The Lancet Planetary Health journal recently published a study that links air pollution below national and world standards to increased cases of diabetes worldwide. Researchers found that in 2016 air pollution contributed to 14 percent of the total number of new diabetes cases internationally (approximately 3.2 million new cases). In the United States alone, the study notes air pollution was linked to 150,000 new cases per year. Ziyad Al-Aly, M.D., a lead author on the study remarked that despite evidence indicating the current air quality standards put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization are still dangerous for human health, industry lobbying groups are arguing for less stringent standards.
What is particulate matter and how does it affect us?
Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of solid pieces of dust, dirt, smoke or soot, and liquid droplets found in the air. Currently, the EPA monitors PM of 2.5 micrometers in diameter and larger. Any particle smaller than 2.5 micrometers has been shown to enter the bloodstream through the alveoli in the lungs. These particles can result in not only exacerbating respiratory diseases but also cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.
Particulate matter has now been linked to diabetes. While unhealthy eating and exercise habits are the major cause of diabetes, there have been studies linking air pollution with the 422 million adults diagnosed with diabetes before 2014. Air pollution is believed to trigger inflammation and reduce insulin production, which can lead to the development of diabetes.
Relationship to Diabetes
To further investigate the relationship between air pollution and diabetes risk, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis performed a study with 1.7 million US veterans. Participants with no history of diabetes were recruited to determine a relationship between diabetes levels and air pollution levels documented by the EPA and National Aeronautics Space Administration. It was found that after 8.5 years of the study, approximately 21 percent of the group exposed to air pollution levels below the current national standard (between 5 and 10 micrograms per meter cubed of air) developed diabetes. In veterans exposed to levels at the national standard, a 3 percent increase in new cases was seen. This equates to an additional 5,000 to 6,000 new cases of diabetes per 100,000 people each year.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health released a report in 2015 that air pollution was responsible for 9 million premature deaths worldwide. This study, along with others, provide a human health risk estimate for air pollution. Vulnerable populations, such as low-income and minority communities have limited resources and face a higher diabetes-air pollution risk. While not a developing country, the United States’ industry-led movement towards relaxed air pollution standards could put vulnerable populations at even greater risk. The EPA and other health organizations need to address the health concerns found below current standards in their next particulate matter review as required by the Clean Air Act.