Alaska Regional Hospital - October 16, 2018

Research suggests that, even at safe levels, air pollutants can harm your health.

By 2010, the Clean Air Act of 1970 called for the U.S. to reduce total emissions of six principal air pollutants by more than 41 percent. Today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for those six common air pollutants: ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM). Here, we took a close look at one of those pollutants, PM.

Harvard researchers says reduction in short-term exposure to PM from coal-burning power plants could avoid 20,000 deaths a year (some sources say 30,000). All it would take, they stated, is to install scrubbers on coal-burning power plants that don’t have them. We’re glad, however, that the EPA sets standards for various types of PM and monitors the air over the course of days, months and years to ensure that safe levels are maintained. We just wish those standards were even stricter. Why? Here’s a multiple-choice quiz for all of you.

The health risks of particulate matter pollution

Even at acceptable levels of PM pollution, there’s still an increased risk of which of the following?

  1. Dementia
  2. Loss of bone density
  3. Type 2 diabetes
  4. Kidney disease
  5. Early death due to heart and lung problems
  6. All of the above

If you guessed 6. All of the above, you are today’s winner.


A January 2017 study published in Translational Psychiatry suggests that exposure to PM in the air triggers negative interactions with APOE alleles, a gene that shows a propensity for Alzheimer’s disease. These interactions can cause epigenetic changes that may contribute to the acceleration of brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease, especially in older women.

Loss of bone density

A November 2017 article published in The Lancet analyzed two independent studies bone density loss. Both showed how the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis increased among the elderly living in areas with higher PM concentration. Cities often have the higher PM concentrations than suburban and rural areas. The small particles from PM permeate the lungs most insidiously in people living in cities, where populations were especially prone to osteoporosis-related injuries.

Type 2 diabetes

In 2016, the publication, Diabetes, cited a German study that found that long-term exposure to PM air pollution was directly related to an increase in the number of people who developed insulin resistance, an early marker for type 2 diabetes. Again, exposure within EPA standards posed a slight risk.

Kidney disease

Reuters Health reported in September 2017 that researchers at the St. Louis VA Health Care system found that even at the EPAs current standards, PM concentrations are associated with a significant risk of kidney disease. And, higher levels of PM were associated with an increased risk of end-stage renal disease.

An early death due to heart and lung problems

The EPA’s position: “Exposure to [particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter] can affect both your lungs and your heart. Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems [including] premature death in people with heart or lung disease.” Non-fatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, aggravated asthma and overall decreased lung function round out the EPA list of problems because of PM.

So what can you do? There’s no such thing as “clean coal,” and natural gas fracking sites release huge amounts of methane, which trap 20 to 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide—that’s really bad for air quality. The sooner we use non-polluting renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydropower, and more scrubbers are on coal plants and fracking becomes cleaner, the sooner we can clean up the air and breathe easier. Because as the American Lung Association puts it, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

Disclaimer: Content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.