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5 Surprising Impacts of Air Pollution on Wildlife

It's a sad reality that over half of every species’ habitat is somehow negatively affected by pollution.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease report, air pollution is the fifth-leading risk of mortality worldwide. The 2019 study revealed airborne contaminants led to a one-year and eight-month reduction in life expectancy and caused more deaths than alcohol, malnutrition, and sedentary lifestyles.

Unprecedented wildfires, plastic pollution, and the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions have increased toxic chemicals and particulate matter in the atmosphere that impact both humans and wildlife.

It’s a sad reality that over half of every species’ habitat is somehow negatively affected by pollution. Here are five surprising ways air pollution causes harm to wildlife.

1.   Causes Respiratory Issues

Like in humans, air pollution can trigger severe respiratory problems, such as difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, and bronchitis in animals.

One study found that exposure to cigarette smoke increased the risk of infertility and pulmonary dysfunction in newborn animal species, such as the rhesus monkey. In another study, mercury contamination in the air drove a 90% decline in the rusty blackbird population since the 1960s.

When you consider air pollution in the home, indoor air quality is critical for optimal respiratory health in humans and their pets. Research has shown indoor air pollution contributes to lung disease in pets.

2.   Increases Risk of Cancer

Associations between wildlife, air pollution, and cancer are widely deliberated, with findings indicating that older animals near urban areas are at a higher risk of human disturbances, such as noise and chemical pollution.

Noise pollution triggers oxidative stress and inflammation in several species, such as rats, sparrows, and tree frogs. This may boost their susceptibility to various types of cancers. With the expansion of urban sprawl, researchers must consider the potential for increasing oncogenic instances in wildlife.

3.   May Lead to Cardiovascular Disease

Chronic exposure to air pollution can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including higher blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, arrhythmias, and myocardial infarction in living organisms.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particulate matter generates a buildup of calcium in the coronary arteries, restricting blood flow and causing a heart attack. This may also indicate a potential cardiovascular risk for wildlife exposed to particulate matter for long durations.

4.   Increases Congenital Disease

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 released record amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.

Radiation exposure is known to have adverse effects on congenital diseases, including malformations of vital organs, limbs, and cognitive development. One study suggested several animal birth defects following nuclear disaster events, such as being born with one eye, missing bone and cartilage, and lower survivability.

Similar research found that irradiated insects – bees, butterflies, dragonflies, and grasshoppers – had significantly lower populations, while avian and mammal species experienced eye and fertility abnormalities decades after Chernobyl.

5.   Disrupts the Endocrine System

It’s well known that plastic pollution has dire consequences on wildlife. Yet, plastics are everywhere, including 2,877 meters above sea level in the French Pyrenees.

Discarded plastics in the environment break down over time until they’re reduced to microplastic particulate matter in the air. Plastics typically contain two concerning toxins known as bisphenols and phthalates. In particular, Bisphenol A (BPA) disrupts the endocrine system, impacting hormones, reproductive health, and metabolism.

It’s now believed that BPAs in the air affect reproductive organ development in chicken embryos. Additionally, findings demonstrated that toxic elemental pollution altered the hormonal health, fertility, and nestling growth of birds in Europe.

Human Accountability for Air Pollution

Anthropogenic activity is the reason behind air pollution, including vehicle emissions, fossil fuels, and factory combustibles. In 2020, the United States released 68 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. However, emissions not only affect human health but also the health and survivability of wildlife species. Humans must better mitigate industrial emissions to protect animals from gaseous, human-induced chemicals and the dire effects of particulate matter.

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