A Major Diabetes Risk Factor You Haven’t Heard Of – Air Pollution

Nearly 24 million Americans — that’s 8 percent of the population — have diabetes, and this number is set to nearly double to over 44 million in 2034.[1] Another 57 million have pre-diabetes, a condition that is just a step away from the actual disease, bringing the total number of Americans with diabetes or pre-diabetes to over 80 million — and rising fast.

What’s fueling this dangerous public health epidemic? It’s widely known that diet and lifestyle factors play a crucial role in both managing and preventing the disease, but new research is pointing to another concerning factor, one that many of us are exposed to on a daily, even 24-hour, basis.

Air Pollution May be Increasing U.S. Diabetes Cases

The particles that make up “fine particulate matter” are less than one-seventh the average width of a human hair, but despite their small size they’re recognized as one of the greatest air pollution risks to human health.

Fine particles are released into the air from automobiles, power plants, forest fires and industry, and they’re widespread throughout the nation.

Now a new large population-based study from researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston found the pollution is “strongly linked” to diabetes… even at levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says are safe.

The data showed a 1 percent increase in diabetes rates for every 10 microgram per cubic meter rise in fine particulate matter. The difference in diabetes rates among those living in the areas with the highest versus lowest levels of particulate pollution was striking, with those in the most polluted areas having a more than 20 percent increase in diabetes prevalence — even after other diabetes risk factors were taken into account.[2]

However, even those with the highest exposures were still in areas where pollution fell within EPA safety limits, raising concerns that current EPA limits on fine particulate matter do not go far enough to protect public safety.

Why is Fine Particulate Matter a Diabetes Risk?

Because of their small size, fine particles can lodge deeply into your lungs and may spread throughout your body via your bloodstream. In the case of diabetes, it’s thought the pollution leads to an increase in insulin resistance that raises your risk of the disease.

For instance, a previous study by researchers at Ohio State University Medical Center found that air pollution caused inflammation and increased body fat in mice, while interfering with their ability to process insulin.[3] All of these effects, which can increase diabetes risk, were intensified when combined with poor diet.

Not only can air pollution increase your risk of getting diabetes, it can increase your health risks if you already have it. A study in the journal Circulation found that people with diabetes are especially vulnerable to heart risks associated with exposure to particle air pollution.[4]

And diabetes is only one health risk of chronic air pollution exposure; studies have linked fine particulate matter to many others as well, including:[5]

  • Premature death
  • Aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease
  • Lung disease and development of chronic bronchitis
  • Decreased lung function
  • Asthma attacks
  • Cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks and cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Air Pollution

You breathe about 3,000 gallons of air a day and making sure that air is as pure and toxin-free as possible is important. One of the ways you increase your exposure to these dangerous particles is by exercising or doing other strenuous activities outdoors, especially when particle levels are high.

Check your daily air quality forecast with the EPA and plan any strenuous outdoor activities accordingly. You should also avoid exercising near high-traffic areas, where particle levels tend to be higher.

Fine particulate matter can also find its way inside your home, which is why you may want to invest in an air purifier that removes these toxins from the air. Be sure the model you choose specifically states that it can help reduce indoor particle levels. You can further help keep particle pollution to a minimum in your home by not smoking indoors and reducing your use of candles, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

More Tips for Lowering Your Diabetes Risk

The air pollution/diabetes connection is gaining momentum as a very real risk factor, one you should strive to minimize as much as possible. However, your primary strategies for diabetes prevention and treatment should still center on a healthy diet and regular exercise.

Even if you already have diabetes or pre-diabetes, these strategies often work to control and even reverse the condition. As the American Diabetes Association states:[6]

“… The recently completed Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) study conclusively showed that people with prediabetes can prevent the development of type 2 diabetes by making changes in their diet and increasing their level of physical activity. They may even be able to return their blood glucose levels to the normal range.

While the DPP also showed that some medications may delay the development of diabetes, diet and exercise worked better. Just 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity, coupled with a 5-10% reduction in body weight, produced a 58% reduction in diabetes.”

Since air pollution is, unfortunately, a risk factor you can’t always control, it’s even more important to take charge of those you can… including your eating habits and activity level.

The question often is what type of diet and exercise program is right for each diabetic. What we have found to be most important in reversing diabetes is to look at each diabetic as an individual and work to determine the causes of the disease for each person. Once that is done then you can customize treatment to include diet and exercise habits that are right and effective for each person.

If you are currently struggling with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, or think you may be at risk of the disease (family history, being overweight, and leading a sedentary lifestyle are all risk factors), talk to a knowledgeable health care practitioner who can help you get back on the road to wellness.


  1. Diabetes Care December 2009, vol. 32 no. 12 2225-2229
  2. Diabetes Care. 2010 Oct;33(10):2196-201.
  3. Circulation. 2009 Feb 3;119(4):538-46.
  4. Circulation May 31, 2005
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “PM2.5 NAAQS Implementation”
  6. American Diabetes Association “How to Prevent Prediabetes”

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