Air pollution can change your body and make you more susceptible to diseases like obesity and diabetes. This is why obesity prevention is linked to the climate change debate! Let’s think outside the box, and continue to make these types of connections.
The debate over air pollution and, more specifically, the regulation of air pollution, raged on this week as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) watered down its cross-state pollution rule and House Republicans moved to delay new rules on toxic air pollution from cement plants, solid waste incinerators, and industrial boilers. These latest debates come on the heels of President Obama’s move last month to reneg on promises to tighten up smog standards, a decision that angered environmentalists and led to speculation that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson might be ready to walk. In all cases, the argument against regulation goes something like this: The last thing a down economy needs is new regulation, and the EPA is overstepping its boundaries.
These arguments center largely around the idea that current air pollution regulation is good enough as-is, and that any further restrictions are aimed at tackling environmental issues and climate change, both typically seen as luxuries in a down economy. But research is continuing to pile up in support of the claim that not only are current air pollution regulations inadequate, but that air pollution is very much a public health issue.
When viewed through the public health lens, the economic arguments against regulation of air pollution begin to unravel, particularly in the face of rising healthcare costs. Consider, for example, a spate of new studies that have found a rather convincing correlation between the presence of small particulate matter (PM2.5, the ultrafine particles blown into the air by road traffic, coal-fired power plants, industrial manufacturing, and residential wood fuel combustion) and both obesity and diabetes.
Medical research has long supported the fact that exposure to ultrafine particulate matter increases the risk of various respiratory, cardiovascular, and pulmonary illnesses. Incidences of asthma, heart attacks, and chronic bronchitis are all higher in areas where the concentration of ultrafine particulate matter is higher. The correlation between particulate matter and these health issues is particularly pronounced in children, as well as low-income communities, which are often located closer to the sources of particulate matter (highways, factories, power plants) than their higher income neighbors.
Over the past decade, new studies have emerged that link air pollution to two of this country’s most pressing (and expensive) health epidemics: obesity and type II diabetes. Both are not only on the rise in terms of diagnoses, but also in terms of the costs associated with treatment. According to a January 2011 study by the Society of Actuaries, the current cost of the obesity epidemic in the United States is $270 billion a year. The American Diabetes Association puts the current cost of dealing with diabetes (over 90 percent of U.S. diabetes cases are type II) at $174 billion. According to the Center for Disease Control, asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism in the United States, and the cost of treating asthma in children 18 and under alone is $3.2 billion per year. Meanwhile, financial analysts estimate the cost of tightened air pollution regulations at $130 billion. Granted, these are not budget line items that are easily swapped in for each other, but a tie-in to obesity and diabetes may just make tackling air pollution more economically viable.
Of course, no one is saying, “hey, forget about diet and exercise, just take care of air pollution!” Nonetheless, even after controlling for factors such as genetics, income levels, weight, diet and exercise, Harvard researchers found a “consistent and significant” relationship between Type II diabetes prevalence and exposure to ultrafine particulate matter in a recent study.
We actually expected there to be only a loose relationship there [between type II diabetes and air pollution], so we expected it to begin to fall apart as we looked at other risk factors,” says Harvard researcher John F. Pearson. “It was surprising to find that it held up the more we drilled into it.
Results of an animal study published by Ohio State University researcher Qinghua Sun in late 2010 revealed that early exposure to ultrafine particulates led to the accumulation of abdominal fat and insulin resistance in mice even if they ate a normal diet. Exposure levels for animals in the study were similar to those found in U.S. cities. It’s important to note that the EPA does already regulate ultrafine particulate matter, but recent studies are finding that the levels currently deemed “acceptable” remain a threat to health on various levels.
This is one of the first, if not the first, study to show that these fine particulates directly cause inflammation and changes in fat cells, both of which increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes,” said Sun, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Ohio State University, in an announcement of the study’s results.
The study compared mice fed a high-fat diet with those fed a normal, healthy diet, and exposed some members of both groups daily to ultrafine particulate matter, controlling for all other factors. In the end, all of the mice exposed to air pollution, including those fed a normal diet, had increased abdominal and subcutaneous (under the skin) fat.
These findings suggest that fine particulate pollution exposure alone, in the presence of a normal diet, may lead to an increase in fat cell size and number, and also have a proinflammatory effect,” said Sanjay Rajagopalan, senior author of the study and the John W. Wolfe Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Ohio State.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs decided that the link between air-borne dioxin (an ingredient in Agent Orange, and also a common air-borne pollutant emitted by waste incineration, some chemical manufacturing processes, cars and trucks, and other industrial sources that burn fuel) and diabetes was so strong, it compensated 270,000 veterans for diabetes linked to dioxin exposure.
Increasingly, health research seems to be pointing to a need for stricter regulation of air pollution.
PM2.5 [ultrafine particulate matter] is regulated specifically because of its health impacts, so it’s already recognized as a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, and lung disease,” says John S. Brownstein, PHD, co-author of the Harvard study. ”What was surprising is that even with EPA regulation there was still this gradient from the areas that were less polluted to those that were within the EPA limits, but at the higher end of the limit.