Air Pollution & Its Impact on Our Eyes
Our eyes are one of the most vulnerable external organs in our body, being exposed to toxic atmospheric and environmental insults continuously. Even though nature has provided mechanisms in the structure to protect our eyes from foreign objects such as dust, wind, bright lights and flying objects etc., they must remain open for the purpose of vision, and hence are constantly exposed to the environment.
Our eyes are naturally protected by our eyebrows, lashes and eyelids. The eyelashes keep foreign particles away from our eyes by acting as a physical barrier and by causing a reflex blinking at the slightest sensation. Similarly, the lids blink to form a mechanical barrier to protect the eyes from foreign objects, dust, wind and bright lights or loud sounds. Small glands in our eyelids secrete an oily substance that contribute to our tear film and keeps the tears from evaporating. The mucus and oil mix with the watery portion of our tears to create the protective barrier of our tear film.
The tears constantly bathe the surface of our eyes and cleanse them of pollutants and particles apart from providing the moisture necessary for the clarity of our vision. Moreover, tears are rich in antibodies and help prevent infections as well as nutrients for the surface cells.
Toxic pollutants in the air and water can have a detrimental effect on the ocular surface of our eyes, especially our tear film, cornea and conjunctival surfaces, to major sight threatening situations such as retinal bleeding.
Not only can pollutants damage our eyes; exposure to increased noise, flood light sources, global warming, intense infra-red and ultraviolet radiations etc. can damage our vision.
As winter approaches in northern India, the risks of environmental pollutants increase due to the toxic air around us: particulate matter, noxious gases such as nitrogen oxides (-a reddish brown haze in the environment brought on by fuel combustion and wood burning), and increased ozone gas impact our eyes.
Toxic chemicals in the environment such as xenoestrogens (present in pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, plastic goods, cosmetics and cream) can cause a dry eye syndrome due to alterations of the lipid and water content of the tear film, leading to chronic irritation in the eyes. Photochemical pollutants (in the form of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, asbestos, benzene, lead, chhorofluorocarbons etc.,) cause eye problems such as dryness, burning sensation, watering, inability to open eyes, etc.
Smoking cigarettes and bidis etc. affects the ocular surface, resulting in symptoms such as itching, redness, irritation of eyes, reduced tear secretion, reduced corneal and conjunctival sensitivity apart from causing an inflammatory response and acute uveitis. Smoking also worsens age related macular degeneration through the endotoxins in tobacco smoke.
Particulate matter as small as 1 micron (found in tobacco smoke, soot, smog and construction work) causes itching, burning, sensory irritation and watering of eyes.
It is thus important to protect our eyes from the air pollution that we are surrounded by. This can be done by frequently washing our eyes with clean water, using UV- blocking protective glasses which block harmful ultraviolet rays, along with using air filters in our homes to purify the air we breathe.
Government legislature to reduce environmental air pollution will go a long way in helping citizens to lead a healthy life.