Most people understand that climate change negatively affects the environment, but forget to acknowledge how much it affects us. The accumulation of pollution not only indirectly harms us by depriving us of our home, but also takes a direct toll on our mental and physical health.
Noise and light pollution, the presence of mostly artificial sounds and light, affects both humans and wildlife by disrupting circadian rhythms, taking a toll on our well-being. These disruptions may also contribute to the development of cancer.
Additionally, Jennifer Weuve, MPH, ScD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Rush Medical College, found that old women who were exposed to high levels of a pollutant called fine particulate matter experienced cognitive decline at an increased speed compared to other women of the same age.
The negative effects of pollution on cognitive function can be seen as early as in childhood. Kids exposed to high levels of black carbon score worse on IQ and memory related tests. Frederica Perara, DrPH, from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, discovered that children (ages ranging from before birth to seven) exposed to higher levels of pollutants were more likely to have attention problems and symptoms of anxiety and depression. All of these cognitive problems are caused by pollution-related changes in the brain.
Randy Nelson, a PhD professor of neuroscience from Ohio State University, used mice studies to understand what exactly those changes were. He and his colleagues found that mice exposed to pollutants had neurons with fewer spines, resulting in poorer memory. Spines sit at the end of a neuron and deliver signals to other neurons, playing a crucial role in the nervous system. More detailed summaries of these studies can be found on the American Psychology Association website.
Additionally, air pollution caused by an influx of carbon dioxide may result in smog or acid rain. Short term exposure to a large amount of air pollution could induce irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat; upper respiratory infections; headaches and nausea; allergic reactions; and other illnesses. Living in a heavily polluted environment can lead to chronic respiratory disease, cancer, heart issues, birth defects, and even death.
When we litter, the pieces of plastic that end up on the ground eventually find their way to the ocean and become food for marine animals. People who eat fish - or land animals that eat fish - consume microplastics and continue to carry them inside their bodies. While these toxins may not have an obvious immediate effect, scientists have discovered that microplastics expose us to harmful chemicals that lead to a variety of health problems such as obesity, fertility, organ problems, cancer, and child development issues. Even if an individual does not eat meat, they probably ingest similar toxic chemicals from pesticides or fertilizers that pollute our land and water.
The Cancer Research Institute in the UK found that 2% of lung cancer cases are caused by small particles from air pollution, called PM10 and PM2.5. Scientists believe that these particles may change our DNA, causing our body to produce cancerous cells.
The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) led a study that suggested air pollution may also be linked to breast, liver, and pancreatic cancer. The study recruited 66,280 Hong Kong senior residents from 1998 to 2001. After tracking the participants until 2011, the researchers determined that the risk of dying from cancer increased by 22% for every 10 microgram per cubic meter (µg/m3) increased exposure to the PM2.5 particle. More statistics on specific cancers can be found on this article at the AACR website.
Air pollution also contributes to heart illnesses by damaging the blood vessels in our system. Tiny particles make them narrower and more rigid, restricting movement and increasing blood clotting. These changes, which result in abnormal heart rhythms, are all signs of early stages of heart failure.
The World Health Organization states that 2.4 million people die from pollution every year. While going outside is still currently safe for most healthy people (excluding COVID-19), immunocompromised individuals are prone to the problems caused by pollution. However, people who live in more polluted areas such as Ghaziabad, India or Hotan, China must be careful when going outside due to the terrible air quality. If we continue to pollute at our current rate, the entire world will likely end up as polluted as these cities.
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