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Non-Smokers Can Get Emphysema From Air Pollution: Study

Photo credit: Carolina Pimenta, UnsplashLong-term exposure to air pollution is linked to increases in emphysema, according to data produced from between 2000 and 2018. The study funded by NIEHS and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the findings of which appeared August 13 in JAMA, adds evidence linking air pollution and emphysema, a lung disease that gets worse over time.

Emphysema, usually associated with smokers, is a chronic disease in which lung tissue is destroyed and becomes unable to effectively transfer oxygen.

“Air pollution is a significant public health concern around the world,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. “It’s been a priority of NIEHS research for many years, so it’s great when we can accelerate our efforts by joining with other NIH [National Institutes of Health] institutes in supporting research on lung disease.”

The study included more than 7,000 men and women from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Researchers followed individuals with emphysema, analyzing more than 15,000 computed tomography (CT) scans and lung function tests from the nearly two-decade period analyzed.

Over the same period, MESA carefully tracked air pollution in the varied metropolitan regions of Winston-Salem, N.C; St. Paul, Minn.; New York City; Baltimore; Chicago; and Los Angeles.

“These findings may offer one explanation for why emphysema is found in some people who never smoked,” said James Kiley, Ph.D., director of the NHLBI Division of Lung Diseases. “The study’s results, duration, and timing offer insight into the long-term effects of air pollution on the U.S. population.”

Clear and consistent associations between long-term exposure to air pollutants and progression of lung disease were found across the six localities.

Traffic-related air pollutants were identified as affecting emphysema.

“The combined health effect of multiple air pollutants — ozone, fine particles known as PM2.5, nitrogen oxides, and black carbon — was greater than when the pollutants were assessed individually,” said Bonnie Joubert, Ph.D., a scientific program director at NIEHS. “With the study’s long-running duration, repeated CT scans allowed analysis of changes in emphysema over time.”

“Rates of chronic lung disease in this country are going up and increasingly it is recognized that this disease occurs in nonsmokers,” said the study's senior co-author, Joel Kaufman, M.D., from the University of Washington. “We really need to understand what’s causing chronic lung disease, and it appears that air pollution exposures that are common and hard to avoid might be a major contributor.”

Click here to read more about the study on NIH’s site.