Unraveling The Web: Air Pollution Linked To Obesity And Diabetes

BY ON October 24, 2011

Drops of water in a spider web

As an environmental educator, I lead an activity that teaches kids about ecology. It is called the Web of Life.

Here’s how it works: Each student is assigned the role of one member of a forest, aquatic, or other ecological community. They are given a note card which states this role. After doing some research, the children come together in a circle with their note cards taped to their shirts. Using a ball of string or yarn, each student holds a part of the string that corresponds with his or her place in the ecosystem. Soon, a large web of yarn emerges. The students swiftly see how interconnected ecosystems are, and how devastating it can be to lose one part of it. To illustrate this, one student lets go of the yarn, and we watch as the web unravels.

When I read this week in Forbes magazine about the link between air pollution and the epidemics of obesity and diabetes, I wasn’t surprised. I immediately thought how intricately we are connected to our environment–just like in the Web of Life activity. But oh, how we forget.

We’ve known for a long time that air pollution has devastating health effects such as: asthma, bronchitis, and heart attacks. These conditions profoundly affect children in low-income communities.

Now, new research is showing the link between air pollution and our country’s most expensive health conditions: obesity and diabetes.

According to the Forbes article,

“….early exposure to ultrafine particulates led to the accumulation of abdominal fat and insulin resistance in mice even if they ate a normal diet. Exposure levels for animals in the study were similar to those found in U.S. cities. It’s important to note that the EPA does already regulate ultrafine particulate matter, but recent studies are finding that the levels currently deemed “acceptable” remain a threat to health on various levels.”

What’s shocking about this is that the study examined current air pollution exposure levels that exist in our cities. Right under our noses, we have been exposing people to levels of toxins that increase the likelihood of suffering from obesity and type 2 diabetes.

This article shoots a huge hole in the prevailing logic of many in the Republican Party, that more regulations of air quality will be “too expensive.” When you consider the costs of the diabetes and obesity epidemics (a whopping $170 billion and $240 billion annually), coupled with the health care costs of asthma, heart conditions, and other breathing disorders related to air pollution, one has to wonder why are we even having this conversation.

Of course, air pollution is only one contributing factor in these troubling conditions, but it is significant and controllable. The only thing standing in the way of increased health protections is politics–not cost.

So I circle back to a quote I’ve used with my students, which eloquently explains how ecosystems are intricately interconnected:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”~ John Muir

Our current poor air quality is causing our children to be sick, especially our most vulnerable–the ones living in low-income communities. Even when these families are making healthy choices with diet and exercise, the children are predisposed to the devastating conditions of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Interconnected, indeed. Can see you the web unraveling?

Please JOIN MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE and tell our leaders that we know the facts—and that we won’t stand for polluter’s interests coming before our kids.

Photo: by luc.viatour on Flickr under CC


TOPICS: Asthma, Politics, Pollution, Science