What Air Pollution Can Do To Your Bones

by Bruce Y. Lee - Nov 11, 2017

You may have bones to pick with air pollution, according to a pair of studies published in The Lancet Planetary Health. But for how long?

For the two studies, a team of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, New England Research Institute, Northwestern University, the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and other institutions showed how you may literally feel air pollution in your bones. They found a relationship between long term air pollution and osteoporosis, a condition in which your bones become weaker and more likely to break. The first study involved analyzing data on 92 million Medicare enrollees (65 years and older) who live in the northeast and mid-Atlantic portions of the United States over an eight-year period (January, 2003, to December, 2010). Their analyses determined that those who lived in locations with higher concentrations of small particulate matter (less than 25 μm) in the air were 4.1% more likely to be admitted to a hospital for osteoporosis-related bone fracture. Among low income neighborhoods, the increased risk was even higher (7.6%).

The second study revealed that among 692 middle-aged low-income men from the Boston area, those in areas with higher small particulate matter and black carbon concentrations in the air tended to have lower blood levels of parathyroid hormone (a hormone that helps regulate calcium levels in the blood and rebuilding bone) and more bone loss over time in their femurs (thigh bone) and radii (a lower arm bone).

While these studies showed associations rather than proving direct cause and effect, these findings along with other previous scientific studies should be a sternum warning that your body is more complex than you may realize and that you don't necessarily know what breathing in garbage is doing to your body. While you may think that your bones don't do much except hold your entire body together, your bones are actually quite active metabolically and complex.

Your bones are like your ego and confidence on a dating site, constantly being built up, broken down, and remodeled. Your bones are also like cities that include little construction workers called osteoblasts that build up your bone and little wrecking ball operators called osteoclasts that say "nah, let's tear everything down so that we can start over again." There are also osteocytes that seem to meet, greet, and chat with osteoblasts ("hey, how you doing? Here's what we want to do. We want a wall and a window over there facing the spleen...). Vitamin D and parathyroid hormone, secreted by glands in your neck, help regulate the processes and the amount of calcium that goes in and out of your bones. Calcium is a major building material of bone.

Here's what happens when you spew things like particulate matter into the cloud. Not the digital storage cloud but the stuff you breathe. Pollutants in the air may interfere with your body's complex processes. For example, while heavy metal music may just shake your bones, heavy metals in the air (e.g., lead, cadmium, and mercury) can actually get into your bones and stay there. Yes, once it's in there it can be hard to get the lead out. A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe described how these heavy metals can be quite toxic and affect vitamin D concentrations, suppress osteoblasts, and stimulate osteoclasts.

Osteoporosis is not very humerus. Your bones become weak, brittle, and very susceptible to fractures. Back pain, loss of height, and a bent over posture can result. A fall, a bump, or even a sneeze could result in fractures. Fractures can be so bad that they result in hospitalization or possibly death. A study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research showed that 10.3% of adults 50 years and older in the U.S. (or over 10.2 million people) had osteoporosis.

Indeed, not doing something about the increasing air pollution throughout the world may be literally quite spineless. Who says that air pollution is getting worse? Yes, the World Health Organization (WHO) says so in their WHO Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database. It is true that air quality did improve in some parts of the country between 2005 and 2014, as reported by Rick Noack for the Washington Post. However, this year has seen the reversal of some major anti-pollution regulations such as the repeal of former President Barack Obama's policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. One problem with dumping garbage into the air is that everyone sort of has to breathe it.

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