Living in heavily-polluted cities such as Shanghai can be challenging to our health and well-being because of widespread contamination of air, water, soil and food. For many people this is extremely concerning and raises a number of questions such as:
What type of short-term and long-term effects can we expect on our health?
Which pollution-related disorders and diseases are common and what are the symptoms? 
How does pollution affect allergies?  


S Y M P T O M S P O S S I B L E     D I A G N O S I S
sneezing / coughing / runny nose

environmental allergies, especially dust mites

dry cough

variant asthma, allergies especially to molds

chronic infections of the respiratory system "sick building syndrome", allergies, poor-quality indoor air
dry, itchy eyes allergies, sensitivity to dry and dusty air
skin problems allergies, sensitive skin reactions
chronic headaches, tiredness

"sick building syndrome"

constant stomachaches, digestion problems

food intolerance, allergies, poor-quality food

concentration problems, learning difficulties

"sick building syndrome", lead contamination

Allergies, including rhinitis, cough and asthma, eczema

Pollution is a well-recognized trigger of the allergic response in susceptible individuals, especially those with a family history of allergies or sensitivities to various substances. In addition it may also intensify the symptoms of a pre-existing allergy or sensitivity.. Allergies are an exaggerated response by the immune system to common substances like pollen or air-borne microorganisms such as dust mites and mold and can develop into more serious conditions such as allergic rhinitis, asthma and eczema. Allergies and sensitivities are some of the most commonly-experienced and troublesome side-effects of living in a polluted environment, and while rarely life-threatening, may cause significant impact on quality of life for many people. Please follow this link for more about allergies.

Chronic cough or "cough variant" asthma

"Cough variant" asthma is a less common form of asthma  where coughing appears to be the main or only symptom in the absence of more usual  symptoms such as wheezing and chest tightness. Cough variant asthma is especially common in children and may progress to full-blown asthma.

The cough in variant asthma is usually dry and may last for weeks. Cough may occur at any time of the day, however night-time coughing is very common. Cough variant asthma often gets worse after respiratory infections, exposure to pollution and exercise.

Sick Building Syndrome

While specific causes of  "sick building syndrome" are unknown, there are elements in most buildings that can be linked to the development of the syndrome. Symptoms of  sick building syndrome may include headache, eye, nose and throat irritation, chronic cough, dry or itchy skin, dizziness and difficulty concentrating. Carpets, furniture and cleaning agents may all emit noxious substances such as formaldehyde. Known as Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs these commonly-found compounds are thought to be responsible for the unpleasant symptoms experienced by many people. In addition, tobacco smoke and combustion products from fireplaces or gas cookers may also release chemical irritants into the air, a problem made worse by the inadequate ventilation found in many modern airtight buildings.

Sensitive skin reactions

Pollution is now thought to play a significant role in many diseases of the skin, due to either the direct effect of pollutants on the epidermis, or the triggering of underlying conditions such as eczema.

Smog, dirt and dust in the air can clog pores, predispose to or worsen acne and give skin a generally dull, lackluster appearance. Free radicals can deplete oxygen in skin cells and decrease collagen production, leading to premature aging, the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and rough, dry patches. Exposure to air pollution or contaminated food can also trigger or intensify skin allergies such as eczema or dermatitis, especially in children.

Lead poisoning

Recent research has shown that even low levels of lead in the bloodstream, especially in young children, is linked to difficulties in concentrating, learning difficulties and may even adversely affect the IQ of the developing brain. Lead is widespread in our environment, especially in China and may be found in toys, many plastic and metal items, paints and solvents and even our food and water. Surprising for many people is the fact that the biggest amounts of lead come from contaminated soil and sand  brought into homes on people's shoes, where children playing on the floor may be prone to unknowingly ingest it. Due to the serious effects it can cause for both children and adults, detecting and mitigating exposure to lead remains a high priority for our service.

Long term health risks

While many of the pollutants we inhale, ingest with our food and water or absorb from our personal care products may not cause acute health problems, they are stored in the body and can develop their harmful effects after months or even years. The consequences are still not fully understood, especially when a mixture of different substances is consumed, however there is mounting evidence that an ever-growing number of diseases may be linked to long-term exposure to certain pollutants. This list currently includes:

  • Certain types of cancers
  • Chronic airway disease,  pulmonary fibrosis including asbestosis
  • Arteriosclerosis and increased risk of stroke and heart attack
  • Alzheimer's disease, dementia 
  • Certain types of arthritis
  • Hormonal dysfunction
  • Premature death*

*WHO estimates that 80% of all outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischemic heart disease and strokes, 14% to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or acute lower respiratory infections and 6% to lung cancer.
WHO Fact sheet No 313