Here’s how you can protect yourself
Talk about climate change may have stolen the spotlight from pollution in political circles in recent years. But speaking from a medical perspective, the air we breathe is still very much a clear and present danger.
In fact, it’s something that’s devastating our public health by the second.
Sure, we’ve come a long way since the smog-filled skies of previous decades. But our air still isn’t clean, by any stretch of the imagination. And the fact remains that air pollution kills—and not just by fueling major lung diseases. In fact, research shows air pollution shortens lives in a lot of ways—and at much lower levels than the so-called experts are willing to admit.
Unfortunately, you can’t avoid pollution completely. But you can help minimize your exposure. I’ll tell you how in just a minute. But first, let’s take a closer look at the havoc this invisible threat can wreak on your health…
How pollution plays into the diabetes epidemic
Let’s start with a few frightening statistics: Estimates suggest pollution could be behind more than three million new cases of diabetes worldwide every year—accounting for a whopping one in seven diagnoses.
And if that wasn’t scary enough, consider the fact that these risks are appearing at levels well below what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) currently consider “safe.” (Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone.)
Let me break it down for you: The tiniest form of particulate matter pollution is called PM 2.5—otherwise known as haze. And it’s already linked with a higher risk of heart, lung, and kidney diseases, among other conditions. Plus, it has contributed to more than four million deaths in 2015, according to experts.
Because these particles are so small, they’re able to penetrate just about every major system—moving from your lungs to your blood vessels, to major organs like the liver, pancreas, and kidneys.
And because these particles are so toxic, they damage tissue and trigger oxidative stress. Which is a foolproof recipe for chronic inflammation—and all of the potentially deadly diseases it triggers. Like diabetes.
Case in point: Researchers looked at data from upwards of two million U.S. veterans without diabetes. They compared the PM 2.5 levels where each subject lived with their risk of developing diabetes over the next eight years.
Average daily PM 2.5 exposure over the course of each year ranged between 5 and 22.1 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg/m3) of air. But for every 10-point increase, there was a 15 percent higher risk of diabetes. And an 8 percent higher risk of death.1
And it didn’t take much PM 2.5 to set off this deadly domino effect. Diabetes risk began to rise at levels anywhere past 2.4 mcg/m3. But do you know what levels the EPA and WHO currently consider as the threshold of safety?
That would be 12 mcg/m3 and 10 mcg/m3, respectively.
If you do the math, we’re looking at more than three million new cases of diabetes. And more than eight million total years of life lost to disability—not to mention more than 200,000 deaths every year. All attributable to breathing dirty air.
And despite the fact that PM 2.5-laden haze and smog are the prime factors behind summertime air quality warnings, make no mistake—pollution isn’t just a warm weather problem.
Wintertime pollution might be even worse
In fact, air pollution is just as lethal in the wintertime… and possibly even worse, due to chemical differences in the winter air that make efforts to reduce emissions less effective.2 (As if I needed another reason to despise the cold weather.)
Recent research shows that heavily polluted areas have higher rates of artery-clearing angioplasty surgeries to treat heart attacks—and that this trend spikes in the winter, specifically.3
Of course, the connection between pollution and heart attacks is an easy one to predict, considering pollution’s role in increasing oxidative stress and inflammation—the underlying culprits of cardiovascular disease. But it’s also connected to other diseases, including some you might not necessarily associate with air quality…
Deadly ties to violence and dementia
A recent observational study from English researchers found that older Londoners living in areas with the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide—a pollutant formed from burning fossil fuel—were 40 percent more likely to receive a dementia diagnosis than adults from areas with cleaner air.4
The study uncovered a similar pattern in areas with high PM 2.5. The trend couldn’t be explained away by factors like smoking or diabetes—and it was a rather large study, looking at more than 130,000 older adults between the ages of 50 and 79.
And if that wasn’t enough, research has even linked short-term spikes in air pollution with upticks in violent crime and aggressive behavior.
Scientists recently cross-analyzed data on daily criminal activity with local air pollution reports from the EPA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over a span of seven years. And they found significant increases in violent crimes—mainly assaults tied to domestic violence—even with small increases in air pollution particulates.
It was a sharp enough rise that economists predict even a ten percent reduction in air pollution might save more than $1 million per year in crime costs. That’s how many altercations could be prevented—not to mention the many victims spared—simply by controlling pollution.5
But it may surprise you to hear that you don’t need to live near an industrial plant, beside a busy highway, or within a densely populated city for your health and safety to be at risk.
In fact, the air inside your very own home may be raising your risk of disease, too. And not just due to the usual suspects, like cigarette smoke or paint fumes. Because the most common sources of indoor air pollution aren’t always so obvious—or even detectable.
Why the cleanest houses are often the most polluted
Studies show that some of the smallest, most dangerous particles come from dust, fungal spores, auto emissions, and byproducts of combustion. Which means that even burning a candle or frying food in your home could prove dangerous.
But there may be even less obvious sources of pollution lurking in your home.
For instance, if you ever get your clothes dry cleaned, you’re breathing in a toxin called perchloroethylene, known to cause cell damage in lab animals. And if you ever use moth balls, toilet cleaners, or household disinfectants, you’re likely being exposed to paradichlorobenzene, another cell-damaging chemical.
But one of the most toxic substances in your home is also one of the most common. And while it’s been a cleaning staple for ages—my own grandmother used it to clean her home—it could actually be killing you… and your pets.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about chlorine bleach—which research shows can be downright deadly, especially when exposed to light.6
Bleach products generate all kinds of chlorine-containing compounds, including hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and chlorine gas (C12). These can accumulate in indoor spaces, where they react with other commonly used chemicals to create a poisonous cocktail. (Among the most notable is a chemical called limonene, which—as the name suggests—lends a citrus scent to cleaners, air fresheners, and grooming products.)
And adding in a light source—whether it’s from an indoor fixture or sunshine through windows—facilitates this dangerous process, breaking down chlorine compounds and enabling them to form particles called secondary organic aerosols.
Needless to say, these pollutants are bad news—triggering respiratory issues, systemic inflammation, and other serious problems. And not just for the humans in your household.
Get this: A friend of mine owned a French Bullmastiff—a large dog weighing about 120 pounds. The dog’s nose was always oozing, she struggled with wounds, and her health was never quite right.
My friend tried everything to help her dog feel better—and was prepared to simply dismiss the issues as the byproducts of a sickly breed. That is until one day, when she decided to take my advice and look into what kind of household substances the dog was coming into contact with.
Turns out, her cleaning lady was using chlorine bleach. When she stopped using it, the dog’s nose was clear within a month—and remained that way for the rest of her life.
Natural alternatives to harsh home cleaners
While my friend’s story is anecdotal, the science behind what she experienced is very clear. With the wrong mix of chemicals, our homes can become death traps.
The good news is, we’re living in a time of increasing awareness of this issue, so buying non-toxic cleaning products is easier than ever before.
Though, as always, you should proceed with caution. Don’t buy a brand simply because it’s familiar or has a pretty label. Remember, knowledge is power. You need to check the ingredients list. And as for what to look for, I’ll refer you once again to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) website—and more specifically, to their Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
Safer products may not seem like they’re doing as good a job, as they don’t have the same foaming agents in them. But they will do the job they’re meant to do—keeping you and your house clean—without killing you slowly in the process.
And of course, there’s always the option of making your own natural cleaners at home, using vinegar, baking soda, and warm water.
These used to be the only ingredients I ever recommended, but over the years, patients have also turned me on to the use of essential oils—like lemon, orange, tea tree, lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, cinnamon, or pine oils.
Not only do these oils make great natural deodorizers, many of them also have antimicrobial and antifungal properties—so you can use them to clean and sanitize virtually every surface in your home.
If you do go this route, always be sure to dilute your oils in distilled water, according to the recipe. Because essential oils straight from the bottle are extremely concentrated and potent.
You also need to use caution if you have pets, as some oils may be toxic to them, irritating their airways and causing liver damage, even in small amounts. So always check with your vet before using any essential oils around your home.
“Supplemental” insurance against toxic air
Clearing toxic products out of your cleaning supplies is a great start. But it’s also important to give your body a good defense against the daily pollution exposure you can’t control. And it just so happens that a handful of simple nutrients are all you really need.
For example, research has found that people with the most exposure to air pollution not only have the lowest scores on lung function tests—they also have the lowest levels of vitamin E in their blood.7
This means that increasing vitamin E levels may help offset some of the respiratory damage pollution can cause. And when you consider everything else this essential nutrient is good for, it certainly can’t hurt to get more of it—especially when air quality is at its worst.
I recommend 800 IU of vitamin E daily. Just be sure to look for a full spectrum product. Most common forms of vitamin E are alpha tocopherol. But this is actually the synthetic form—and that’s not what you want.
Instead, look for a supplement with high levels of gamma tocopherol, along with all of the other antioxidant-rich tocopherols and tocotrienols. (There are four of each, for a total of eight.) And while you’re at it, fill up on vitamin-E rich foods like almonds, tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, asparagus, and avocados.
Research also shows that treatment with B vitamins can help reverse the negative effects air pollution has on heart rate, white blood cells, and lymphocytes.8
That’s why I recommend supplementing with the following daily:
- 5 mg of folic acid
- 100 mg of vitamin B6
- 1,000 mcg of vitamin B12
Abundant B vitamin intake is helpful to everyone… but if you live with higher levels of air pollution, it could prove lifesaving.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, we can’t rely on the powers that be to protect us from the threat of chemical air pollutants. So it’s up to you to take your health—and the health of your family—into your own hands, and make your home the safe haven it should be.
- Bowe B, et al. “The 2016 global and national burden of diabetes mellitus attributable to PM2·5 air pollution.” Lancet Planet Health. 2018 Jul;2(7):e301-e312.
- Shah V, et al. “Chemical feedbacks weaken the wintertime response of particulate sulfate and nitrate to emissions reductions over the eastern United States.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Aug 7;115(32):8110-8115.
- European Society of Cardiology. “Pollution and winter linked with rise in heart attack treatment.” Science Daily, 08/23/2019. (sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/08/190823080021.htm)
- Carey IM, et al. “Are noise and air pollution related to the incidence of dementia? A cohort study in London, England.” BMJ Open. 2018 Sep 11;8(9):e022404.
- Burkhardt J, et al. “The effect of pollution on crime: Evidence from data on particulate matter and ozone.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2019; 102267 DOI: 10.1016/j.jeem.2019.102267
- Wang C, et al. “Indoor Illumination of Terpenes and Bleach Emissions Leads to Particle Formation and Growth.” Environ Sci Technol. 2019 Oct 15;53(20):11792-11800.
- King’s College London. “Link between vitamin E, exposure to air pollution.” Science Daily, 05/15/2015. <sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150515001122.htm>
- Zhong J, et al. “B vitamins attenuate the epigenetic effects of ambient fine particles in a pilot human intervention trial.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Mar 28;114(13):3503-3508.