Breathing very dirty air may boost obesity risk

Rats that inhaled air full of pollution became heavier and less healthy
Apr 4, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
Beijing smog

Serious air pollution, like this smog over China's capital city, may increase the risk of obesity.

By 螺钉/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Air pollution is bad for our lungs. It may not be great for our waistlines either, a new study in rats finds.

China's capital city of Beijing has some of the worst air pollution in the world. On really bad days, its air can host more than 10 times as many tiny pollutant particles as the World Health Organization says is safe for human health. In a new study, rats breathed in this air. And those rodents gained more weight, and were unhealthier overall, than were rats breathing much cleaner air. The results suggest that exposure to air pollution can raise the risk of becoming extremely overweight.

And, adds Loren Wold, “It is highly likely that this is happening in humans.”

Wold works at Ohio State University in Columbus. There, he studies how air pollution affects the heart. He was not involved in the new study. But he says it agrees with many other studies that have suggested air pollution can affect metabolism, which is how the body breaks down food and uses it for fuel.

Polluted air contains particles of ash, dust and other chemicals. Sometimes these particles are so numerous that they create a thick, dense smog can cuts visibility.

Earlier experiments among 18-year olds in Southern California had linked heavier traffic with higher body mass index (a measure of overweight and obesity). Areas with heavy traffic also tend to have more of those pollutant particles. Another study found that when pregnant mice were exposed to exhaust from diesel engines, their pups grew up to be heavier. The pups also developed more inflammation in their brains.

In the new study, researchers tested how Beijing’s polluted air affects the health of pregnant rats.

Jim Zhang is an environmental scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He and his co-workers put rats in two indoor chambers in Beijing. They piped polluted air from the city directly into one chamber. Air piped into the other chamber went through a filter. That filter removed almost all of the big pollution particles from the air and about two-thirds of the smaller ones. This made the air more like what people breathe in typical U.S. cities and suburbs, Zhang says.

All rats ate the same type and amount of food. But after 19 days, the pregnant rats breathing the heavily polluted air weighed more than the rats breathing the filtered air. They also had higher amounts of cholesterol — a waxy, fatlike substance — in their blood than did the rats breathing filtered air.

Those breathing the dirtier air had higher levels of inflammation. This is a sign of the body responding to tissue damage. These rats also had higher insulin resistance. This means their bodies weren’t responding as well to insulin, a hormone that helps with using sugar for energy. Insulin resistance can lead to diabetes, a dangerous health condition.

Taken together, the scientists say, these symptoms indicate the rats were developing metabolic syndrome. It's a condition that puts the animals at risk of heart disease and diabetes.

During the experiment, the pregnant rats gave birth. Their pups stayed in the chambers with their mothers. And young rats that breathed in the polluted air were heavier than pups born to moms living in the cleaner air. Like their moms, the pups breathing very polluted air had more inflammation and insulin resistance.

The longer these pups breathed the dirty air, Zhang says, the more unhealthy they became. This suggests that breathing polluted air for a long time can lead to sickness, Zhang says.

It’s not yet clear exactly how air pollution affects rat metabolism. But it seems, Zhang says, to impair how the animals process fat and sugar. Pollution also increases signs of inflammation in the lungs, blood and fat. Zhang says this is probably what led to weight gain in the animals.

Wold says it might be possible to create medicines that reverse the negative health effects of air pollution. But these medicines will take time to develop.

Until then, Zhang and Wold say that paying attention to air pollution levels can help people manage their health risks. On days when pollution levels are high, they recommend that people stay indoors, if possible — or at least avoid tough outdoor exercise .

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

body mass index(BMI)    A person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his or her height in meters. BMI can be used to evaluate if someone is overweight or obese. However, because BMI does not account for how much muscle or fat a person has, it is not a precise measure.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

cholesterol    A fatty material in animals that forms a part of cell walls. In vertebrate animals, it travels through the blood in little vessels known as lipoproteins. Excessive levels in the blood can signal risks to the blood vessels and heart.

correlation     A mutual relationship or connection between two variables. When there is a positive correlation, an increase in one variable is associated with an increase in the other. (For instance, scientists might correlate an increase in time spent watching TV with an increase in risk of obesity.) Where there is an inverse correlation, an increase in one value is associated with a decrease in the other. (Scientists might correlate an increase in TV watching with a decrease in time spent exercising each week.) A correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean one is causing the other. 

diabetes     A disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).

diesel fuel    Heavier and oilier than gasoline, this is another type of fuel made from crude oil. It’s used to power many engines — not only in cars and trucks but also to power some industrial motors — that don’t rely on spark plugs to ignite the fuel.

environmental science    The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

hormone    (in zoology and medicine)  A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body. when and how to develop, or when to grow old and die.

inflammation    The body’s response to cellular injury and obesity; it often involves swelling, redness, heat and pain. It is also an underlying feature responsible for the development and aggravation of many diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes.

insulin    A hormone produced in the pancreas (an organ that is part of the digestive system) that helps the body use glucose as fuel.

insulin resistance    A condition where the body begins to ignore the presence of insulin, a hormone needed to help move energy (sugar) from the blood and into cells where it can fuel their activities. Insulin resistance is an early symptom of people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

metabolic syndrome    A health condition made up of any of at least three of the following six problems: obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high levels of bad fats alongside low good cholesterol, extra blood components that cause inflammation and extra blood components that lead to clots. People with metabolic syndrome have an increased risk of developing diabetes or heart disease.

metabolism    The set of life-sustaining chemical reactions that take place inside cells and bigger structures, such as organs. These reactions enable organisms to grow, reproduce, move and otherwise respond to their environments.

obesity    Extreme overweight. Obesity is associated with a wide range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

overweight    A medical condition where the body has accumulated too much body fat. People are not considered overweight if they weigh more than is normal for their age and height, but that extra weight comes from bone or muscle.

particle   A minute amount of something.

pollutant    A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

smog   A kind of pollution that develops when chemicals react in the air. The word comes from a blend of “smoke” and “fog,” and was coined to describe pollution from burning fossil fuels on cold, damp days. Another kind of smog, which usually looks brown, develops when pollutants from cars react with sunlight in the atmosphere on hot days.

World Health Organization    An agency of the United Nations, established in 1948, to promote health and to control communicable diseases. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The United Nations relies on the WHO for providing international leadership on global health matters. This organization also helps shape the research agenda for health issues and sets standards for pollutants and other things that could pose a risk to health. WHO also regularly reviews data to set policies for maintaining health and a healthy environment.


  • MS-LS2-4
  • MS-ESS3-3
  • HS-LS2-8
  • HS-ESS3-4

Further Reading

K. Kowalski. “Tiny air pollutants are big, big killers.” Science News for Students. February 24, 2016.

T. Haelle. “Allergies linked to obesity and heart risks.” Science News for Students. January 5, 2016.

A. Yeager. “Heart damage linked to obesity in kids.” Science News for Students. December 3, 2015.

J. Raloff. Some air pollutants seep through skinScience News for Students. November 5, 2015.

S. Oosthoek. “Air pollution can mess with our DNA.” Science News for Students. January 22, 2015.

A.P. Stevens. “Nano air pollutants strike a blow to the brain.” Science News for Students. December 17, 2014.

S. Oostoek. “ADHD linked to air pollutants.” Science News for Students. December 5, 2014.

S. Ornes. “Bad for breathing.” Science News for Students. March 8, 2013.

E. Sohn. “Kids now getting ‘adult’ disease: More kids are developing diabetes, and obesity is a major reason why.” Science News for Students. April 24, 2009.

Original Journal Source: Y. Wei et al. Chronic exposure to air pollution particles increases the risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome: Findings from a natural experiment in Beijing. FASEB Journal (Published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology). Posted early online February 18, 2016. doi: 10.1096/fj.201500142.