Living in areas with high pollution can DOUBLE your risk of developing most common form of blindness, major study finds
- Some 600,000 people in the UK suffer from age-related macular degeneration
- The new research is the first to examine the link between air pollution and AMD
- Experts assessed the health records of 40,000 people between 1998 and 2010
- Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide increased the risk of AMD by 91%
Air pollution nearly doubles the risk of suffering a debilitating form of visual impairment, a major study suggests.
People living in areas with high levels of traffic emissions are twice as likely to suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), researchers found.
Scientists found long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide – a pollutant that is especially linked to old diesel cars – increased the risk of AMD among over-50s by 91 per cent.
And those living in high areas of carbon monoxide, which is linked to petrol and diesel, saw risk go up 84 per cent.
People living in areas with high levels of traffic emissions are twice as likely to suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), researchers found
AMD is one of the most common causes of visual impairment.
Some 600,000 people in the UK suffer from the condition – which affect the middle part of the retina, known as the macula, causing blurred vision and eventual blindness.
Medical experts are increasingly aware of the impact of traffic fumes on human health, including the risk of asthma, heart disease and dementia.
More than 60,000 people are thought to die early every year in the UK because of air pollution.
Last year scientists revealed they had found tiny particles of vehicle soot in the womb of pregnant women, suggesting even unborn babies are at risk.
The new research – the first to examine the link between air pollution and AMD – suggests fumes are affecting people from the cradle to the grave.
The researchers, whose work is published in the BMJ Journal of Investigative Medicine, assessed the health records of 40,000 people between 1998 and 2010.
The team compared air pollution levels in the areas they lived to their chance of developing AMD.
WHAT IS AGE-RELATED MACULAR DEGENERATION?
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a painless eye condition that leads to a gradual loss of central vision.
It is the most common cause of visual impairment in the UK and US, striking 600,000 adults in the UK and less than two million in the US.
AMD causes central vision to become blurred resulting in symptoms such as difficulty reading and problems recognising people’s faces.
It occurs when the macular – the part of the eye responsible for central vision – stops functioning effectively.
AMD usually affects both eyes, but the speed of progression can vary between eyes.
It is thought to be triggered by aging, smoking and genetics.
During the monitoring period, 1,442 people developed the condition.
The researchers, from China Medical University in Taiwan, found the 25 per cent of people living in areas with the highest levels of air pollution were nearly twice as likely to develop AMD than those in the 25 per cent with the lowest levels.
The academics stressed their study did not look at the biological link between pollution and eye problems – merely the statistical odds linking the two.
But they pointed out that previous research has found airborne pollution interferes with the central nervous system, which may also explain the mechanism by which car emissions hit the retina.
‘Recent studies have linked nitrogen dioxide pollution to the cardiovascular and neurological systems,’ they wrote.
‘High nitrogen dioxide is associated with various brain diseases including low cognitive function and a lower functional integration in children, Parkinson disease, stroke, and dementia.
‘Notably, the retina is also a part of the central nervous system which is biologically reasonable to be vulnerable to nitrogen dioxide intoxication.’ The UK is notoriously bad at controlling air pollution, with 37 British cities persistently displaying illegal levels of air pollution – which has seen the Government repeatedly hauled into court over the last few years.
Diesel cars have been promoted since the 1970s as an environmentally-friendly choice because they emit less carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas which causes global warming.
Tony Blair’s Labour government, in particular, used generous tax breaks to persuade drivers to buy diesel cars.
But in recent years scientists have realised that diesel also produces more of the tiny particles and nitrogen oxides that are damaging to human health.
Professor Chris Inglehearn, an expert in molecular ophthalmology at the University of Leeds, said: ‘This is an interesting study but one that needs to be interpreted with caution.
‘What they have shown is that AMD tends to be more common in geographic locations that have high air pollution.
‘However, there are many other disease risk factors that come with life in such places, and correlation does not prove causation.
‘A contribution to AMD risk from air pollution is plausible and the findings of the study do suggest that may be the case.’
WHAT HAVE RECENT STUDIES SHOWN POLLUTION CAN DO TO OUR HEALTH AND BODIES?
CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.
CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.
DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.
MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution.
CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.
RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’
CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.
MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said.
LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.
RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.
RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing.
DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth.
MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.
MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION: Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction.
RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.
MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.
CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.
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