Recent AIIMS study shows how much air pollution exposure is damaging your eyes.
We have known for many years that air pollution can directly affect our health, and that living in heavily polluted areas can cause an increase in the incidence of lungs and heart issues. What we didn’t know was that air pollution can damage our eyes, too. AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Science) recently conducted a survey that involved 5000 people who visited the hospital between 2013 and 2014, giving them a questionnaire aimed at assessing the prevalence of eye problems.
What did AIIMS discover?
According to the results of the survey, around 10-15% of the people who responded had symptoms like watery eyes, redness or itchiness, and 65% of those people were men between 20 and 40 years. Many people complained because their eye problems affected their productivity, and interfered with their life.
The doctors involved in the survey said that in the past dry eyes were a common problem in elderly patients, but that now younger people are getting them too. The medical director of Centre for Sight also said that the number of patients who are treated for chronic irritation of the eyes and allergic conjunctivitis is getting higher every year, and that the patients present the same symptoms all year round, while in the past they were more common during the pollen season.
What caused these symptoms?
Prolonged exposure to air pollution affects the tear ducts, which is why many people complain of dry eyes. Also, particular matter and toxic fumes can adhere to the outer surface of the eye in the same way pollen does, damaging the tear film. These problem can worsen and become chronic, putting the patients at risk of severe complications.
Is the level of air pollution in India comparable with the ones in Europe and America?
The study was conducted in India, which is together with China one of the most polluted country in the world. While the pro-capita emissions of greenhouse gases is low, India is heavily populated and so the levels of air pollution in big cities is very high. According to a research conducted in 2004, the level of particulate matter in the air (expressed in micrograms per cubic meter) was 150 in Delhi and 128 in Kolkata. Other cities had lower levels, for example Mumbai were the level was only 63.
During the same year, the level of particulate matter in big European and American cities was way lower: for example, it was around 30 in Milan and Rome, 11 in Paris, 22 in Berlin and 21 in London. It was 21 in New York and 34 in Los Angeles.
This difference is due to the fact that developing countries such as India and China are still using fuelwood and biomass as their primary sources of energy. Also, these countries don’t regulate vehicle emissions as tightly as other countries do, and since the recent economic development led to an increase in the number of vehicles on the streets, there was also a big increase in air pollution.
Then, why should we worry?
The figures quoted above are more than 10 years old, and they are also an average. Since then, we haven’t done nearly enough to lower emissions and pollution. Even if European and American cities are on average less polluted than Indian and Chinese cities, there are still people who are at risk of suffering eye problems caused by air pollution: for example, construction workers who work in busy streets, traffic officers, or people who like to run and cycle outdoors.
Also, a study presented at the 177th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology in 2013 revealed that people living in areas with high level of air pollution were three to four times more likely to suffer from dry eye syndrome. The “areas with high level of air pollution” mentioned in the study were American cities like Chicago or New York, compared with rural areas where the level of pollutants was lower.
What precautions can we take in order to protect ourselves?
The only long-term measure that can lower of risk of having eye issues due to pollution is to decrease the level of air pollution. Until this happens, we must take steps in order to protect our eyes. It is helpful to wash the eyes regularly, avoiding rubbing them if they are itchy and using artificial tears instead. Wearing protective goggles can also help, especially when we are in heavily polluted areas.
While we cannot control the air quality outdoors, we can also take steps to have better air indoors: since low humidity worsen the symptoms, it can be helpful to use a humidifier. A high-quality air filter can also help making air cleaner in the home. Finally, there are supplements that can help lubricate the eyes and the skin, such as flaxseed oil, but it is important to speak with a doctor before starting to take any supplement.
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