Pollution Is Linked to a (Frighteningly) Higher Risk of Dying Early

These chemical particles are so small they can get past the body's natural defenses.

You may want to hold your breath for this one.

Pollution may be putting us at risk for significantly earlier deaths, according to the largest and most detailed study of its kind.

The survey of more than 500,000 U.S. adults suggests that long-term exposure to tiny particles in the airis associated with a 3 percent increased risk of dying from any cause and a 10 percent increased risk of dying from heart disease. And the most shocking statistic of all? The particles are associated with a 27 percent increased risk of dying from respiratory disease in non-smokers.

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These chemical particles are more than 100 times thinner than a human hair, so they can't be seen by the naked eye. The invisible particles can bypass the body's natural line of defenses —where they would normally be coughed or sneezed out — and end up getting absorbed into the lungs and bloodstream, says lead study investigator George D. Thurston, ScD, professor of environmental medicine and population health at NYU School of Medicine.

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When someone finds a link between the air you breathe and an almost 30 percent increased risk of dying from lung disease, it's understandable to be freaked out. But here's some perspective: "Remember that it is a relative risk, so non-smokers have a low risk of respiratory disease in general," Dr. Thurston explains. "Also, it is easier to 'see' the air pollution risk in non-smokers, as [it's] not 'clouded' by the very large and variable risk from smoking."

So you can stop holding your breath now. Thurston and his colleagues plan on conducting further research in order to pinpoint exactly where these pollution particles are coming from and which ones are the most harmful. But in the meantime, is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?

It appears cutting down on oil and electricity waste is a good start, but larger-scale protection begins with U.S. policymakers.

"We are working on this question, but in general, the very small fine particles in the U.S. are largely due to fossil fuel combustion, including from traffic (especially diesel), oil burning (for example, for heat in the US Northeast) and electricity generation (especially coal burning)," Thurston says. "So reducing those would be a step in the right direction. Reductions… will save lives."

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