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10 Incredibly Strange Things You Didn’t Know About Pollution

by Paul Jongko
fact checked by Micah Duke

Pollution is one of the biggest problems plaguing our planet today. Obviously, nature and even our own health are suffering from the pollutants that we release into the environment. But there are some surprising things that you may not know about pollution.

10 Air Pollution Can Make You Fat


We all know that air pollution causes respiratory problems, but new studies suggest that pollution can also lead to obesity. According to scientists, tiny particles from traffic fumes and cigarette smoke can cause inflammation in the body. In turn, this distorts the body’s ability to burn energy, which leads to weight gain.

According to a study at Ohio State University, mice that were exposed to air pollution gained fat around their internal organs and their bellies. In addition, they became less sensitive to insulin.

But these results are not limited to animals. Several studies from polluted cities across the globe have shown that humans are experiencing the same effects.

Hong Chen, who works at Public Health Ontario and the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Canada, reviewed the health records of 62,000 people over a 14-year period. He discovered that the risk of developing diabetes increased 11 percent for those exposed to air pollution.

Another study by Andrew Rundle of Columbia University found that children raised in polluted areas like the Bronx were “2.3 times more likely to be . . . obese, compared to those living in cleaner neighborhoods.”

9 Pollution Helps Birds Sing Better


It’s hard to believe that pollution can have some benefits, but scientists from Cardiff University in Wales discovered that male birds can sing better due to pollution.

Behavioral ecologist Shai Markman and his team used wild European starlings as the subjects of their research. European starlings are known to forage for food in sewage treatment plants. But the earthworms in these areas often contain estrogen-like pollutants.

The researchers fed the starlings worms that contained the same pollutants found in sewage treatment facilities. Over time, the area of the starling’s brain that is responsible for the ability to sing became larger.

This enabled the male birds to sing longer, more complex songs—something that female birds look for in a potential mate. However, the researchers also found that the pollutants weakened the birds’ immune systems.

8 We Can Shoot Garbage To The Sun

“Hey Bill Nye, Should We Throw Our Trash Into Space?” | Big Think

Our garbage problem has become so big that some people are considering radical solutions, such as shooting garbage to the Sun. During a show on BBC Radio 4, Drs. Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry confirmed that this seemingly foolish idea could be done in theory. However, they admitted that it would be challenging to execute in real life.

At the moment, cost is the limiting factor. It’s just too expensive to launch rockets into space. In addition, the heavier the payload, the heftier the price becomes.

However, there is hope. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is developing cheaper rockets. As technology advances and space travel becomes more affordable, shooting garbage to the Sun could become an everyday reality.

7 Air Pollution Might Increase Your Risk For Suicide


When we hear the word “suicide,” air pollution doesn’t usually come to mind. But exposure to air pollution may increase a person’s risk of committing suicide. In fact, the risk escalates during fall and spring.

Researchers from the University of Utah reviewed the records of more than 1,500 people who committed suicide between January 1, 2000, and December 31, 2010, in Salt Lake County, Utah. They discovered that people who were exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter or nitrogen dioxide during the three days before committing suicide had increased their risk of going through with the act by as much as 5 percent or 20 percent, respectively.

Dr. Amanda V. Bakian, who led the research, pointed out that these results don’t conclusively prove that air pollution is a primary cause of suicide. Instead, they merely suggest that exposure to high levels of pollution “might interact with other factors [such as biological, psychological, physical, and chemical factors] to increase the risk of suicide.”

6 Air Pollution Can Shrink Your Brain


A study released in 2015 suggests that long-term exposure to air pollution can shrink a person’s brain. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston examined 943 healthy adults aged 60 or older who were living in the New England region.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers analyzed the brain structures of the participants and then compared the results with air pollution levels in the places where they lived.

The researchers discovered that “an increase of two micrograms per cubic meter in fine particle pollution [such as car exhaust] was linked to a 0.32 percent reduction in brain volume.” That number is equivalent to one year of brain aging.

In addition, they found that the same two micrograms per cubic meter in fine particle pollution increased the risk of the participants developing “silent strokes” by as much as 46 percent. Silent strokes are associated with dementia and poor cognitive function. They can be detected by brain scans, but they don’t manifest any symptoms.

5 The Study That Requires People To Breathe Diesel Exhaust


If you live in Canada and want to help scientists understand the long-term effects of air pollution, you can join a study that requires you to breathe diesel exhaust for two hours inside an airtight glass box that is 1.2 meters (4 ft) long, 1.8 (6 ft) wide, and 2.1 meters (7 ft) high.

While breathing the air pollution, you can also relax and watch your favorite TV series on Netflix. However, there’s a catch: The air quality is comparable to that of Beijing and Mexico City.

By studying human guinea pigs, researchers hope to better understand the long-term effects of air pollution on the human body, especially on our genes. Scientists theorize that exposure to air pollution for as little as two hours per day can damage our genes. However, they are quick to point out that air pollution does not change our DNA sequence. Instead, it “appears to add a chemical onto our gene[tic] sequence.”

4 Homing Pigeons Fly Faster In Polluted Air


In an unexpected turn of events, scientists discovered that homing pigeons (aka racing pigeons) benefit from air pollution. These specialized birds are bred for their speed and navigation skills. Their name comes from their unique ability to return to their “home base.”

A team of researchers analyzed the racing data of homing pigeons in the North China Plain from 2013 to 2014. This area has the worst air pollution in the country. The scientists expected that the high levels of air pollution would hinder the homing pigeons’ ability to plot an accurate route as well as make them fly slower.

Surprisingly, the results showed that polluted air made the pigeons fly faster. Scientists don’t know why this occurs, but they have several theories. One of these theories is related to scent cues, which are especially important to homing pigeons.

Researchers theorize that the inorganic and organic compounds present in air pollution “might prove useful to the birds by providing stronger signals that the pigeons [can] use to map a homeward course.”

3 Hong Kong Has The Worst Light Pollution In The World


Aside from having bad air quality, Hong Kong suffers from another kind of pollution—too much light. With an urban night sky that is 1,000 times brighter than international standards, Hong Kong is considered to be the most light-polluted city in the world.

There are two reasons why light pollution is such a big problem in Hong Kong. First, unlike megacities such as Sydney and London, there are no regulations that govern urban lighting in Hong Kong. Second, the government is obsessed with public safety. To keep people safe, public places in Hong Kong—such as parks—are “lit up like . . . daytime.”

Rural areas, such as the island of Lantau and Wetland Park, also suffer from excessive light. This is quite alarming because several studies have shown that unnecessary light at night can negatively impact nocturnal animals.

2 Ancient Egypt Had Air Pollution Problems


Many people consider air pollution to be a modern-day problem. However, new findings suggest that certain ancient civilizations also experienced air pollution. For example, scientists have discovered particulates in the lungs of 15 Egyptian mummies.

Particulates are tiny microscopic particles that damage the body. They have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and lung problems. Surprisingly, the particulates found in these ancient Egyptians are usually associated with modern-day pollution like car exhaust.

In 2011, researcher Roger Montgomerie discovered that the level of particulates in the mummies “[was] not much below what [we’d] expect in modern-day lungs.” He added that each of these ancient Egyptians had some particulates even though the mummies came from different walks of life. Some were ordinary people, but others held important positions.

Montgomerie’s findings suggest that ancient Egyptians were plagued by health problems caused by air pollution regardless of their social standing—just like modern-day people.

Most intriguing, however, is the question of where this ancient pollution originated. Ancient Egyptians engaged in mining, metalworking, and cooking. But the level of air pollution from their activities was not nearly as high as that produced by modern humans.

1 Pollution Could Help Us Find Aliens


Finding extraterrestrial life outside our solar system is a monumental task. Thanks to pollution, however, discovering alien life-forms on planets millions of light-years from Earth may become easier.

The next-generation James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch in 2018. Harvard researchers have suggested that the telescope could be used to detect chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmospheres of exoplanets. CFCs are greenhouse gases that damage Earth’s ozone layer.

According to lead researcher Henry Lin, pollution can also be used to determine the age of an alien civilization. There are certain pollutants that can last for 50,000 years. Others are short-lived, lingering in the atmosphere for only 10 years. If an exoplanet has only long-lasting pollution, then it may have been inhabited by an alien civilization that is probably extinct.

The Harvard researchers also pointed out that the presence of CFCs in an exoplanet’s atmosphere does not prove that it can sustain life. Furthermore, they suggested that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations could intentionally introduce certain pollutants into their atmospheres “to warm the air of a planet that would otherwise be too cold for life.”

When not busy working with MeBook—an app that transforms your Facebook into an actual printed book—Paul spends his time writing interesting stuff and creating piano covers.

fact checked by Micah Duke
Paul Jongko

Paul Jongko is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about history, science, mysteries, and society. When not writing, he spends his time managing and improving his piano, calisthenics, and capoeira skills.

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