It causes 200,000 premature deaths each year.

The highest rate was found in Baltimore, with 21,000 early deaths per year.

In the UK, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, is so concerned by this issue, she made it the subject of her 9th Annual Report released in March. It’s entitled, “Health Impacts of All Pollution. What do we know?”

In her summary she writes: “Instead of being seen as a health issue, pollution is often seen primarily as an environmental problem. This needs to change. As a society we need to regain a focus on pollution as a threat to human health.”

Here are some of the key issues raised in the report. . .

Pollution needs to be recognized for what it is: a significant cause of non-infectious diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (the three leading causes of death in the US) and asthma.

Pollution comes in many forms. . .

Noise: Prolonged exposure disturbs sleep and increases secretion of stress hormones. These raise blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar and blood fats. These in turn increase cardiovascular disease risk.

Light: Bright light of almost any wavelength from buildings, streetlights and homes can impact eye health and disrupt the circadian system – the body’s internal clock – to cause sleep disturbances and lack of daytime alertness. These issues affect well-being in multiple ways.

The impact of computer/smartphone screen use, and ‘blue light’ upon human health is also of increasing concern. Since the risks of long-term exposure remain unknown, Prof. Davies recommends we “Turn off electronics at bed times, avoid over-using lights…turn off all iPads, iPhones and computers” before going to sleep.

Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): These byproducts of industrial processes and/or burning, bind to an intracellular protein called aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR). This interferes with normal immune system functioning. These chemicals could be linked to the substantial rise in autoimmune disease.

Dioxins and PCBs don’t degrade. They remain in the environment for a very long time. They become concentrated in the food chain and tend to accumulate in fat. Freshwater fish had the highest concentration in the US. A more recent review in the UK found levels greatest in oily fish and some meats such as deer.

Polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): Widely distributed in the environment, they are carcinogenic to humans. Lab studies indicate they increase the risk of lung, liver, stomach, bladder and skin cancer. They may also be linked to inflammation, blood vessel dysfunction and asthma.

Metals: Exposure in the form of particles released from vehicle brakes has been on the rise. These particles “have the capability to penetrate deep into the lung where they can be absorbed into the systemic circulation.”

Flame retardants: Found in food and household dust, these chemicals can be absorbed through inhalation, ingestion, or through the skin. Most exposure in the US comes from meat and dairy products. The main concern is long-term interference with thyroid hormone.

Nanomaterials: These ultra-tiny particles are used in cosmetics, paints and coatings, medicines, medical devices, water treatment and agrochemicals. We can also be exposed from contaminated food, air and water.

In the lab they reduce lung function, produce inflammatory lesions, and accumulate in the brain. At a cellular level they reduce mitochondrial (energy) function and increase membrane leakage.

Microplastics: These are found extensively in the environment. We are exposed via food and inhalation. Main concerns are physical toxicity such as blockage of the gut, toxicity from the chemicals they release, and damage to the lungs.

Indoor Air Pollution

The Report states rather alarmingly, “In most locations (away from busy roads), outdoors air is likely cleaner than indoors for the majority of classes of air pollution.”

While most air pollutants found indoors are broadly similar to those found outside, some occur at substantially higher concentrations. These include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in many building materials, furnishings, adhesives, inks, cleaning and personal care products.

One of these – formaldehyde – can be found indoors at concentrations up to 100 times greater than what occurs outdoors. It impacts the health of the eyes and lungs, and carries a longer-term cancer risk.

Steps You Can Take

It’s easy to see why the UK’s Chief Medical Officer is so concerned.

At least when it comes to indoor pollution, we can avoid unhealthy products and building materials, and use air filters to purify the air. To cut down on pollutants that originate outside the home, drink purified water and remove shoes when entering the home. They are among the major ways unwanted toxins find their way into our homes.

Light pollution, particularly at night when it disturbs circadian rhythms, can be reduced by darkening our bedrooms as much as possible and wearing eye masks if need be. The small lights that are ubiquitous on electronic items such as televisions should be covered up during the hours of sleep, or removed from the bedroom.

Avoid cooking with or eating from plastic items that are a significant source of toxins, especially when heated – and that includes when they’re filled with hot foods or liquids.

Look for clothing, sheets and mattresses that are not treated with flame retardants or other materials. This may require special-ordering mattresses that are untreated.