Air pollution linked to poor bone health

28 Nov 2017

Poor air quality is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures, recent studies have found.

Researchers from several American universities, including Harvard and Columbia, conducted two independent studies examining the relationship between bone health and particulate matter – the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air, such as smoke, soot or dust.

Air pollution such as this is small enough to be inhaled into the lungs, and has previously been linked to chronic illnesses such as heart disease and respiratory problems.

The first study analysed data over an eight year period from more than 9 million people, aged 65 years or older. Annual concentrations of small particulate matter - measuring 2.5microns or less in width (PM2.5) - were recorded for the participants’ residential areas.

Results showed that those living in locations where the air contained higher concentrations of PM2.5 were 4.1% more likely to be admitted to hospital for osteoporosis-related bone fractures.

The second study analysed the musculoskeletal health of 692 middle-aged, low-income men from the Boston area, over an eight year period.

It was found that the men living in areas where there were higher concentrations of PM2.5 and traffic pollution had lower levels of parathyroid hormone in their blood – a vital hormone in the regulation of calcium levels in the body, affecting the strength and density of bone.

Those living in highly polluted areas also experienced greater loss in bone density over time in multiple areas of the body.

Terence O’Neill, Professor of Rheumatology & Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Manchester, said the study was “interesting and potentially important,” but added it needed to be approached with caution.

“The study suggests that, in addition to recognised adverse effects such as heart and lung disease, air pollution may also have an adverse effect on bone health. However, in the larger fracture study it was not possible to link the air pollution levels directly to those people who fractured and so it is difficult to say with certainty whether it was the air pollution which was responsible for the increased risk. Further research is needed to replicate the findings, including in different populations; if confirmed, the data suggests that improvements in particulate air pollution concentrations could potentially contribute to a reduction in osteoporotic fractures.”

Dr Andrea Baccarelli, an environmental health scientist at Colombia University, New York, said: “This study provides evidence that long-term exposure to particulate matter – a persistent issue in Europe and globally – is an independent risk factor for bone fractures; even well below the annual average limits set by the US Environmental Agency and the European Union.”

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