In December 2020, a nine-year-old girl became the first person in Britain to have environmental pollution as her cause of death. The case made history and set a precedent. Ella Kissi-Debrah died from acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and air pollution exposure, said the coroner. He added that air pollution had both induced and exacerbated Ella’s severe asthma.1
Pollution kills millions of people every year, even though it is rarely blamed as the cause of death.2 Ella’s death may be the start of a much-needed recognition of environmental pollution’s detrimental health impacts.
Environmental pollution and the nervous system
Pollution has been associated with multiple diseases of the central nervous system (CNS). This includes Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, strokes and other neuro-developmental disorders. Scientists have shown that air pollutants can “easily translocate to the CNS where they can activate innate immune responses”, according to one major study in the National Library of Medicine.3
There is also a growing body of evidence that links air pollution to increased risk of cerebrovascular and neuropsychiatric disorders. A 2020 study on the issue called for urgent measures to reduce disease and premature mortality from ambient air pollution.4 In January 2020, the British Heart Foundation said that deaths attributed to air pollution could exceed 160,000 over the next decade in the UK unless the government took urgent action.5
Does breathing too much CO2 affect just our lungs?
Carbon dioxide is an air pollutant because as its levels in the atmosphere rise, it adversely affects our health. In 2019, a study found that pollution led to an increase in all kinds of diseases, including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, neonatal disorders and respiratory diseases. But air pollution is rarely noted in official statistics as the cause of death.
However, the Lancet study made an astonishing claim that pollution accounted for nearly 1.7 million premature deaths in India in one year (2019). That was one-in-five of all deaths that year.6
What are the effects of environmental pollution on cancer rates?
Air pollution causes or increases the likelihood of lung cancer. Tiny dust-like particles called ‘particulate matter’ (PM) can damage DNA in cells and cause cancer, says Cancer Research UK.7 PM air pollution causes or exacerbates hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by lung cancer worldwide. Research on the impact of air pollution on other types of cancer is more limited but cannot be ruled out.8
There is still a lot that we have to learn about the impact of air pollution on our health. But there is one thing we do know. We are in the middle of a health emergency, and we need to restrict carbon dioxide emissions to put an end to it.
- Laville, S. (2020). Air pollution a cause in girl’s death, coroner rules in landmark case. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/16/girls-death-contributed-to-by-air-pollution-coroner-rules-in-landmark-case.
- Cowen, T. (2021). Air Pollution Kills Far More People Than Covid Ever Will. [online] Bloomberg.com. 10 Mar. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-03-10/air-pollution-kills-far-more-people-than-covid-ever-will.
- Genc, S., Zadeoglulari, Z., Fuss, S.H. and Genc, K. (2012). The Adverse Effects of Air Pollution on the Nervous System. Journal of Toxicology, [online] 2012, pp.1–23. Available at: http://downloads.hindawi.com/journals/jt/2012/782462.pdf [Accessed 1 Dec. 2019].
- Hahad, O., Lelieveld, J., Birklein, F., Lieb, K., Daiber, A. and Münzel, T. (2020). Ambient Air Pollution Increases the Risk of Cerebrovascular and Neuropsychiatric Disorders through Induction of Inflammation and Oxidative Stress. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 21(12), p.4306.
- www.bhf.org.uk. (2020). Heart attack and stroke deaths related to air pollution could exceed 160,000 by 2030. [online] Available at: https://www.bhf.org.uk/what-we-do/news-from-the-bhf/news-archive/2020/january/heart-and-circulatory-deaths-related-to-air-pollution-could-exceed-160000-over-next-decade.
- Ellis-Petersen, H. (2020). Pollution killed nearly 1.7m people in India in 2019 – study. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/23/pollution-killed-nearly-17-million-people-in-india-in-2019-study.
- Cancer Research UK. (2019). How can air pollution cause cancer? [online] Available at: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/air-pollution-radon-gas-and-cancer/how-can-air-pollution-cause-cancer.
- Turner, M.C., Andersen, Z.J., Baccarelli, A., Diver, W.R., Gapstur, S.M., Pope, C.A., Prada, D., Samet, J., Thurston, G. and Cohen, A. (2020). Outdoor air pollution and cancer: An overview of the current evidence and public health recommendations. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.