Dying to breathe: Research concludes that even low levels of pollution increase the risk of diabetes

Diabetes has several risk factors, and a recent study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, suggests that outdoor air pollution could be one of them.

A study by researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs (VA) St. Louis Health Care System links outdoor pollution — even levels that are considered safe — to an increased risk of diabetes worldwide.

The researchers evaluated outdoor air pollution by looking at particulate matter — airborne microscopic pieces of dust, soot, smoke, and even liquid droplets. Particulate matter is known to enter the lungs and invade the bloodstream, which can contribute to major health conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, and cancer.

In diabetics, pollution is said to induce inflammation and reduce insulin production, preventing the body from converting blood glucose into energy for the body to use.

For the study, the researchers analyzed the impact of pollution on a group of American veterans with no previous history of diabetes, studying them for 8.5 years. The team used various models which they tested against other parameters like ambient air sodium concentrations and lower limb fractures.

The researchers estimated that air pollution contributed to 3.2 million new diabetes cases worldwide in 2016, which is equivalent to about 14 percent of all new diabetes cases worldwide for that year. Moreover, they estimated that 8.2 million years of healthy life — also referred to as “disability-adjusted life years” — were lost in 2016 due to pollution-linked diabetes, which is equivalent to 14 percent of all years of healthy life lost due to diabetes from any cause.

“Our research shows a significant link between air pollution and diabetes globally,” said Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of medicine at Washington University. “We found an increased risk, even at low levels of air pollution currently considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).”

“Evidence shows that current levels are still not sufficiently safe and need to be tightened,” added Al-Aly.

The findings suggest that reducing pollution may lead to a decrease in diabetes cases in heavily polluted countries like India, as well as less polluted ones like the U.S. (Related: Improving air quality can cut your risk for diabetes.)

Diabetes affects 30 million Americans and more than 420 million people globally. While the key drivers of this disease are unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits and obesity, growing evidence indicates the extent to which outdoor air pollution plays a role.

Reducing air pollution

Seemingly ordinary tasks like using the heater or air conditioner, using products to style our hair or clean the house, or even driving to school or work, all contribute to the growing problem of air pollution. The following tips are just some of the things we can do to help reduce air pollution, and consequently, reduce the risk for other health conditions like diabetes.

  • Conserve energy, like turning off the lights and other electric appliances when not in use.
  • Use rechargeable batteries and energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances.
  • Limit driving by carpooling, using public transportation, riding a bicycle, and walking, which is actually beneficial to your health.
  • If you can’t avoid driving, don’t let your car go idle for long periods of time, and keep it well-tuned and maintained.
  • Use electric or hand-powered lawn and garden equipment.
  • If you can’t replace your old equipment with electric ones, be careful not to spill gasoline when filling them up.
  • Run dishwashers and clothes washers only when full.
  • Choose eco-friendly cleaners.
  • Use or buy water-based or solvent-free paints whenever possible, as well as products that say “low VOC” (volatile organic compounds). VOCs are hazardous substances that can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, cause frequent headaches and nausea, and can even damage the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
  • Properly seal containers of household cleaners, garden chemicals, and other solvents to prevent VOCs from evaporating into the air. Keep these substances out of sight and reach of children to prevent any accidental spillage.
  • Volunteer in your local utility’s energy conservation programs.
  • Advocate for emission reductions from power plants and more stringent national vehicle emission standards.

Learn of more ways you can help reduce air pollution by going to Pollution.news.

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