Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Air pollution linked to higher risk of irreversible sight loss



Damian Carrington Enviroment editor
Tue 26 Jan 2021 01.00 EST

Small increases in air pollution are linked to an increased risk of irreversible sight loss from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a large UK study has found.

Previous work had already found a link between dirty air and glaucoma and a link to cataracts is suspected. The scientists said the eyes have a particularly high flow of blood, potentially making them very vulnerable to the damage caused by tiny particles that are breathed in and then flow around the body.

The study is the first to assess the connection between air pollution and both diagnoses of AMD that the patients said they had been given, and measurements of harmful changes in the retina. It found a small increase in exposure to tiny pollution particles raised the risk of AMD by 8%, while small changes in larger pollution particles and nitrogen dioxide were linked to a 12% higher risk of adverse retinal changes.


The biggest risk factors for AMD are genetics and poor physical health issues, such as smoking and obesity. But as lifestyles become healthier, the impact of air pollution will become more important, the researchers said, and, unlike genetics, levels dirty air can be reduced with the right policies.

Air pollution is being linked to an increasingly wide range of diseases, and the World Health Organization says 90% of the world population live with dirty air. A global review in 2019 concluded that air pollution may be damaging every organ in the human body, as inhaled particles travel around the body and cause inflammation.

“There is an enormously high flow of blood [to the retina] and we think that as a consequence of that the distribution of pollutants is greater to the eye than to other places,” said Prof Paul Foster, at University College London, UK, and who was part of the study team. “Proportionately, air pollution is going to become a bigger risk factor as other risk factors are brought under control.”

“It’s important to keep things in context – people shouldn’t be looking outside their door and thinking: ‘I can’t go out because it is polluted out there’,” he said. “The study gives people information that they can use to alter their lifestyle choices. For example, it may be another reason why we might consider going for an electric car, instead of buying a diesel.”


The air pollution data used were levels of outdoor pollution but Foster said levels inside homes were likely to be important. “We suspect there’s a lot more that is relevant going on inside the house,” he said. “Anything that produces smoke is likely to be driving some of the risk.”


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