in collaboration with the Francis Crick Institute, analysed the connection between air pollution and lung cancer. In UK, around 6000 non-smokers die of lung cancer every year, and a proportion of them seem to be attributed to air pollution. This is an astounding number, if you put it into perspective: in comparison, 900 people a year die due to cervical cancer and 4200 of ovarian cancer.
Air pollution has sadly been linked to many ailments, from COPD and asthma to heart disease and dementia. Outdoor pollutants are generated from vehicles exhausted, cleaning products, residential cooking and heating, power generation, agriculture and industry. Particles as small as 2.5 PM (which is roughly 3% smaller than the width of a human hair) find their ways into our lungs, where they awaken specific cells with cancer causing mutations via an inflammatory process.
What can we do?
So, is it all lost? Do we need to move out and relocate to a remote island? Not so fast.
Let’s start with the place where we spend most time: home. Air purifiers with HEPA filters can help to improve indoor air quality, which is particularly helpful when living on a busy road. Regular vacuuming and surfaces wiping with nontoxic products can also make a huge difference, as they reduce the pollutants that find their way into our homes. Mainstream cleaning products, like bleach, air fresheners and cleaning sprays, are a source of pollutants that not only affect us, but also leach into the environment. When choosing cleaning products, opt for the most natural ones, so we also introduce less pollutants in the planet, a health victory for all of us.
Some house plants can help improve home air quality too, along with improving mood and reduce stress. The best plants that accomplish this job are Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), Dracaena, Photos plant (Epipremnum aureum), Chrysanthemum, Bamboo, English Ivy, Rubber plant, Chinese evergreen and Peace lily. If you have a pet, before buying any house plant, check if the plant of choice is compatible, as some can be toxic for our furry friends.
In UK the climate is quite humid, and this can increase the amount of a specific pollutants – volatile organic compounds. To counteract the negative effects, we can regularly check appliances filters, open the window (when possible) and use a dehumidifier.
Another important factor to take into consideration is, of course, the food that we eat. It is important to eat as many fruits and vegetables as we can (5 portions a day is a great place to be), for their content of antioxidant intake, that can counteract in part the negative effects of pollution. By choosing organic produce, when possible, we additionally minimise the exposure to pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Although the WHO (World Health Organization) has confirmed that just a very small percentage of fruit and vegetables exceed the safety limits, the main problem is the cumulative effects of the number of pesticides we ingest via the produce we consume. If we cannot buy organic, due to budget or availability issues, then a good idea is to peel fruit and vegetables or wash them properly.
It is also important to think about ways to reduce overall air pollution, so the future generations can have a better air quality. Some of the measures that we can implement right away are using public transport, bikes or walking instead of cars, use less energy at home and at work, buy less plastic, plant trees (if you can), use recyclable products and quit smoking.
Often people don’t think about the environmental impact that cigarette smoke have, but each cigarette release in the environment carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants. So quitting is not just helpful for us, but also for the planet.
Pollution is not gonna disappear completely from the environment, but if each of us do something, we can improve our health and the one of the future generations. Not all suggestions can be implemented by everyone, hence start with what is achievable for you, one step at the time, and notice what difference it makes to your personal health.
Bhopal A, Peake MD, Gilligan D, Cosford P (2019). Lung cancer in never-smokers: a hidden disease. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2019;112(7), pp.269-271. doi:10.1177/0141076819843654
Cincinelli, A. & Martellini, T. (2017). Indoor air quality and health. International journal of environmental research and public health, 4(11), pp.1286. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14111286
Gubb, C. Blanusa, T. Griffiths, A. et al. (2018). Can houseplants improve indoor air quality by removing CO2 and increasing relative humidity? Air quality, Atmosphere and health, 11(10), pp.1191-1201. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11869-018-0618-9
Wolkoff, P. (2018). Indoor air humidity, air quality and health – an overview. International journal of hygiene and environmental health, 221(3), pp.376-390. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijheh.2018.01.015