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Air Pollution and Its Impact on Our Cells: A Dive into Oxidative Stress and Mitochondrial Dysfunction

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on September 13, 2023

In our rapidly industrializing world, air pollution has become a persistent environmental issue. From dense smog in major metropolitan areas to the invisible particles that permeate our atmosphere, the quality of the air we breathe has seen a significant decline. But beyond the evident respiratory effects, emerging evidence suggests that air pollution can profoundly affect our cells at a microscopic level, increasing oxidative stress and leading to mitochondrial dysfunction.

Oxidative Stress: The Basics

Our cells continuously produce free radicals as a byproduct of metabolism. Under normal circumstances, our body possesses antioxidants to neutralize these unstable molecules. However, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants can result in a condition called oxidative stress, which can damage cells, proteins, and DNA. (1)

The Link Between Air Pollution and Oxidative Stress

Particulate Matter (PM)

One of the primary culprits of air pollution is particulate matter, which comprises tiny particles or droplets in the air. Studies have shown that exposure to PM can increase the production of free radicals, thereby inducing oxidative stress. (2)

Toxic Components

Air pollutants often contain harmful components such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and ozone. These agents can either directly produce free radicals or impair the body's antioxidant defenses, further contributing to oxidative stress.

From Oxidative Stress to Mitochondrial Dysfunction

Mitochondria, often called the "powerhouses of the cell," are vital for producing energy. They also play a pivotal role in maintaining cellular health. However, mitochondria are particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress:

Damaged Mitochondrial DNA

Mitochondrial DNA is more susceptible to damage from free radicals than nuclear DNA. With sustained oxidative stress, the DNA gets damaged, impairing its ability to produce essential proteins for mitochondrial function. (3)

Impaired Energy Production

Oxidative stress can lead to the malfunctioning of the electron transport chain, a core process in energy (ATP) production. This impairment can reduce the cell's energy supply. (4)

Initiating Cell Death

Excessive damage and dysfunction can lead mitochondria to release signals that initiate programmed cell death (apoptosis).

The Bigger Picture

Mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress are believed to be at the core of many chronic diseases, including neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular diseases, and even aging. By understanding the link between air pollution and these cellular processes, we recognize the broader implications of polluted environments on public health. (5)

Air pollution, a seemingly external issue, has profound, microscopic impacts on our cellular health. Addressing and mitigating the effects of air pollution is not just about clearer skies and better visibility – it's fundamentally about preserving the health and integrity of our cells. As research continues, the pressing need for cleaner air initiatives becomes all the more evident.


  1. Liguori I, Russo G, Curcio F, Bulli G, Aran L, Della-Morte D, Gargiulo G, Testa G, Cacciatore F, Bonaduce D, Abete P. Oxidative stress, aging, and diseases. Clin Interv Aging. 2018 Apr 26;13:757-772. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S158513. PMID: 29731617; PMCID: PMC5927356.
  2. Thangavel P, Park D, Lee YC. Recent Insights into Particulate Matter (PM2.5)-Mediated Toxicity in Humans: An Overview. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Jun 19;19(12):7511. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19127511. PMID: 35742761; PMCID: PMC9223652.
  3. Breton CV, Song AY, Xiao J, Kim SJ, Mehta HH, Wan J, Yen K, Sioutas C, Lurmann F, Xue S, Morgan TE, Zhang J, Cohen P. Effects of air pollution on mitochondrial function, mitochondrial DNA methylation, and mitochondrial peptide expression. Mitochondrion. 2019 May;46:22-29. doi: 10.1016/j.mito.2019.04.001. Epub 2019 Apr 10. PMID: 30980914; PMCID: PMC6506186.
  4. Reddam A, McLarnan S, Kupsco A. Environmental Chemical Exposures and Mitochondrial Dysfunction: a Review of Recent Literature. Curr Environ Health Rep. 2022 Dec;9(4):631-649. doi: 10.1007/s40572-022-00371-7. Epub 2022 Jul 28. PMID: 35902457; PMCID: PMC9729331.
  5. Chew S, Lampinen R, Saveleva L, Korhonen P, Mikhailov N, Grubman A, Polo JM, Wilson T, Komppula M, Rönkkö T, Gu C, Mackay-Sim A, Malm T, White AR, Jalava P, Kanninen KM. Urban air particulate matter induces mitochondrial dysfunction in human olfactory mucosal cells. Part Fibre Toxicol. 2020 Jun 1;17(1):18. doi: 10.1186/s12989-020-00352-4. PMID: 32487172; PMCID: PMC7268298.

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