Can Air Pollution Cause Diabetes: A Truth or Myth?


Diabetes is among the fastest growing diseases in the world, with over 420 million people suffering across the world. This disease is a chronic disease in which the patient suffers from high blood sugar. This could be because the person’s body is not producing enough insulin, or it could be the result of the patient’s body cells not responding to the insulin produced, or in some cases, it could be because of both these factors. While this disease can be treated but cannot be cured completely. Diabetic patients must learn to manage this disease over the time with lifestyle changes. If not managed properly it could result in heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and associated diseases. While there is no one common cause which is leading to diabetes as this disease is generally associated with one’s family medical history, eating habits and several lifestyle factors such as the lack of physical activities and malnutrition.

Air Pollution Causes Diabetes

However, the one factor that is not generally associated with causing diabetes is air pollution. We often associate air pollution with causing several respiratory and skin diseases, but diabetes has never been explicitly associated with air pollution until now.

In a recent study, conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System in Missouri, it was confirmed that air pollution causes diabetes.

The Study:

The study published in Lancet Planetary Health has established that air pollution is one of the leading causes of diabetes. According to the findings, air pollution was the cause for diabetes in one out of seven cases. For this study, the researchers examined a group of veterans with no history of diabetes in the family and each leading a healthy lifestyle. This group was analyzed and studied for an average of 8.5 years, with several different parameters put in place to ensure that any false results could be eliminated. Researchers also controlled the inputs from factors like obesity and unhealthy eating practices in order to make sure that there were no cases of an already at-risk person living in a polluted neighbourhood and developing diabetes. Based on the results of the study, it was estimated that air pollution was the cause of approximately 3.2 million cases of diabetes in 2016 worldwide. This number is significant enough to warrant air pollution as a major factor in causing diabetes which was nevertheless considered until now.

How Does Pollution Cause Diabetes?

While the mechanism by which air pollution causes diabetes has not been established so far. According to doctors, the relationship lies in the way how the human body reacts to these pollutants.

Effects of Air Pollution on Blood Glucose Level

The scientific findings revealed that when air pollutants are inhaled they enters the blood stream and reduce the production of insulin (hormone which regulated the blood sugar level) and triggers the inflammation. Interaction of air pollutants with cells, tissues and organs trigger several other inflammatory mechanisms and disrupts the normal body-hormone regulation and enhance blood sugar level. Among various pollutants the most dangerous and abundantly found air pollutant is PM2.5 (Particulate Matter of the size 2.5 micrometers). The size and composition of PM2.5 was found to be major contributing factors which makes it more easily reachable deeper into lung alveoli and air sacs. Where it gets easily absorbed through blood vessels into the bloodstream and disrupts the normal functions of the organs. One study revealed that after inhalation air pollutants stimulates the process of gluconeogenesis (glucose synthesis) and decrease glycolysis (glucose breakdown) in the liver and thus, increase the blood sugar level.

The Way Forward:

According to researcher Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, results of the study showed an increased risk of diabetes even at lower levels of air pollution which are currently considered to be safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). This is the case for developed countries like USA and European countries. For the developing countries in Asia and Africa the risk associated with air pollution is higher. Countries like India and China are at top in this list due to industrial revolution and lack of health awareness. India does not have strict policies against air pollution and the air quality is worsening day by day, the residents of the country are sure to be at a higher risk of diabetes.

In the last few years, residents of National capital and other major cities in India have experienced a sharp rise in the air pollution levels, particularly in the concentration of PM2.5. Strict action yet to be taken to reduce air pollution but at the same time the risk of diabetes will keep increasing due to rise in pollution level. Furthermore, a recent study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed a list of the 12 most polluted cities in the world. Out of these 11th and 12th were from India. This fact, coupled with the fact that diabetes is an extremely common disease in India, is quite alarming and hints at the possibility of more and more people developing this disease as time goes on.

While there is need to have strict rules and regulations against air pollution, residents can also take few steps to combat diabetes. The first step would be to maintain a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and regular exercise. You can reduce the risk by avoiding exposure to heavily polluted areas in the city, as much as possible. Using air filters at home can be a good step to keep the house environment free from toxic air pollutants and to get fresh air. If the concentration of PM2.5 increases, the air outside might look hazy or covered in smog. While stepping out on such days, you should use anti-pollution masks. These masks are commonly available at pharmacies or drug stores.

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