In our last post, we talked about the effects of environmental changes on the eyes. Today we turn our attention to an environmental problem created by humans that can be particularly harmful to the eyes – air pollution.

While smoke or smog are obvious, other forms of air pollution can sometimes be insidious. That’s why it’s important to recognize them and be aware of their effects.

But first, let’s start with the causes of air pollution.

Causes of Air Pollution

Air pollution occurs both naturally and because of human processes. Nature releases harmful substances into the air such as methane from decomposing matter in the soil, gasses from volcanic eruptions, and smoke from wildfires.

But most air pollution in urban areas is human made. Causes of air pollution include chemical production fumes, motor vehicle emissions, and emissions from coal-fueled power plants and home heating systems.

Harmful air pollutants include:

  • Noxious gasses such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides resulting from vehicle emissions.
  • Smog or ozone created when pollutants from multiple sources react in the presence of sunlight.
  • Particulate matter and fine particulate matter including carbon, mineral dust, nitrates, and sulphates.
  • Volatile organic compounds that vaporize near room temperature and which are given off by pesticides, paints, cleaning supplies, craft materials, and furnishings.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons resulting from industrial processes, combustion, and power generation.
boulevard full of cars with triumphal arch in the background

All pollutants are harmful but according to the World Health Organization, the air contaminants with the worst effects on the eyes include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide.

Air pollution is not confined to the outdoors. Indoor air quality can be a problem in many cities around the world.

Causes of indoor air pollution include central heating systems, tobacco products, newly installed flooring or upholstery, household cleaning products, pressed-wood products, and certain building materials like plywood and old insulation.

The use of indoor air filtering systems may mitigate to some extent this problem.

Effects of Air Pollution on the Eyes

Air pollution can have a host of effects on your eyes, both immediate and long-term. It can also trigger eye allergy. The immediate effects of air pollutants include:

  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Discharge
  • Inflammation of the conjunctiva (conjunctivitis)
  • Dry eyes

Certain forms of air pollution can lead to dry eye disease or worsen existing dry eyes. A common example is smoke in the air including second-hand smoke from cigarettes.

Air pollution can also have more insidious long-term effects on the eyes. Studies show that over time, outdoor pollutants can cause serious diseases of the eye that threaten sight like glaucoma, retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration.

black and white portrait of woman smoking by the window

If you think that household air pollution is less harmful, think again. Indoor pollution can cause cataracts and other eye diseases.

Air pollution is responsible for over 6.5 million deaths every year. It has been linked with several serious diseases such as pneumonia, lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and stroke.

A study based on UK Biobank Data published in 2020 found that people living in very polluted areas were at least 8% more likely to develop age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is a leading cause of vision loss.

Good to know: Air pollution in the form of smoke and other pollutants can also be one of the most common dry eye causes. Learn more about what are dry eyes including dry eye disease symptoms.

How to Protect Your Eyes from Air Pollution

Avoiding air pollution as much as possible is the first step to safeguarding your vision. This is more difficult to do if you live in a large city, but it can still be done. Pay attention to local air quality warnings and avoid polluted areas.

When pollution levels are high across an area, stay indoors with the windows closed. If necessary, use towels to block any gaps that allow air inside.

Traveling to other countries? Check the world air quality index and bring you an air filtering mask if necessary. There can be significant differences in air quality between countries.

In addition to these general tips, here are a few other things you can do to protect your eyes from air pollution.

  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables have antioxidants that protect your eyes from free radicals that pollution creates. Free radicals create oxidative stress in the body and can damage the eyes. Find out more about the best foods for eye health.
  • Drink plenty of water. Air pollution can make your eyes feel dry. Staying hydrated may help support healthy tear production. One of the roles of tears is to wash away irritants from the surface of the eye, so anything that supports healthy tear production is good for your eyes.
  • Wear sunglasses. More than protecting you from UV radiation, sunglasses can help reduce the amount of air pollutants such as smog that reach the surface of your eyes. For more protection, wear wraparound sunglasses.
  • Keep your indoor air clean. Avoid pollutants like smoke, cleaning products, paint, or glue. Improve ventilation and start using an air purifier system. If you’re concerned about the impact of building materials on air quality, test the current air quality in your home. Indoor air degradation may occur over time, especially in old houses.
  • Take an eye health supplement for an extra dose of antioxidants and other healthy eye nutrients. Try the synergistic superfood blend in SightC capsules or Blueberry Gummies.

Good to know: Pollution can make your eyes feel itchy. But it’s best to avoid rubbing your eyes when they itch as this can only make the sensation worse.

Tip: Traveling between states, countries, or continents? You can monitor the air quality index in real time to avoid hazardous areas.

The Wrap Up

Air pollution may be unavoidable, but you can still take active steps to protect your eyes from the worst effects of pollutants. While outdoor air pollution is often the problem, don’t forget that indoor air quality can be equally dangerous. Start with the air quality in your home and your eyes will be grateful.

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