Nutritional solutions to combat the health effects of air pollution


Air pollution is a significant global environmental issue and exposure to major contaminants in the atmosphere

Air pollution is a significant global environmental issue and exposure to major contaminants in the atmosphere has been associated with a number of serious health issues

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), clean air is considered to be a basic requirement of human health and well-being. Inhaling polluted air, especially air containing particulate matter of a diameter smaller than 2.5 µm (PM2.5), constitutes an environmental risk that has a proven impact on the quality and duration of human life.

With 80% of the world’s population living in regions that exceed WHO air quality guidelines, air pollution is a serious global concern and is expected to become a central focus of government regulation and environmental reform.1 Nutrition-associated solutions, in particular micronutrients and marine-derived long-chain unsaturated fatty acids (such as fish oil), can play a major role in tackling the detrimental health impacts that people can suffer having been exposed to contaminated air, as well as other severe health-related problems worldwide.

A Threat to Human Health

The long-term effects of air pollution on the human body can be extremely serious. Both short- and long-term exposure to pollutants is associated with increased respiratory afflictions, cardiovascular mortality and the risk of several chronic diseases, including diabetes and cancer, via oxidative stress and inflammatory mechanisms. WHO reported that around seven million people died in 2012 as a result of air pollution exposure, which equated to one in eight of the total number of global deaths.2 Also, it is widely recognised that some population groups, such as older adults, children and those already suffering from illnesses such as asthma and diabetes, are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution on health.

Air pollution comprises a complex mixture of gases and particles, which include ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter, carbon dioxide (CO2), lead (Pb) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), of which O3, NO2 and PM2.5 are the main pollutants that constitute health problems. According to the 2005 WHO Air Quality Guidelines, exposure to PM2.5 at the 35 µm/m3 level (IT-1) is associated with a 15% increase in mortality risk, relative to the Air Quality Guidelines of 10 µm/m3.3

Mechanistically, as a result of inhaling polluted air, free radicals (reactive oxygen species, ROS) are created in the lungs. Excess ROS levels overcome the human body’s antioxidant defence mechanisms and result in oxidative stress, causing oxidative damage, consequential tissue damage and the triggering of inflammatory processes. Acceleration of the inflammatory processes in response to the formation of ROS can cause additional cell damage, which can lead to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Protecting Populations from Pollution

The reduction of air pollution plays a substantial role in disease prevention; however, there are additional ways to counteract its negative effects on human health. Studies show that the human body can be helped to combat the harmful effects of exposure to pollutants by increasing antioxidant and micronutrient intake.

There have been a number of recent assessments by different research groups to indicate that insufficient intake of micronutrients has the potential to have severe long-term effects on the health of urban populations. Nowadays, people’s eating behaviour, including the consumption of more packaged foods, results in a nutrient profile that is low in beneficial nutrients, such as antioxidants and marine-derived omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). As these nutrients protect against inflammation, populations are more susceptible to the damaging effects of pollutants, which can trigger the development of chronic diseases. Increasing the intake of antioxidants and PUFAs may reduce inflammation and therefore reduce the risk of developing the associated diseases.

Supported by Science: Micronutrients and PUFAs

Several studies have highlighted the potential of some micronutrients, such as PUFAs, B vitamins and vitamin C, D and E, to have protective effects against the damage induced by particulate matter. Findings show, for example, that

  • PUFAs and vitamin E can reduce respiratory inflammation, decreased antioxidant capability and the neurological symptoms associated with certain pollutants3
  • PUFAs can reduce the oxidative stress associated with PM2.53
  • PUFAs can improve heart function and the attenuated Heart Rate Variability (HRV) decline induced by PM2.5 exposure
  • B vitamins can prevent the decline of HRV induced by PM2.5 exposure
  • vitamin E and C can reduce PM2.5 induced oxidative stress.

Various combinations of nutrients may also prevent the impact of PM2.5 exposure on different aspects of health.

A review article on nutrition solutions that counter the health impact of air pollution was recently published in the International Journal of Food and Nutritional Science. The article highlights human clinical investigations in which vitamins and marine-derived PUFAs were administrated to minimize certain detrimental responses to PM2.5 exposure. The results from both randomised and cohort studies in the last decade demonstrated that PM2.5 exposure induced unfavourable physiological and biochemical responses (heart rate variability reduction and oxidative stress) in the human body.

Supplementation of vitamin E and C, some B vitamins and fish oil abrogated these responses, indicating that nutrition can play a role in reducing some of the detrimental responses to PM2.5. The article also advised that future investigations are warranted to determine whether long-term administration of these nutrients improves PM2.5-related diseases.3

A Breath of Fresh Air

With scientific evidence demonstrating the promising health benefits provided by desirable micronutrient and antioxidant intake to combat the global health threat of air pollution, it is essential that investment into research on nutrition solutions and collaborations by scientific communities, industry bodies and governments is continued.

For example, at the third International Conference on Nutrition and Food Science last year, food and nutrition industry professionals and scientists came together to discuss new scientific findings and research on nutrition. At the event, DSM, a leading supplier of nutritional ingredients, highlighted the need for further research to explore the benefits of advanced nutrition on the health of urban populations and discussed the importance of nutrition in daily life and advancing towards a better and healthier future. DSM offers a number of nutritional solutions to counter the harmful effects of air pollution on the human body, including a broad portfolio of nutritional lipids and vitamins.


Several scientific studies have demonstrated that the harmful effects of air pollution can be reduced by improving the intake of essential micronutrients and PUFAs. These antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients may provide prevention against the development of chronic diseases caused by air pollution and hold the key to improved human health and well-being worldwide.


  3. W. Zhang, et al., “Nutrition Solutions to Counter Health Impact of Air Pollution: Scientific Evidence of Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Vitamins Alleviating Some Harmful Effects of PM2.5,” Int. J. Food Nutr. Sci. 2(2), 1–6 (2015).