The Key To Air Pollution’s Harms and Our Defenses May Be In Our Genes

Photo: Center for Biological Diversity

We know air pollution is bad for our lungs, but researchers are now finding connections between breathing bad air and disorders such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s diseaseThe New York Times explains in a fascinating article that the reason for these links and similarly the reason why some people are more resilient in the face of air pollution may be found in our genes and in how humans evolved.  

Why This Matters:  Air pollution harms billions of people worldwide — from cars to coal-fired power plants to forest fires — not to mention vaping and cigarette smoking.  Indeed, according to The Times, air pollution and tobacco combined result in up to 20 million premature deaths each year.  But scientists now believe that air pollution’s harmful impacts are not new  — that even as bipedal apes walking the African savanna, air toxins were enough of a problem that our ancestors had to adapt genetically to survive.  Those adaptations may have helped us to survive as a species, but the adaptations could also have increased our vulnerability to diseases linked to modern industrial air pollution, which is a more recent phenomenon.  And all this is happening as the largest funder of basic health research — our federal government — is making our air pollution problems worse.

Inflammation Gone Amok

According to new research, one of the human body’s best defenses that developed over millions of years is inflammation. But that response has now become chronic — many people experience it constantly and chronic inflammation is an important link between airborne toxins and disease. For example, there is growing evidence that chronic inflammation may lead to dementia. One of the ways scientists are beginning to understand the impact of industrialization and our evolution is by studying people today who live in non-industrial areas such as farmers in poor villages in Ghana, or indigenous forest-dwellers in Bolivia.

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