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Living in polluted city for ten years increases risk of lung disease as much as pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years

Published on 14/08/19 at 09:45am
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Air pollution in cities dramatically increases the risk for and risk of progression of emphysema, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a study from researchers in the United States.

The 18 year study of 7,000 people in the American cities of Chicago, Winston-Salem, Baltimore, Los Angeles, St Paul and New York found that long term exposure to air pollutants, particularly ozone, was linked to emphysema – a potentially deadly condition in which destruction of lung tissue leads to wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.  

Strikingly, living in a city for ten years is as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years, when it comes to increasing the risk of emphysema, the study says.

"We were surprised to see how strong air pollution's impact was on the progression of emphysema on lung scans, in the same league as the effects of cigarette smoking, which is by far the best-known cause of emphysema," said the study's senior co-author, Dr Joel Kaufman, University of Washington professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and epidemiology in the School of Public Health.

The problem is also getting worse. Dr Graham Barr, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University who led the MESA Lung study and is a senior author of the paper explained: “As temperatures rise with climate change, ground-level ozone will continue to increase unless steps are taken to reduce this pollutant. But it's not clear what level of the air pollutants, if any, is safe for human health.”

“This is a big study with state-of-the-art analysis of more than 15,000 CT scans repeated on thousands of people over as long as 18 years. These findings matter since ground-level ozone levels are rising, and the amount of emphysema on CT scans predicts hospitalization from and deaths due to chronic lung disease,” Barr added.

Louis Goss

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