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Outdoor Air Pollution and Thyroid Health

Published June 10 2013

Many people reading this are already aware of the positive impact of eating healthy foods and drinking purified water.  More and more people are purchasing organic food, avoiding refined foods, purchasing water filters, etc.  But while it’s important to minimize your exposure to toxins in the food you eat and the water you drink, it of course is also important to be aware of the toxins you’re exposed to simply by walking outside of your house.  So the goal of this article is to talk about the impact that outdoor air pollution has not only on the health of your thyroid gland, but your overall health as well.

There are a few reasons why people tend not to focus on outdoor air pollution.  First of all, we don’t usually think of it.  I know I don’t walk around thinking about all of the chemicals I’m breathing in.  And believe me, there are plenty of chemicals you are exposed to when you walk outside your house (and for those of you wondering, I will be posting a separate article on indoor air pollution soon).  Another reason why we don’t focus on outdoor air pollution is because we don’t think there’s much we can do to change this.  To some extent this is true, as it is impossible to get rid of most of the toxins in the air, and therefore nobody can completely eliminate their exposure to them.  At best all you can do is minimize your exposure to them.

The Relationship Between Outdoor Pollution and Respiratory Conditions

Truth to be told, there are thousands of chemicals we’re exposed to.  According to the EPA there has been no clean air in the United States for 25 years, and I’m guessing it’s similar for many other countries.  And for those who don’t think that air pollution does much harm, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution causes 2.7 million deaths annually.  I don’t know about you, but to me this is a lot of people.  And millions more who don’t die experience health problems due to air pollution.  For example, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that with the increased amount of air pollution there are more asthmatics than ever before.

There have been numerous studies linking asthma with air pollution.  One of these from 2008 looked at the association between asthma onset in children and traffic-related air pollution (1) [1].  The study concluded that air pollution contributes to the development of asthma.  And there are similar studies which show a relationship between air pollution and respiratory conditions such as asthma.  I’m not suggesting that all cases of asthma are due to air pollution.  But it’s something we need to consider.

What Outdoor Air Pollutants Are We Most Commonly Exposed To?

I recently took a detoxification course which was taught by Dr. Walter Crinnion.  For those who aren’t familiar with Dr. Crinnion, he is a naturopathic doctor who has been in practice for about 30 years, and he focuses on environmental pollution and detoxification.  According to Dr. Crinnion, these are some of the top sources of outdoor air pollution:

As for some of the most common pollutants we’re exposed to, these include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are solvents such as benzene and xylene.  Other toxins we’re commonly exposed to include Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), carbon monoxide, ozone, heavy metals, pesticides, and herbicides.

The Effect of Outdoor Air Pollution On Thyroid Health

When doing some research on this I came across an interesting study from 2012 which revealed the impact that numerous chemicals have on thyroid peroxidase (TPO) activity (2) [2].  It showed that benzyophenones, PAHs, and persistent organic pollutants did slightly alter TPO activity at low doses.  Some of the chemicals in this study decreased TPO activity, while others increased TPO activity.  So when looking to restore the health of someone with hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, one can’t overlook the impact of these toxins.  I came across another study from 2012 which showed that certain benzene-related compounds (they used 1-chloro-4-benzene and 1,3-diethyl benzene) can lead to thyroid dysfunction (3) [3].

There are also numerous studies involving pesticide exposure and thyroid disease.  One study from 2010 showed an increased risk of hypothyroidism with use of organochlorine insecticides and fungicides but no association with use of herbicides, fumigants, organophosphates, pyrethroids, or carbamates (4) [4].  Another study confirmed these findings, but also found an association between the herbicide paraquat and hypothyroidism (5) [5].

But what about heavy metals?  One study looked at the impact of the heavy metals lead, mercury, and cadmium on thyroid health (6) [6].  Although lead didn’t seem to affect thyroid function, this study showed that mercury was inversely related to total T4, total T3, and free T3, while cadmium was positively associated with these hormones, along with thyroglobulin.

How Can One Minimize Their Exposure To Outdoor Air Pollution?

It is much easier to minimize one’s exposure to indoor air pollution than outdoor air pollution.  But this doesn’t mean nothing can be done when it comes to outdoor air pollution.  The first step is being aware of your environment, and what I recommend is for everyone who lives in the United States to visit the website www.scorecard.org, and enter the zip code for where you live.  Once you do this you can see how your county compares to others across the United States.  If you live in an urban area then chances are you are going to have more toxins in the air when compared to rural areas.  However, remember that certain chemicals such as pesticides will transfer in the air to different areas.  For example, a pesticide in one country can and usually will end up in a different country.

However, the geography can still make a difference.  Low lying areas such as valleys accumulate more pollution than mountaintops and seashores.  If you’re like myself and live in an urban area, hopefully your house isn’t near a main road, as with all of the cars passing by you will be exposed to much more air pollution than a house which is further away from a main road.  If you live in an urban area and like to jog or ride a bike, you ideally want to avoid running or cycling on a major road.  Instead go to a park or somewhere else so you don’t constantly inhale the fumes from the cars passing by.

You can of course be proactive and write or email the Environmental Protection Agency about the high amount of outdoor air pollution in your town.  One letter or email probably won’t make a difference, but the more people who take a stand the better the chance of something being done.  But truth to be told, one can’t rely on the EPA when it comes to our health, as while it’s fine to email or write them about how you feel, in the meantime you need to do what you can to minimize your exposure from these toxins.

It is of course important to focus on other aspects of your health.  Make sure you eat well, and if you have access to organic food then try to eat as many organic foods as possible.  Drink purified water, and consider doing things to help detoxify your liver.  In fact, while you want all of the systems of your body to be healthy, when it comes to air pollution you need to focus on the health of your immune system and the health of your liver.  People with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis obviously have compromised immune systems which need to be addressed, and as you probably know, synthetic or natural thyroid hormone, antithyroid medication, and radioactive iodine don’t do anything to improve the health of the immune system.  And since the liver is the primary organ responsible for detoxification, then it’s important to make sure this is working well.  But since the kidneys and lungs are also important for detoxification then you want to make sure these are healthy too.

In summary, outdoor air pollution is something we need to take seriously.  While I spoke about the impact that these toxins have on thyroid health, along with respiratory conditions such as asthma, these chemicals affect all areas of the body.  And while you won’t be able to completely eliminate your exposure to these toxins, you can do some things to help minimize your exposure to them.