8 Ways Environmental Pollutants Can Harm the Body


Key Takeaways

  • Researchers have identified eight ways in which environmental exposures can harm health.
  • They say their work emphasizes the importance of strong public health policy regarding pollution and resulting disease risk. 
  • Carving out time to spend in natural settings can be good for your wellbeing and mental health.

Over time, the ways environmental pollutants can harm our health have come into a clearer view. But now scientists are shedding a light on eight biological mechanisms exposure to polluted air, water, soil, and food can harm and disrupt.

Their work provides insight into the complex relationship between our surroundings and our physical and mental function by showing how pollutants can corrupt key molecular processes such as DNA replication, protein synthesis, and intercellular signaling. The March study was published in the journal Cell.

“The findings support efforts to mitigate pollution by [providing] a frame[work] to argue for the biological plausibility of proposed regulatory action at all levels,” Annette Peters, MD, PhD, director of the Institute of Epidemiology at the German Research Center for Environmental Health, tells Verywell. “It also shall serve to motivate scientists to see the relevance of their findings for the everyday living of our societies and themselves.”

What This Means For You

Your level of exposure to pollutants is often out of your hands in modern, industrialized society. But luckily, you can take steps to mitigate their impact by eating well, exercising frequently, limiting your use of substances, and spending time in natural settings.

How Pollutants Can Harm Health 

Innovation and industrialization have the power to reduce poverty and revitalize economies, but, as Peters and colleagues show, they also have the power to cause preventable illness and death.

Between 2016 and 2018, epidemiologists estimated that between nine and 12.6 million annual deaths, the majority of which occurred in low-income countries, were attributable to sources of environmental toxicity such as fine particulate matter, heavy metals, and pesticides.

The authors combed through scientific literature for clues as to how such sources harm our health and came up with eight hypotheses. Each serves as its own missing link in understanding how exposure to pollution can lead to the development of chronic diseases. 

Oxidative Stress and Inflammation 

Reaction oxygen species (ROS) are extremely reactive chemical molecules that are involved in the communication between cells. In excess, they can cause oxidative stress, which can damage cells to the point of death.

To prevent ROS numbers from spiraling out of control, antioxidants—substances charged with safeguarding cell health—routinely scrub the body of stray ROS. However, environmental exposures deplete antioxidant concentrations, lifting restrictions on ROS activity.

Left unchecked, ROS activity can eventually result in cancer and atherosclerosis (the hardening and narrowing of arteries), among other neurological, respiratory, and cardiovascular diseases.

Genomic Alterations and Mutations

Somatic mutations—harmful mutations that occur in the DNA of non-reproductive cells—accumulate with age, but also with exposure to environmental chemicals that are considered mutagens, or mutation-causing agents. These mutations contribute to the development of many chronic diseases.

Epigenetic Alterations 

Epigenetics concerns changes in gene expression that occur sans corresponding changes in DNA sequence. Essentially, epigenetics considers the impact of external factors on genetic activity or inactivity.

Such factors include:

  • Exposure to particulate matter pollution (pollution composed of microscopic specks of solid and liquid matter)
  • Toxic metals such as nickel, cobalt, arsenic, and cadmium
  • Organic chemicals

The resulting epigenetic changes can accelerate the aging process and increase…

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