Telomeres in the Coal Mine: On Clean Air and Telomere Length

Air Pollution shortens telomeres, especially those of children of prenatal women exposed to excessive air pollution.

​In their book The Telomere Effect, Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Epel write, “Telomeres are the canaries in our cells.  Like those caged birds (in deep underground mines, used to warn miners of the presence of carbon monoxide), telomeres are captive inside our bodies.  They are vulnerable to their chemical environment, and their length is an indicator of our lifelong exposure to toxins.  Chemicals are like litter in our neighborhoods – they are a part of our physical surroundings.  And some are silent poisons.”1

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time writing about what I am eating, drinking, supplementing with, and exercise I am performing related to my efforts to lengthen my telomeres.  Yet, I’ve done nothing to address the air I breathe, something I do every waking (and sleeping) moment.  The research on clean air is unequivocal.  Clean air is not only imperative to maintaining good health, but there are also a number of compelling studies relating air quality to telomere length.  Indoor air pollution contributes to the burden of various diseases and long-term exposure to ambient air pollution is associated with telomere shortening.2   As we know, telomere length shortens with each cell division.  Low residential green space exposure is also associated with shorter telomere length.3  It is critical to breathe clean air.  If you live in an urban area, as I do, it would be a good idea to spend some of your free time in rural, green spaces, away from the city.

Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Epel relate, “Another chemical, cadmium, is a heavy metal with weighty effects on our health.  Cadmium is found mostly in cigarette smoke, though we all carry low but potentially toxic levels around in our bodies because of our contact with environmental contributors such as house dust, dirt, the burning of fossil fuels such as coal or oil, and the incineration of municipal waste.  In a large study of U.S. adults, those with worst cadmium exposure have up to eleven additional years of cellular aging.”4  Eleven years is a massive chunk (about 15%) of one’s life to lose needlessly.  The moral of this story is that it is worthwhile to take precautions to ensure we are breathing as much clean air as possible in an effort to prevent unnecessary telomere shortening and live a long, healthy life.

Pollution has been shown to shorten telomeres.
Pollution has been shown to shorten telomeres.
Prenatal Air Pollution and Telomeres
Time Magazine recently reported, “In a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics, an international group of researchers conducted the first detailed look at pollution’s effect on developing babies in utero. They found that the more pollution expectant moms were exposed to while they were pregnant, the shorter their babies’ telomeres: parts of the DNA in every cell that act as a molecular clock keeping track of the cell’s age, and the body’s.”5  The implications of this study are far reaching.  While we have established that it is critical for everyone to be conscious of their air quality, the issue is especially urgent for expecting mothers.  The consequences of pregnant women living in polluted environments are devastating for their new babies, though the consequences will not be readily visible for decades to come.
Toxins, Toxins Everywhere
We are surrounded by potentially harmful chemicals and toxins.  Advances in construction technology has made buildings  more efficient.  They generally do a good job keeping warmth inside during the winter and cool air in during the summer.  Generally speaking, this is a good thing, but it results in limited airflow.  Everything gets trapped inside, including toxic air.  Your home may look immaculately clean, but I bet I could find some toxins lurking.  All those chemical cleaners you use daily?  You and your family are breathing them.  What do you think you are breathing when you do pushups on your carpeted floor?  Your fancy new furniture with that great smell?  That’s “off gassing” and you likely smell formaldehyde, benzene, and/or ammonia.  Remember that roof leak you had 8 years ago?  Oh, you had it fixed?  Can you see through walls?  I bet you have some mold.  That leaky faucet in the kitchen?  Yeah, you’ve got mold.  Your bathroom?  Tons of mold.  Move your vanity.  You may be horrified by what you find growing back there.
Our Bedrooms
There is not much we can do about the diesel fumes we invariably wind up inhaling while cycling or running.  Nor do we have any control over the pesticides that homeowners may be spraying as we run or ride past their homes.  We never know when a municipality may be spraying insecticide that we will breathe if we are outside.  The one environment in which we can control the air is inside our homes.  We spend at least 8 hours a day, or ⅓ of our lives, in our bedrooms.  We sleep, read, exercise, watch TV, surf the net, talk on the phone, and do all sorts of other things in this room.  We should make it as healthy as possible.  While we cannot completely control the environments of our working world and the typical world in which we go about our daily lives, we can certainly control this one room, and along with it, ⅓ of the air we breath in our lifetime.Clean air conscious individuals have a wide range of options to consider when purchasing an air purifier.  It can get really expensive really quickly.  A number of residential indoor air quality monitors have hit the market in recent years including Foobot, Awair from Bitfinder, Air Sense, Wave from Airthings, Speck from Airviz, Healthy Home Coach from Netamo, Blue Aware from Blue Air, and Air Mentor Pro.  These tools range in price from about $75 to over $500.  Primarily, they just monitor the air and do not purify it.  On the purification end, one has a seemingly endless array of mind boggling options including HEPA filters, Ionic, Carbon, and UV light.  Some of the top rated air purifiers include: Levoit, GermGuardian, Honeywell Quiet Car, Winix Plasma Wave, Biota Bot, Coway Might, Austin Air Healthmate, Blueair Hepa Silent, and IQ Air Health Pro Plus.  The prices on these purifiers start at around $75 a unit that will clean the air of a small room to the top of the line models which cost close to $1,000.
An airpurifier is a necessary tool for the age reversalist.
What I’m Doing
I live in Jersey City, NJ, which, as I’ve mentioned, is an urban area.  As someone who works in heavy construction, all day long I breathe dust, debris, and unknown and unseen chemicals.  The worst part about it is that I often have no idea how clean, or toxic, the air I am breathing is.  With food, I have the opportunity to chose what I am putting in my body.  With air, I have little choice and even less control.  I can only guess at what may be insidiously lurking beyond the reach of my eyes’ capabilities?  At least I am usually outside in what I hope is fresh air.Last week I purchased a Germ Guardian 28 inch Elite 4 in 1 cleaning system with true HEPA Filter, UV-C Sanitizer and Odor protection that I keep running in my bedroom 24/7.  The True HEPA filter captures 99.97% of dust and allergens as small as .3 microns in size such as household dust, pet dander, mold spores, and plant pollens.  I bought it at Bed, Bath, and Beyond and used a 20% off coupon.  It didn’t break the bank at a cost of $115.  It is quiet, has a Charcoal Filter, which contributes to the control and prevention of the growth of bacteria, germs & mold, and UV-C light technology that works with Titanium Dioxide to kill airborne germs.  The activation by the UV-C light decompose remaining odor molecules caused by smoking, cooking and pets.  In the future, I may explore purchasing an indoor air quality monitor and another unit for my kitchen and living area.Finally, my bedroom doesn’t smell like sweaty socks.


1  Blackburn, E., & Epel, E. (2017). The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. p. 261.
2  Lin, N., Mu, X., Wang, G., Su, S., Li, Z., Wang, B., & Tao, S. (2017). Accumulative effects of indoor air pollution exposure on leukocyte telomere length among non-smokers. Environmental Pollution, 227, 1-7.
3  Martens, D. S., & Nawrot, T. S. (2016). Air pollution stress and the aging phenotype: the telomere connection. Current environmental health reports, 3(3), 258-269.
4  Blackburn, E., & Epel, E. (2017). The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. p. 261.
5  Park, A.(2017, October). Air Pollution May Make Babies’ Cells Age Faster. Time Magazine.



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