Traffic pollution exposure linked to multiple long-term health conditions

Traffic pollution exposure linked to multiple long-term health conditions
© iStock/P. Kijsanayothin

A new study has found that exposure to traffic pollution is associated with an increased risk of having multiple long-term physical and mental health conditions.  

Researchers from King’s College London conducted the largest study worldwide to analyse whether air and traffic pollution exposure is linked with the increased prevalence of multiple long-term health conditions.  

Multimorbidity is defined as having two or more physical or mental health conditions and affects 27% of adults in UK primary care. It increases the use of healthcare services and the costs of primary and secondary care, but studies have not explored how air and traffic pollution in the UK may aggravate these conditions.  

The findings were published in Frontiers in Public Health.  

Assessing UK Biobank data for physical and mental health conditions

The researchers analysed data from the UK Biobank, which collates biomedical research data containing anonymised genetic, lifestyle and health information from 500,000 UK participants, aged between 40 and 69 years. The participants were assessed for 36 physical and five mental health chronic conditions.  

Following this, the physical and mental health data were linked with the estimated concentration of pollution at the residential address of the participants.  

Linking traffic pollution to health conditions in the UK

The researchers found that high levels of traffic pollution – fine particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – were associated with an increased risk of having two or more long-term health conditions. The strongest associations were observed for co-occurring neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular and common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.   

Amongst the participants with multiple conditions, increased exposure to both PM2.5 and NO2 was linked to greater severity of the co-occurring disorders. 

Dr Ioannis Bakolis, Reader at IoPPN, King’s College London and senior author on the study said, “how air pollution affects multiple organs and systems at the same time is not yet fully understood, but there is some evidence that mechanisms such as inflammation, oxidative stress and immune activation could be triggered by air particulates, which can cause damage to the brain, heart, blood, lungs and gut.  

“Our study suggests that it could be through shared mechanisms that air pollution negatively impacts several body systems and increases the likelihood of people developing multiple long-term health conditions. More research is needed to understand just how air pollution affects the different bodily systems, but it may be that tackling air pollution could help prevent and alleviate the debilitating impact of multiple long-term health conditions.”   


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