As children, most of us were instructed not to litter. But what about the more serious offenses of pollution? Pollution is more than tossing an empty bottle or wrapper out of your car window, and the effects of pollution on physical health are much more extensive than a simple cough or sun spots.
How pollution affects the human body has been studied for years, and today we know many of the worrying details. In people with preexisting conditions, long-term exposure to pollution can make matters even worse. If you live in areas with high levels of pollution, such as China and India, it's important to be aware of how it can affect you.
Though there are ways to protect yourself, many of the health risks that accompany pollution are unavoidable. For instance, every day we inhale smoke and smog from vehicles. And though you can wash your face free of the grimy layer that smog sometimes leaves behind, the irreversible and deadly effects of pollution cannot be so easily erased from the body.
Smoking may be the biggest cause of lung cancer, but it's certainly not the only one — pollution has largely been linked to the disease as well. Many polluting agents spout deadly carcinogens into the air we breathe.
A very specific pollutant is to blame for these increased levels of carcinogens. It's called PM 2.5, and it's most commonly found in tobacco smoke. High levels of PM 2.5 in the air are associated with an increased risk of cancer. In the UK, it's estimated that almost 8% of lung cancer cases are caused by PM 2.5. To put that number into perspective, there were about 46,000 new cases of lung cancer in the UK in 2014 which equates to roughly 3,220 diagnoses resulting from PM 2.5.
Pollution can have dangerous effects on your skin. The free radicals created by pollution can cause hyperpigmentation, fine lines, or make rosacea and acne worse. While those effects aren't deadly in and of themselves, free radicals can also damage cells and cause skin cancer.
Pollution in the air makes it easier for UV rays to penetrate the thinning ozone layer. The effect of UV rays is similar to that of free radicals — it can cause cosmetic issues as well as skin cancer. That's why wearing sunscreen is vital to protecting yourself.
Frighteningly enough, pollution can affect you before you're even out of the womb — it's a common cause of issues in fetal brain development.
Polycyclic aromatic hyndrocarbons, or PAHs, can target white matter growth in the brains of unborn babies. White matter is vital in helping different parts of the brain communicate with one another. A lack of white matter is related to attention deficit disorders and slowed brain development.
Though it may not be surprising that what a mother inhales affects her baby, it is surprising just how PAHs damage an unborn baby's brain. They target the left side of the brain, which grows the most while in the womb. This finding implies that PAHs may primarily target growing tissue.
Water pollution is to blame for a number of health issues in humans. Problems with the reproductive system, nervous system, liver, and kidneys can all be caused by pollution in water. Pollutants like mercury can cause neurological problems like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.
Even a polluted beach has untold effects; gastroenteritis and hepatitis are both linked to beach pollution. Toxic algae can cause respiratory problems or stomach issues, and high nitrate levels caused by fertilizer can result in infant death.
That's not to mention how water pollution affects the food we eat. Shellfish have been found to contain tiny plastic particles from the ocean. That tasty oyster plate you had for dinner may have contained a side dish of plastic that you didn't even know about.