Air Pollution May Be The Culprit Behind An Increased Risk Of Autoimmune Diseases

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Air that has been contaminated by dirty substances such as traffic fumes, dust, soot, and smoke may increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions. This was what a new study suggested. The researchers found that air pollution exposure was linked to a 40 percent higher risk of rheumatoid arthritis, a 20 percent greater chance of inflammatory bowel disease, and a 15 percent larger risk of connective tissue disease. The numbers are startling and they have opted to look into this matter further.

Researchers find that exposure to car exhaust and other airborne toxins has long been the reason behind a variety of health issues, among which are heart and lung diseases, and rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disorder that brings about crippling swelling and pain in the joints.

In order to find more about the connection between air pollution and autoimmune disease, a new study was designed. Here, they made a closer examination on the medical records of more than 81,000 older adults that were treated by more than 3,500 doctors in Italy between the dates June 2016 and November 2020. They also examined the air quality data from 617 monitoring stations from across 110 Italian provinces. They had wanted to estimate the levels of two types of what they often refer to as particulate matter: PM2.5, which is smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and which can include emissions from burning gasoline, oil, and wood; and PM10, which is 10 micrometers or less in diameter and which includes everything in PM2.5 and dust from construction, agriculture, landfills, and wildfires added to the list.

In the course of the study, 12 percent of the participants had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. They came to see that higher levels of air pollution exposure also upped the chances of problems arising. Each additional 10 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg/m3) of average PM10 levels was linked to a 7 percent higher autoimmune disease risk.


All about How Air Pollution Poses Autoimmune, Cardiovascular, and Pulmonary Perils

“People should be aware that being chronically exposed to air pollution can trigger their autoimmune system, as well as being a risk for cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases,” explained Giovanni Adami, MD, PhD, the lead study author as well as a rheumatology researcher at the University of Verona in Italy. “We have also evidence that acute exposure to high levels of air pollution can aggravate inflammatory rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis,” Dr. Adami also said.

The average annual exposure levels of air pollution when the study was being conducted were 16 mcg/m3 for PM2.5 and 25 mcg/m3 for PM10. This was what the researchers discovered. This is actually below recommended limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO) of 25 mcg/m3 for PM2.5 and 20 mcg/m3 for PM10.

Within the limits or more set by the WHO, people involved in the study had a 12 to 13 percent higher risk of developing autoimmune disorders. The researchers wrote out a report last March 15 and published it in Rheumatic & Musculoskeletal Diseases.

When the involved researchers looked further into the individual autoimmune disorders, they discovered that PM10 was linked specifically to rheumatoid arthritis. PM2.5 was linked to rheumatoid arthritis, connective tissue diseases, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Here’s what they discovered: air pollution exposure was linked to a 40 percent increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis. There’s also a 20 percent greater chance of inflammatory bowel disease and a 15 percent higher risk of connective tissue disease when constantly exposed to toxic particulate matter that’s present in the air.


It Remains Unclear How Air Pollution Triggers Specific Health Conditions

First and foremost, the study’s design wasn’t done mainly to prove whether or not air pollution may be the direct cause of autoimmune conditions. They also didn’t design it to point out how it happens. While it’s possible that air pollution could trigger a reaction that’s supposed to help stave off disease-causing toxins. However, there may have been a misfire and what happens instead are inflammation and tissue damage that could bring about autoimmune disease, Adami said.

The study also comes with its own set of limitations. Included here are lack of data on the timing of the autoimmune disease diagnoses and the absence or lack of information on the cumulative duration or the amount of air pollution exposure for those involved in the study. The study also limited their participants to older women who were part of a larger study that focused on fracture risk after menopause takes place. Thus, the results they got cannot be generalized because other populations may have differing reactions.

Despite all the limitations, the study makes a strong case regarding air pollution and how this problem may play a role in autoimmune diseases. This was stated by Luz Claudio, PhD, a professor of preventive medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

“Air pollution is pervasive and affects many organs, not only the lungs,” Dr. Claudio said, and while he wasn’t involved in the study, his expertise on the subject matter provides considerable insight.

People will find it challenging to avoid breathing in polluted air. Still, this means that nothing much can be done about it. This problem should push them to advocate for better environmental regulations, Claudio shared. More importantly, they can also push for better monitoring in order to know just how safe the air is in their own areas and communities. It always helps to be proactive before further problems arise.

“Having a good surveillance system in areas where air pollution is highest is a very good idea, particularly for susceptible individuals,” Claudio said. He also further added, “On days with high pollution levels, people can try to avoid outdoor activities when possible.”

With the findings made, the researchers hope that this matter will be looked into in future studies so that they can finally come up with a solution that people so badly need and deserve.