Air pollution increases risk of diabetes and hypertension developing in black women, researchers say

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Medical researchers know that air pollution can cause cardiovascular problems. Yet they were not aware that increased exposure to air pollution from traffic can raise the risk for developing diseases like type 2 diabetes and hypertension, especially in African-American women.

A recent study conducted by researchers at Boston University, which focused on women of all races, found that increased exposure to air pollution more deeply impacted African-American women, who are more prone toward developing these illnesses. The study has been published in the journal, Circulation.

Patricia Coogan of the Boston University School of Public Health and Slone Epidemiology Center led the study that tracked the health of more than 4,200 African-American women living in Los Angeles over a decade. Los Angeles was chosen for the study due to its documented air pollution problem.

“We know that acute events of air pollution can cause increases in death, heart attack, hospitalization and more,” Coogan told theGrio. “However, there is not a lot of evidence that increased exposure to air pollution will actually increase blood pressure. There is also very little data that states air pollution contributes to the development of hypertension and diabetes in people.”

According to Coogan, she and her colleagues have followed the women since 1995, when their subjects answered questionnaires about their health history.

Through analyzing these women “we knew if and when they were diagnosed with hypertension or with diabetes,” Coogan told theGrio. “We also knew where they lived, and therefore we could access the level of air pollution in their home.”

It was reported by The Hindu that within this ten year period, from 1995-2005, 531 of the female subjects experienced hypertension, while 183 women acquired diabetes.

During the study, researchers monitored data from local air monitoring stations to assess the amount of exposure women had to and particulate matter and the air pollutant nitrous oxide, which is associated with traffic pollution.

After extensive investigation and analysis of the differences in age, weight, income and other factors between study participants, Coogan and her colleagues found that increased exposure to nitrous increased the risk of diabetes. “We found that continuous exposure to nitrous oxide increased the risk of diabetes in a statistically significant way,” Coogan said.

“In fact, for every increase in 12 parts per billion, the increase of diabetes increases by 24 percent and the risk of hypertension by 11 percent,” Coogan elaborated.

However, it is important to note that the study did not prove that air pollution singularly causes diabetes. Still, Coogan and other air pollution experts believe the study is quite a milestone for the medical field.

University of Southern California Professor Ed Avol, whose expertise focuses on the health impact of traffic, agreed with Coogan.
“The impact of environmental contaminants on our everyday lives (and long-term health) is sometimes subtle and less direct than we might first imagine,” Avol said. “However, it’s important to understand, because then we can do something about it that will improve the public’s health.”

Additionally, Marina Del Rey Hospital Cardiologist Dr. John Kennedy believes the study is significant, because it draws connections between many different health issues women face.

“The number one cause of death in women is heart diseases and stroke,” Dr. Kennedy told theGrio. “We knew the relationship between heart attack and stroke, but we didn’t know the reason why. Since diabetes and hypertensions are risk factors for heart diseases and stroke, the study highlights new risk factors that we weren’t aware of previously.”

Based on Coogan’s findings, Dr. Kennedy suggested that women should stay away from high traffic areas as much as possible. He also advised women to regularly get their blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol checked.

It’s especially important that African-American women follow his advice. Numerous research studies have revealed that African-American women are more than twice as likely to have diabetes compared to whites. They are also more like to live in polluted areas.

To Dr. Bill Releford (whose health initiative, the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program, has received praise from President Obama), the study’s findings and their meaning for black women come as no surprise. The connection between air pollution, diabetes and race is as clear to him as a street name displayed on a map.

“If you see a map [displaying air pollution within America], you will see that more air pollution is consistently associated with parts of the country with large African-American populations,” Releford told theGrio. “This recent study adds pollution as another risk factor contributing to the prevalence of diabetes within African-American women,” he said.

Releford just hopes that these findings don’t diminish the importance of physical activity in preventing diabetes and hypertension. “There is the risk that this new information will be viewed as the primary cause of the surge in diabetes development, and discount or minimize the role that individual lifestyle choices play in the diabetes game,” he warned.

Indeed, Coogan also wants the public to recognize that air pollution is not the sole contributing factor to a diabetes diagnosis.

“The biggest thing you can do to prevent diabetes and hypertension is to keep your weight down, and that is huge,” she told theGrio. “Air pollution doesn’t have nearly as big of an impact as weight.”

In the future, Coogan hopes to gather further data that will enhance her previous findings. To help her execute this, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recently gave her a grant to continue her study on more than 55,000 women.

“We have the perfect cohort for addressing these hypotheses,” she said. “I am hoping that [our findings] will be confirmed with more precision in the larger study.”