Vehicle pollution could almost double the risk of visual impairment from a common eye condition, Taiwanese researchers have found.


People over 50 who live in the most highly polluted areas are at a much higher risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a neurodegenerative eye condition that affects the centre of the vision, they say.

The condition is caused by damage to the middle of the retina, known as the macula and is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In the early stages of the disease, this middle area first appears blurred or distorted and gradually worsens over time. It can eventually lead to a complete loss of vision in the central area.

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The researchers studied how long-term exposure to the pollutants nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), found in vehicle exhausts, affect the risk of AMD. They tracked the medical records of almost 40,000 people over 12 years, in which time 1,442 people developed AMD. They found that those who were exposed to the highest levels of NO2 were 91 per cent more likely to develop AMD than those with the lowest exposure. For CO, the highest exposure levels made AMD 84 per cent more likely.

“Our results show that only people living in the highest quartile of pollution have the increased risk,” said Professor Suh-Hang Hank Juo of the China Medical University in Taiwan, one of the paper’s authors, in an email.

“This means if we can reduce the exposure and try not to be in the highest exposure group, the risk can be significantly reduced. Therefore, do not go jogging on the road side when there are a lot of cars, try not to go outside during the heavy traffic hours or to use an air purifier.”

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The results are independent of several factors including sex, age, social status, income and other related diseases, but do not take into account smoking, which is known to increase the risk of AMD.


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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.