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What does exposure to pollution do to our bodies?


With the ravaging fires currently consuming Australia being watched by the world, it’s difficult not to consider the dangerous effects of air pollution and what this silent killer can be doing to our bodies without us even knowing it. We know that in China they are big on wearing face masks to protect themselves against the odds, but do we in the UK need to go that far? Should we be worried?

Pollution tends to be worse in big cities, with more people and higher volumes of traffic. According to Big Think: The worst spot in London for pollution is Marble Arch – as levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) here are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Almost as bad is Tower Hill, which is 4.6 times the EU norm and Marylebone Road is 4 times the norm.

Our Government has said that “air pollution has a significant effect on public health, and poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. In 2010, the Environment Audit Committee considered that the cost of health impacts of air pollution was likely to exceed estimates of £8 to 20 billion”. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to air pollution reduces life expectancy, and this is mainly due to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer.

They add that: “The UK Health Forum and Imperial College London, in collaboration with and funded by Public Health England (PHE), developed a modelling framework and estimated that a 1 µg/m3 reduction in fine particulate air pollution in England could prevent around 50,900 cases of coronary heart disease, 16,500 strokes, 9,300 cases of asthma and 4,200 lung cancers over an 18 year period.” So there is hope!

The impact of air pollution on our bodies is frightening, as according to Clean Air Day it can spread from your lungs into your bloodstream and reach many organs. “Air pollution can affect us all – from asthma and stroke, diabetes and dementia, pregnancy loss and cancer – it increases the risk of a range of health problems and makes some existing conditions worse. Every year, air pollution causes up to 36,000 deaths in the UK.”

More specifically, air pollution potentially increases the risk of getting dementia, can also cause heart disease and is linked to high blood pressure. It increases the risk of heart failure, heart attacks and stroke, especially in older people and those with existing cardiovascular conditions. As for our lungs, there is a strong link between air pollution and the worsening of asthma symptoms and it also plays a part in causing asthma in some people.

Vulnerable people are particularly susceptible to being affected by air pollution, especially babies and young children due to their developing organs and immune systems. Clean Air Day adds that exposure to air pollution, both during pregnancy and after birth, can affect children’s lung function development.

So what can we do to protect ourselves and our families against pollution? Here are some tips from The British Lung Foundation (BLF):

• Reduce or avoid strenuous, outdoor exercise. If you have a lung condition, exercise has many benefits, so if possible, keep doing your exercise indoors in a well-ventilated room or gym.
• Stay away from pollution hotspots such as main roads and busy road junctions.
• Try to get to work a little earlier before rush hour has begun and levels of pollution have built up.
• If you cycle, run or walk as part of your commute, use back streets away from the bulk of vehicle congestion.
• Make sure you carry your reliever inhaler with you if you use one.
• If you have asthma, use your preventer inhaler regularly.
• If you find your condition is getting worse, or if you’re getting wheezy or coughing from walking outside, get in touch with your doctor.

Lastly should we be wearing a face mask everyday like the people of China? The BLF explains that “at the moment there’s very little evidence to recommend the use of face masks. Sophisticated masks with active charcoal filters can help filter out nitrogen dioxide, but these don’t keep out the smallest particulate matter which is most damaging to your health.

“Also, many people find wearing a mask very uncomfortable, and some people with a lung condition report finding breathing more difficult when there’s something covering their mouth.”

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