In this file picture, an Eskom coal-fired power station belches smoke as the sun rises. Picture: EPA
In this file picture, an Eskom coal-fired power station belches smoke as the sun rises. Picture: EPA

Air pollution study shock

By Kamcilla Pillay Time of article published Apr 24, 2017

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Exposure to air pollution can hinder the effectiveness of antibiotics and other medication.

This is one of the findings of a recently-released UK study conducted by researchers led by Shane Hussey at the University of Leicester into pollutants released into the air from industry and other sources - which, say local experts, can be extended to pollution exposure in South Africa.

The researchers contend in their conclusions that the particulate matter (PM) from air pollution can cause an alteration in cardiovascular functioning and inflammation.

They said the major component of the matter, called black carbon, was strongly implicated in the predisposition to respiratory infectious disease, which was particularly damaging to young children.

They found that the carbon affected the function of bacterial biofilms (groups of micro-organisms in which cells stick to each other and then adhere to a surface) by altering tolerance to antibiotics, while also altering bacterial colonisation.

The biological effects of air pollution, they said, had also been overlooked.

“The carbon particles alter the way in which the immune system responds to an infection.”

University of KwaZulu-Natal air quality specialist Dr Lisa Ramsay said particulate matter was a pollutant of particular concern and linked to a wide array of health effects, including respiratory effects, cardiovascular disease, a compromised immune system, neuro-degeneration, even Alzheimer’s disease, through the laying down of fine particulate plaques in brain tissue.


“The results of this study are interesting and I am keen to see if the findings are replicated in follow-on assessments. It makes perfect sense that exposure would increase the likelihood of bacterial infections, such as pneumonia.”

Ramsay said many people - like those in the South Durban Basin or currently in the Upper Highway area - complained of respiratory and skin infections, and associated this exposure with air pollution.

“Experts conventionally explain this association as the result of a compromised immune system caused by pollution exposure when, in fact, the impacts could be more direct through impacts on bacterial biofilms, as seen in this study.”

Locally, these findings, she said, would be particularly relevant in communities where there was chronic exposure and a high proportion of immune-compromised individuals, such as those with HIV/Aids.

Ramsay said these understandings should lead to research on more targeted antibiotics for those living in polluted environments, and even smokers, with infections showing antibiotic resistance.

Environmental epidemiology specialist and environmental health campaign manager at NGO groundWork, Rico Euripidou, said the aim of this study was to determine whether there was a relationship between air pollution and the bacteria responsible for the infectious diseases that were significantly increased by poor air quality.

In laymen’s terms, he said, they found that when there was air pollution, the chances of bacteria survival (in particular Staphylococcus pneumoniae) was higher against penicillin, the front line treatment of bacterial pneumonia.

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