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Written by
Kahryn Pedroza
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Deb Matthew

The quality of the air we breathe has the ability to nourish or harm us. When we expose ourselves to pollution in our environment, this exposure can trigger a range of adverse health effects. Protecting our health from environmental pollution requires us to understand what these pollutants are, where we may come into contact with them, and how they impact our health long term.

As part of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified six primary pollutants that humans come into contact with. These pollutants are common in outdoor air, come from diverse sources, and may have the ability to shift our autoimmunity. (Source, Source, Source)

In this article we’ll talk about what primary pollutants are, how they can affect your body’s internal systems, how they may impact autoimmune conditions, and steps you can take to protect yourself from this pollution.

What Are Primary Pollutants & Why Should I Care?

First, let’s look at what primary pollutants are, according to the EPA.

Primary Pollutants Are in the Air We Breathe

A primary pollutant is a pollutant that is emitted from a direct source into the environment and poses risks to our health when released. The EPA has identified six primary pollutants: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead, particulate matter, and ozone. These six pollutants can interact with our immune system in different ways. (Source, Source, Source)

Primary Pollutants Have Many Sources

Primary pollutants are released from a variety of sources.

  • Carbon monoxide (CO) is released from all gasoline powered engines — think cars, boats, lawnmowers, and airplanes.
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and lead are released by electric utilities and industrial sources such as power plants.
  • Particulate matter (PM) consists of liquid droplets and solid particles that can come from natural sources such as volcanoes, or from man-made sources such as industrial emissions. Particulate matter includes smog, soot, ash, tobacco smoke, cement dust, bacteria, viruses, fungi, molds, allergens, and dust.
  • Ozone, a highly reactive gas formed by photochemical reactions between air pollutants, is formed from man-made sources such as power plants, gas powered cars, chemical plants, and oil-based paint.

(Source, Source, Source)

Primary Pollutants May Affect Your Body’s Internal Systems

The six primary pollutants in our air have the capacity to shift the health of your body’s internal systems in numerous ways.

  • Carbon monoxide and particulate matter can cause oxidative stress, which reduces the amount of oxygen your body’s organs and tissues receive. It can harm the cardiovascular system, trigger nervous system dysfunction, and cause respiratory issues including coughing, shortness of breath, and asthma attacks. (Source, Source, Source)
  • Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone can cause respiratory problems such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and airway inflammation. These air pollutants can contribute to the development and exacerbation of asthma, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. (Source, Source, Source, Source, Source)
  • Lead can harm the nervous system, lower IQ, and cause learning deficits and behavioral problems. Long term exposure to high levels of lead can trigger renal and cardiovascular issues. (Source, Source, Source)

How Do Primary Pollutants Impact Autoimmune Conditions?

Primary pollutants are present in outdoor air in both rural and urban areas. The exposure to air pollution, whether short term or long term, can increase inflammation, oxidative stress, and epigenetic changes.

Exposure to these air pollutants creates an environment in the body for autoimmune diseases to be triggered or exacerbated. Inhalation of these chemicals may trigger lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes. (Source, Source)

Air Pollution Increases Inflammation

A study in Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health reported that people who lived close to highways, which put them at increased risk of lung and cardiovascular disease due to PM inhalation, also had increased amounts of inflammatory-related cytokines. (Source)

Inhaled particulate matter damages cells in the airway, stimulating an inflammatory response that is evidenced by the presence of these pro-inflammatory cytokines.

The immune cells involved in this inflammation may cause further damage through generation of chemically reactive molecules, increasing oxidative stress to airway cells. This combination of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress is associated with the onset of a number of autoimmune disorders. (Source)

Pollution Exposure May Alter Gut Microbiome

Inflammation of the intestines and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are often associated with gut microbiome imbalance, and air pollution can trigger intestinal inflammation by altering particular bacteria in the gut. Exposure to lead in the air can decrease the amount of Lachnospiraceae bacteria in the gut, which is correlated with intestinal barrier disruption and intestinal inflammation. (Source)

Inhaled PM may be trapped by mucus and tiny hairlike structures called cilia and propelled back up the airway, where it may be swallowed. A 2013 study found that mice who ingested PM experienced altered gut microbiome composition and functionality, specifically in the Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, and Verrucomicrobia bacteria. This study uncovered that ingestion of PM caused increased intestinal permeability and intestinal inflammation. (Source, Source, Source)

Early Exposure May Trigger Autoimmunity Later

A study reported in Environmental Pollution found that people who were babies in London during the Great Smog of 1952 had markedly increased rates of arthritis in adulthood. Weather conditions in December of that year caused toxic emissions from burning coal and diesel fuel to be trapped at street level for 5 days.

As adults, those who had been less than a year old during the Great Smog had significantly increased incidence of osteoarthritis, and even more significantly increased incidence of rheumatoid arthritis. This research suggests the development of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, is sensitive to air pollution exposure in early life. (Source, Source)

Impact of Short-Term Exposure on Autoimmune Diseases

In addition to the study of the Great Smog, other research supports the contention that a single exposure to air pollution can have lifelong effects. A study reported in Environmental Epidemiology found that individuals who had short-term exposure to PM and NO2 required increased treatment for autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and multiple sclerosis, that are known to be caused at least in part by epigenetic changes. A later study in Korea looked at one-year exposure to carbon monoxide air pollution in adults and found an increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis as well. We cannot discount the impact short term air pollution can have on us. (Source, Source)

Impact of Long-Term Exposure on Autoimmune Diseases

Research shows that individuals with increased inhalation of PM and NO2 have an increased likelihood of developing systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and scleroderma. This probability of autoimmunity increases further for women and those 45 years of age and older. It is evident that long-term exposure to air pollution can indeed catch up with our health. (Source, Source)

So How Can I Protect Myself From Air Pollution?

Knowing that these pollutants can create or exacerbate autoimmune issues can empower you to take action to protect your health. Here are a few actionable steps you can take today.

Check the Air Quality

Assess the level of air safety in your area against air quality standards, and consider planning outdoor activities around predicted future air quality. Mobile apps such as IQAir and websites such as AirNow can help. Simply knowing how your area ranks in air quality, and seeing what particular pollutants are present, can help you decide whether you should take further steps.

Consider an Indoor Air Cleaner

Indoor air cleaners can help remove pollutants from the air, whether they come from outside or inside the home. Many air cleaners use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to remove PM, and some use activated carbon filters to remove gasses, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Filters can also be added to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. (Source)

Heal Any Signs of Leaky Gut

There is evidence that ingestion of PM increases intestinal permeability and associated inflammation, a condition known as leaky gut. Because leaky gut can stimulate immune dysfunction, addressing any signs of leaky gut may help support your immune system and decrease autoimmune symptoms. The autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet can be a good place to start your gut health journey. (Source)

Support Your Body With Supplements

Because contaminants can bioaccumulate in your body, extra help from key supplements may give your immune system the helping hand it needs. Critical nutrients include:

  • vitamin D, which is crucial for immune function. Vitamin D deficiency is a linked risk factor for autoimmunity (Source)
  • liposomal glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from damage caused by toxins and facilitates toxin removal (Source)

Get Out in Nature

Once we are aware of the air quality around us, we can thoughtfully limit our exposure to these pollutants by avoiding areas in our environment that are likely to have a high concentration of them. If you are able to, spend time in nature to support a healthy immune response and stable nervous system. (Source, Source)

The Bottom Line on Primary Pollutants

The six primary pollutants present in the air come from various sources and have the capacity to affect your health in numerous ways. The exposure to primary pollutants in the air, whether short term or long term, can affect your body’s internal systems and increase inflammation, oxidative stress, and epigenetic changes, which may in turn trigger or exacerbate autoimmune conditions. However, there are actionable steps you can take today to support your health against air pollution.

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Rheumatoid Arthritis
January 6, 2023

Primary Pollutants: What They Are and How They Affect Our Health

Primary pollutants in the air may trigger or exacerbate autoimmune diseases, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself from their harmful effects.
Medically Reviwed
Written by
Kahryn Pedroza
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Deb Matthew
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