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Link between air pollution and diabetes grows stronger

  • Written by  Ella Taibel
  • Published in Cities
Link between air pollution and diabetes grows stronger
13 Jul
Far from being separate threats, scientists have found links between air pollutants and a rise in type-2 diabetes

Scientists for Earth Sense, the University of Leicester and other institutions, have found a possible link between air pollution and a rise in type-2 diabetes, in a study published in Environmental International. They believe that exposure to traffic-related air pollutants can cause insulin resistance. The authors also concluded that demographic factors explained the possible relationship between the two.

Diabetes is a chronic disease which occurs when your pancreas stops producing the insulin that your body uses to break down glucose to get it into your blood cells. If not treated correctly it can cause issues with your heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, nerves and teeth, and in many cases premature death.

• Click here to read Diabetes – The World At Risk for an in-depth look at the global threat the disease poses

With five million deaths a year, one in 16 people have diabetes in the U.K and 78.3 million people diagnosed in India – its reach is far, wide and serious. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is the world’s biggest environmental health risk, while King’s College London reports that over 9,000 deaths in London alone can be attributed to unclean air.

Over the years, diabetes has become a disease associated with high-income countries. In reality, according to the International Diabetes Federation, 75 per cent of people living with diabetes are from middle to low income countries.

Dr Gary O’Donovan of Loughborough University, who led the research, said, ‘High air pollution and low physical activity are two of the leading causes of disease and premature death in middle and high-income countries.’

Diabetes test

The urgency of this study is evident in a plethora of recent research on urban migration and cities, such as the Migrants on the Margin field project led by the RGS-IBG which suggests that by 2050, 5.2 billion people are expected to be living in urban areas in Africa and Asia. A UN study estimates that by the same date, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities.

People in middle to low-income countries are already disproportionately suffering from both diabetes and pollution. Dr Mohga Kamal-Yanni, a senior health policy advisor at Oxfam UK explains, ‘People living on or below the poverty line tend to be diagnosed later. They have less access to treatment and suffer more acute and late complications than the rich.’

Air pollution

Meanwhile research led by Dr Glenn Althor, researcher at University of Queensland, shows the relationship between vulnerability and emissions. ‘This is a critical issue as the impact on the Earth’s climate from these emissions is felt by all nations, but on a disproportionate level,’ he says.

It is important to note that the study was inconclusive. Professor Roland Leigh, Technical Director of EarthSense, and Director of Enterprise at the University of Leicester’s Institute for Space and Earth Observation and co-author of the study highlights that there may be long-term exposure effects that will need to be understood.

‘We will continue to apply cutting-edge air quality research to unpick potentially connected long-term exposure factors,’ he says. ‘As innovators in air quality monitoring, the University of Leicester and EarthSense have fundamental contributions to make to the understanding of the complex issues of pollution exposure and health.’

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