A correlation between air pollution and diabetes found in new study despite current EPA levels deemed safe

"Evidence shows that current levels are still not sufficiently safe and need to be tightened.”

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Image Credit: Jason Lee/Reuters

Despite the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) levels deemed safe, a new study confirmed a correlation between outdoor air pollution and diabetes, which kills millions of people globally.

The study, which was conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs (VA) St. Louis Health Care System and published in The Lancet Planetary Health, finds that even at the levels the EPA and the World Health Organization label as safe, that “current levels are still not sufficiently safe and need to be tightened,” Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, the study’s lead author and assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a press release.

“Our research shows a significant link between air pollution and diabetes globally,” Dr. Al-Aly said. “We found an increased risk, even at low levels of air pollution currently considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). This is important because many industry lobbying groups argue that current levels are too stringent and should be relaxed. Evidence shows that current levels are still not sufficiently safe and need to be tightened.”

The study estimated that there were 3.2 million new pollution-related diabetes cases in 2016 throughout the world and 8.2 million years of life were lost that same year due to the disease.

While diabetes is known to be caused from eating unhealthy, rarely exercising and obesity, the study’s new research also links outdoor air pollution as a driver of the disease that affects more than 420 million people globally and 30 million Americans, the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis reported in a press release.

The study evaluated outdoor air pollution by looking at particulate matter, airborne microscopic pieces of dust, dirt, smoke, soot and liquid droplets in the air.

According to the study, the “EPA’s pollution threshold is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, the highest level of air pollution considered safe for the public, as set by the Clean Air Act of 1990 and updated in 2012. However, using mathematical models, Al-Aly’s team established an increased diabetes risk at 2.4 micrograms per cubic meter of air.” Using a sample of veterans, expose to 5 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air caused diabetes to develop in 21 percent of the the study’s sample while 24 percent developed diabetes when exposed to 11.9 to 13.6 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This represents “an increase of 5,000 to 6,000 new diabetes cases per 100,000 people in a given year,” according to the study.

The study also determined that lower-income countries were more susceptible to a higher risk of pollution-related diabetes than developed countries. The lack of environmental mitigation systems and clean-air policies in “poverty stricken countries” such as India, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Guyana cause pollution-related diabetes to be higher than in richer countries like France, Finland and Iceland.

The U.S. ranked moderately on the scale of pollution-related diabetes among its population. The study concluded that there were 150,000 new cases of pollution-related diabetes per year with about “350,000 years of healthy life lost annually,” a press release reported.

“The team in St. Louis is doing important research to firm up links between pollution and health conditions such as diabetes,” Philip J. Landrigan, MD, a pediatrician and epidemiologist who is the dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and chair of its Department of Preventive Medicine, said “I believe their research will have a significant global impact.”

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