New Study Shows Air Pollution Causes Diabetes--& Your City Is Probably Unsafe

July 6, 2018

If you eat healthy, exercise, and maintain a healthy weight, you probably haven’t thought about your risk of getting diabetes. But Type 2 diabetes can happen to people who seemingly “do things right,” especially if they’re affected by air pollution.

Air Pollution Is A Major Cause Of Diabetes. How To Protect Your Health

A new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that when people were exposed to 10 μg/m3 (micrograms/cubic meter) of particulate matter in air, about 21% developed diabetes. Since that’s the threshold recommended by the World Health Organization as “safe,” the results are even more shocking. At the current EPA threshold of “safe” levels at 12μg/m3, the risk goes up to 24%. The research studied 1.7 million American veterans along with air pollution data from the EPA and NASA.

Previously, air pollution was thought to directly cause lung cancer, asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions, but recent research has discovered the connection to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and more. This happens when PM2.5, or particulate matters that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller and contain toxic metals, enters your lungs and goes into your blood stream. The body reacts with chronic inflammation, which is the root cause of many of these diseases including diabetes. When the inflammation builds up insulin resistance and the pancreas can no longer keep up with insulin production, diabetes sets in.

Globally, air pollution causes up to 14% of diabetes cases–but that’s not all. Air pollution kills over 7 million people a year, more than malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. According to a new report by the World Health Organization, 9 out of 10 people in the world breathe polluted air; and in New Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, the pollution is as bad as smoking 44 cigarettes a day. And in fact, pollution-related deaths occur in disadvantaged communities and the developing world more than anywhere else.

But for better or worse, pollution affects us all. More than 40% of Americans live in a place with polluted air, according to a report by the American Lung Association. In New York City, a number of districts exceed the WHO limit of 10 μg/m3. I live in what’s officially “Clinton and Chelsea” district 104 (including Hell’s Kitchen, Times Square, Hudson Yards) with a PM2.5 of 11.6 μg/m3, which confirms my daily experience of struggling to breathe whenever I step outside. Even where I work–“Greenwich Village and SoHo” district 102, one of the richest neighborhoods in the city–records unsafe levels of 11.2 μg/m3. I spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in conditions that give me a 24% chance of developing type 2 diabetes, despite my organic, whole plant-based vegan diet, non-toxic beauty and product routine, and 5 days/week exercise regimen.

Air Pollution Is A Major Cause Of Diabetes. How To Protect Your Health

Unless you are financially and logistically able to move to a pristine forest in the middle of nowhere–which is quickly disappearing, anyway–your best bet is to protect yourself against pollution wherever you are.

Common Sources of PM2.5

Car exhaust, machinery exhaust, coal, wood burning, forest fires, power plants, volcanos, tobacco, cooking, burning candles, oil lamps, fireplaces, fuel-burning space heaters.

How to Protect Yourself

  1. Avoid going out in the most polluted times of the day: This surprised me, since I associate cool nighttime breezes with freshness. But early morning and late afternoon/early evening are the best bets for air quality, while at night the PM2.5 levels go up.
  2. Avoid walking in high traffic areas: This sounds like a no-brainer, but it requires some change of mindset for urbanites. I am shaking my head at all those times I ran along the Hudson River Park, breathing in the fumes from the West Side Highway. Scenic, yes (and I also once jogged past Nicolaj Coster-Waldau riding his bike, so there’s that)–but is anything worth trading your health? No, not even Jaime.
  3. Pollution masks. Military-grade anti-pollution mask (image 1) Washable cotton pollution mask filter (image 2) Air Pollution Is A Major Cause Of Diabetes. How To Protect Your Health
  4. Home air filter. Blueair Filter (Energy Efficient)
    Air Pollution Is A Major Cause Of Diabetes. How To Protect Your Health
  5. No more candles: I love the coziness of burning candles, but if you live in a highly polluted area, you might consider swapping out candles for an essential oil diffuser. I’ve been using the one by Saje and it’s incredibly uplifting–and I’m happy to also note that their packaging was the most minimalist and eco-friendly one I’ve seen. (Not completely #plasticfree but very close). Air Pollution Is A Major Cause Of Diabetes. How To Protect Your Health

New Study Shows Air Pollution Causes Diabetes--& Your City Is Probably Unsafe

Do you take precautions to protect yourself from pollution?

Related: Ugh! Air Pollution Hurts Mental Health. How To Protect Yourself Without Moving

I Wear A Pollution Mask In Paris. Should You Be Trying It In Your City?

Why Pollution Damages Skin and What You Can Do about It

Get more like this–sign up for our newsletter for exclusive inspirational content!


Photos:  Wes Hicks on UnsplashMarc Ruaix on Unsplash, Respective brands

More Stories


always stay inspired!