Air pollution and the body
The recent enormous fire at the Riverton City disposal site in St Andrew has brought to the fore the effect of air pollution on the body. Billows of smoke from the fire, which has affected at least four parishes and now burning for two weeks, has raised questions and concerns about both the short- and long-term health impact of air pollution.
Air pollution can be caused by factors such as factory smoke, burning garbage, motor vehicles, cigarettes and other sources of smoke.
Pollutants can reach the body by breathing them in, swallowing them or absorbing them through the skin. Individuals may react differently to various air pollutants based on the person's age, health, genetics and the degree and length of exposure. The pollutants can cause significant damage to several vital organs of the body.
Children, pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with certain pre-existing medical conditions are at most risk of these harmful effects. These effects can cause increased need for medications, visits to clinics and emergency rooms, time away from school and work, hospital admissions, and even premature death.
The links between air pollution and the body include the following:
1. The skin helps to prevent air pollutants from entering or harming the body. The outer layers of the skin help form a barrier to harmful substances. However, persons who have skin diseases like eczema, where the skin barrier is damaged, are more at risk from harmful effects of pollutants. These include possible worsening of their eczema and other allergic and inflammatory skin reactions. These may manifest as redness, bumps, itching, dryness, oozing, blisters and/or scaling of the skin.
2. Pollutants may worsen the clogging of pores and cause worsening of acne. This may manifest as blackheads, whiteheads, red bumps, pus-filled bumps and acne cysts.
3. Air pollutants can reduce the production of collagen and elastic tissue in the skin, causing the skin to sag and lose elasticity. This leads to premature ageing with fine lines, wrinkles and sagging.
4. Pollutants may also cause further damage to the skin and contribute to the development of skin cancer.
5. Air pollution can cause difficulty in breathing, coughing and wheezing. It can lead to the development or worsening of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis and lung cancer.
6. Clinical studies have also shown a link between air pollution and heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and heart defects in babies.
7. A study published in June 2014 in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives showed that air pollution can affect learning ability, short-term memory and impulsivity. It also showed that early exposure to air pollution can cause the same changes in the brain as schizophrenia and autism. It can also cause a type of brain damage called toxic brain encephalopathy or 'brain fog'.
8. Exposure of pregnant women to air pollution may cause mental retardation in their babies. Babies may also develop sudden infant death syndrome.
9. A Danish study in 2011 showed evidence of possible associations between air pollution and brain cancer and cervical cancer.
Although these effects may not occur in everybody exposed to air pollution, they should not be taken lightly. We all have to play our role in minimising environmental pollution to preserve the health of our present and future generations. As the slogan of our current clean-up campaign says, 'Nuh dutty up Jamaica!'
n Dr Arusha Campbell-Chambers is a dermatologist and founder of Dermatology Solutions Skin Clinics & Medi-Spas. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org