A major risk factor for all diseases

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

Over the past (almost) three years, much of the medical debate has been centred around the COVID-19 pandemic. To this point, we are approaching 650 million cases of Covid with just over 6.6 million deaths from this infection.

But, the World Health Organisation has estimated that 16% of all deaths around the globe are directly linked to pollution, representing many more deaths than the COVID-19 pandemic. Pollution, in the view of many health experts, should be considered a major risk factor for the vast majority of diseases.

When you think of air pollution, you typically think of the dreadful smog experienced in many highly populated cities. Pollution also includes indoor pollution, especially from the burning of wood for heating and cooking but also, strangely, noise pollution as well.

The cost in Europe from yearly exposure to cigarettes is around €500 billion per year whereas the combined cost of inhaled air pollution and noise is estimated to cost €1 trillion on a yearly basis.

A study from Europe examined the health consequences of being exposed to nighttime aircraft noise. it has been estimated that 70 million people living in Europe on a daily basis, out of the estimated population of around 750 million, suffer noise from traffic and aircraft greater than 55dB. This is considered the limit beyond which there is an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

It is suggested that this form of noise pollution accounts for a significant number of cases of hypertension, hospital admissions and premature deaths on a yearly basis.

The study of aircraft noise estimated that 3% of cardiovascular disease was directly related to night-time exposure to aircraft noise because of its effect of inducing sleep disturbances and the strong link with poor sleep & cardiovascular events. It was estimated that, as one example, endothelial dysfunction (the malfunction of the cells that line blood vessels) is linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. This was clearly linked to aircraft noise. It was also demonstrated that noise pollution also led to the release of stress hormones leading to high blood pressure and disruption of the 24-hour circadian cycle.

A recent study published in the Journal “Neurology” examined the link between the common air pollutant PM 2.5., typically found in polluted air. It has been estimated that 90% of the world’s population live in areas which expose them to greater than the recommended level of pollution. This study was a meta-analysis of 17 studies in people over the age of 40. It examined 91 million people of which 5.5 million i.e. 6%, had dementia. The study was adjusted for age, sex, cigarette smoking and education. The study found that the risk of dementia was increased 3% for every one microgram per cubic millimetre of exposure to PM 2.5. The US environmental pollution agency has estimated that an average exposure of PM 2 .5 up to 12 µg per cubic millimetre was safe and beyond that there were a variety of potential health issues.

Interestingly the researchers also reviewed exposure to nitrogen oxide which is the key component of smog, nitrous dioxide and Ozone and found that there was no real link to dementia in this particular study.

To date, pollution has been associated with a variety of cardiovascular diseases, dementia, respiratory diseases, increased risk for cancers, behavioural abnormalities in children and infertility, to name a few.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, the major issue on the planet is increasing population which leads to the flow on effect being pollution in the form of polluted air and excessive noise.

Albert Einstein once said, “we cannot solve our current problems with the same thinking we used to create them”. It is my opinion that we need a serious rethink about how we are all living our lives & especially how we continue to overpopulate the planet because the 16% of deaths directly related to pollution will continue to increase unless we don’t.

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Dr Ross Walker

Dr Walker is an expert in the field of preventative cardiology and has published seven books. He gives lectures nationally and internationally.