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Can Pollution Damage Your Eyes? New Study Says Yes 

November 29, 2019

We all know pollution is bad for our health. It's been shown to damage our lungs, our brain health, and it's even been connected to hair loss. Studies have suggested than one in six deaths in the U.S. are related to pollution of some kind, whether it be air pollution, chemical or occupational pollution, or water and soil contamination (which combined represent the world's largest cause of disease, environmentally speaking.)

And now, a new study1 suggests that living in a polluted area is associated with a higher likelihood of developing glaucoma, a group of conditions that damage the optic nerve, which is essential for healthy vision.

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The research, published in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science analyzed data from 111,370 participants from the UK Biobank study cohort. The participants underwent eye tests and were asked whether they had glaucoma and underwent eye tests to measure intra-ocular pressure and the thickness of the central area of the retina (which are both affected in glaucoma). The participants were also asked for their home address, and the researchers looked up the pollution measures (focusing on fine particulate matter, which is a specific and very concerning type of air pollution in the form of atmospheric aerosol particles).

When the results of the glaucoma tests were compared to the fine participate matter levels in the area, there was a strong link. The data showed those living in the most polluted areas had a 6% higher risk of having glaucoma and a significantly greater risk of having a thinner retina, which is one of the common changes seen in glaucoma progression.

So how, exactly, does this fine particulate matter damage the eyes? As one of the authors on the study, Dr. Sharon Chua from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital, explained: "Air pollution may be contributing to glaucoma due to the constriction of blood vessels, which ties into air pollution's links to an increased risk of heart problems." And that's not the only explanation, either. "Another possibility is that particulates may have a direct toxic effect damaging the nervous system and contributing to inflammation," she continued.

Researchers have long suspected a connection between glaucoma and pollution, and this study confirms it. And unfortunately, the link might be even stronger than 6%. "Given that this was in the UK, which has relatively low particulate matter pollution on the global scale, glaucoma may be even more strongly impacted by air pollution elsewhere in the world," said lead author Professor Paul Foster, who is also from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital. Considering the fact the indoor air pollution and workplace exposure were not included in this study—but are extremely common—pollution could end up being a major factor in glaucoma prevention in the future.

There's still a lot to learn about this connection, but it does add to the growing pile of evidence that pollution harms out health—and that we should all be paying attention to the pollution levels where we live. "We have found yet another reason why air pollution should be addressed as a public health priority, and that avoiding sources of air pollution could be worthwhile for eye health alongside other health concerns," said Foster. And considering the fact that glaucoma is the number one cause of blindness in people over 60, this is an area of research we should all be paying attention to.

For the time being, make sure you know which diet and lifestyle changes support eye health the most.

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