Health x Wellness

Can antioxidants help combat air pollutants?

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In June this year, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs released a report predicting ‘a high risk of severe haze occurring in Southeast Asia’. According to the report, this will be the first time in four years (since 2019) that a “red” rating for transboundary haze in the region has been given.

Singapore news website TODAY has shared in another article that air purifiers are flying off the shelf.


Exposure to pollutants can lead to inflammation, oxidative stress, and the narrowing of blood vessels, all of which contribute to cardiovascular problems. 

Apart from using air purifiers, and limiting physical activity when haze levels are high, is it possible that we can use antioxidants as a defence mechanism?

We discuss this topic with Christina Loh, Director of Nursing and Mary-ann Chiam, Senior Principal Dietitian at Allium Healthcare.  

the Active Age (AA): What are the key issues we should be paying attention to, when it comes to increased exposure to pollutants?

Ms. Christina Loh (CL): Absolutely, addressing the issues related to increased exposure to pollutants, particularly air pollution, is of paramount importance for public health and well-being. Here are the key issues to consider.

It’s important to be aware of the potential health effects that come with exposure to various pollutants, such as air pollutants like particulate matter, ozone, and carbon monoxide. Polluted air can lead to respiratory issues, allergy or asthma flare-ups, and other lung problems. Over time, prolonged exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of other diseases like heart disease and cancer. It’s crucial to consider both short-term and long-term health consequences, including respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, developmental issues, and neurological disorders.

If you or your loved ones live or work in areas with high levels of air pollution, it’s essential to pay attention to signs and symptoms that might indicate bad air quality is affecting your health. These could include a runny nose, burning eyes, difficulty breathing, irritation in your throat and lungs, excessive phlegm, and worsened heart or lung conditions. Smog from air pollution, wildfires, or smoke from a factory chimney can also create a hazy environment and reduce your range of vision, which might make it challenging to drive or get around, thus increasing your risk for roadway accidents.

Air pollution can have detrimental effects on human health, and certain groups are more vulnerable to its adverse impacts than others. It is essential to recognise and address health disparities and ensure adequate protection for these vulnerable populations.

Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with pre-existing
health conditions such as chronic lung diseases, heart or lung disease, or
diabetes are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of pollutants. Exposure to air pollution can worsen their health conditions and, in some cases, can even be life-threatening.

Older adults are more likely to have heart or lung disease than younger
individuals. However, on the other hand, children and teenagers are also
at higher risk due to their developing lungs and respiratory systems and
tend to breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.

People who live closer to sources of air pollution, such as factories, urban
city centres, or highways. This puts them at a higher risk of long-term
exposure to dirty air.

Additionally, people who exercise regularly or are active outdoors in areas
with bad air quality are more likely to breathe in toxic substances that
affect their health.

In conclusion, recognising the vulnerability of certain populations and ensuring adequate protection for them is crucial in addressing health disparities caused by air pollution.

On days with high levels of air pollution, it is advisable to take measures to reduce personal exposure. This can be done by staying indoors as much as possible, minimising outdoor air infiltration into indoor spaces, using air filters to clean indoor air, and limiting physical exertion, particularly near air pollution sources.

Sad ill asian girl staying on self quarantine during covid, catching flu and sitting at home with cup of tea near window, coughing in hand.

AA: Can you share more background/context about the use of antioxidants to combat exposure to pollutants?

CL: The use of antioxidants to mitigate the effects of exposure to environmental pollutants has been a subject of interest and research for several years. Antioxidants are compounds that can protect your cells and help neutralise harmful molecules known as free radicals, which can cause damage to cells and tissues in the body. Prolonged exposure to environmental pollutants such as air pollutants and certain chemicals can
contribute to the production of free radicals in the body, leading to oxidative stress and a range of health issues. Antioxidants act as the “bricks” that make up the “wall” of our immune system.

Exposure to environmental pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals, and other toxic substances can cause oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress arises from an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to counteract their harmful effects with antioxidants.

Oxidative stress is linked to various health problems such as inflammation,
cardiovascular diseases, respiratory disorders, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. Therefore, researchers have investigated the potential of antioxidants to alleviate these health risks that arise from pollutant exposure.

Antioxidants are commonly found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other foods. Some of the well-known dietary antioxidants include vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, selenium, and flavonoids. Consuming a diet rich in these
antioxidants can help reduce the impact of oxidative stress caused by
environmental pollutants.

Antioxidant supplements such as vitamin C and vitamin E are available in various forms. Some individuals may consider taking antioxidant supplements to enhance their body’s defence against oxidative stress, particularly if they are exposed to high levels of pollutants or have specific health concerns.

In the context of nursing homes, where the well-being of residents is paramount, we receive guidance from the Ministry of Health (MOH) concerning HAZE management. MOH provides recommendations to help maintain indoor air quality, which is vital for the health of both residents and staff. Among these recommendations, MOH advises the use of specific devices such as HEPA filters and air purifiers. These devices are instrumental in ensuring that the air within nursing homes remains clean and free from pollutants, aligning with our commitment to providing a safe and healthy environment for our residents.

The use of antioxidants to counteract the negative health effects of exposure to pollutants is a widely adopted strategy in different countries and medical organisations worldwide.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide information on the health impacts of pollutants and offer dietary advice that recommends the consumption of antioxidant-rich foods to help mitigate potential health risks associated with pollution exposure.

Similarly, European countries, as well as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), promote the intake of foods containing antioxidants and emphasise their potential role in reducing oxidative stress and protecting against various health conditions.

The European Union also establishes food safety standards and regulations that indirectly support the inclusion of antioxidants in the diet.

The World Health Organization (WHO), as a global health authority, recognises the importance of antioxidants in promoting overall health and reducing the risk of pollution-related diseases. While the WHO focuses on providing global health guidelines, many countries align their recommendations with the WHO guidelines.

While it is not a standalone solution, it can be a valuable component of a holistic strategy to protect against the health risks associated with pollutants. Individuals concerned about pollutant exposure and its health effects should consult with healthcare professionals for personalised guidance on antioxidant supplementation and other preventive measures. You may consider contacting nursing homes that provide palliative care, such as Allium Healthcare, as they typically offer integrated care plans that support the unique needs of each individual. This approach may prove to be beneficial and effective in addressing the situation in a holistic and integrative manner.

[AA] Why is it essential to consume an antioxidant-rich diet as a proactive strategy to combat the effects of air pollution on both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems?

Ms. Mary-ann Chiam (MC): It is widely recognised that air pollution can have a detrimental effect on our respiratory and cardiovascular systems. As a result, adopting an antioxidant-rich diet is often recommended as a proactive measure to help combat the harmful effects of air pollution.

Air pollution can cause oxidative stress in the body, which generates free radicals that can damage cells, proteins, and DNA. Antioxidants work to neutralise these free radicals, reducing their harmful effects and preventing oxidative damage.

Exposure to air pollution can trigger inflammation, which is a key factor in the development of various diseases, including respiratory conditions like asthmaand cardiovascular disease.

Antioxidants help to reduce inflammation by counteracting the oxidative stress that drives it.


Air pollution can lead to lung damage and exacerbate respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.
Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, have been shown to protect lung tissue from oxidative damage and inflammation, preserving lung function.

Air pollution is a well-established risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks and strokes. It can contribute to the development and progression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and other cardiovascular problems. Antioxidants help maintain the health of blood vessels and reduce the risk of oxidative damage to the heart and circulatory system.

An antioxidant-rich diet can also enhance immune function, particularly those found in fruits and vegetables. This can improve the body’s ability to defend itself against the adverse effects of pollutants and reduce susceptibility to respiratory infections exacerbated by air pollution.

It is important to note that while consuming an antioxidant-rich diet can be beneficial, it should be part of a broader strategy to mitigate the effects of air pollution. Reducing exposure to pollutants through measures such as improved indoor air quality, reduced exposure to outdoor air pollution, and advocating for cleaner air policies are also crucial.

AA: As you have mentioned, a good heart-healthy diet encompasses more than just antioxidants, what else should we be aware of, and include in our diet?

MC: A comprehensive and well-balanced nutritional approach is crucial in supporting cardiovascular health. A heart-healthy diet should encompass a range of dietary components and principles that go beyond just antioxidants.

Consuming a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants is vital. Filling half your plate with these foods at each meal is recommended. They provide essential nutrients and antioxidants that support heart health.

Choosing whole grains over refined grains is highly recommended. Whole grains such as oats, brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat contain fibre, which is crucial in lowering cholesterol and stabilising blood sugar levels.


It is important to include sources of healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, in your diet. These fats can help reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and lower the risk of heart disease.

Incorporating fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and trout into your diet is
recommended. They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and benefit heart health.

Choosing lean protein sources, such as skinless poultry, lean cuts of red meat, tofu, legumes (beans and lentils), and fish, is recommended. Limiting red meat consumption, mainly processed and high-fat cuts, is suggested.

Opting for low-fat or fat-free dairy products to reduce saturated fat intake is
suggested. Dairy provides calcium and protein essential for bone and heart

Limiting salt intake by avoiding high-sodium processed foods, restaurant meals, and excessive use of table salt is recommended. Seasoning food with herbs and spices instead is suggested.

Minimising the consumption of sugary drinks, snacks, and desserts is essential. Excess sugar intake is linked to obesity and heart disease. Reading food labels to identify hidden sugars is recommended.

It is important to remember that a heart-healthy diet is just one part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, managing stress, and avoiding smoking are all crucial in promoting optimal cardiovascular health. Additionally, individual dietary needs may vary, so it is always advisable to consult with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to receive personalised recommendations
based on your specific health goals and conditions.

At Allium Healthcare, we are committed to providing a diverse range of food options that cater to individual preferences and dietary needs. As our in-house dietitian manages gastronomical pleasure, we aim to ensure that our residents feel comfortable and supported while maintaining a healthy and balanced diet.

AA: What other areas of health should we look at, as a result of increased exposure to pollutants?

CL: Pollution is a complex issue that can have significant impacts on various aspects of health beyond the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Neurological Health: Exposure to air pollution, especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and certain chemicals, has been found to have adverse effects on the nervous system.Long-term exposure to pollutants may contribute to cognitive decline, neurodevelopmental disorders in children, and an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Reproductive Health: Pollutants, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals, can affect reproductive health in both males and females. Exposure to certain pollutants may lead to fertility issues, birth defects, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Pregnant women should take special precautions to minimise exposure to environmental toxins.

Child Health and Development: Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pollution due to their developing bodies. Pollution exposure can lead to developmental delays, respiratory problems, and cognitive impairments. Providing clean air, safe drinking water, and a healthy environment is crucial for children’s well-being.

Skin Health: Pollutants in the air can contribute to skin problems such as premature ageing, skin allergies, and exacerbation of conditions such as eczema and acne. Protecting the skin with appropriate skincare routines and UV protection is essential.

Immune Function and Endocrine Disruption: Air pollution can weaken the immune system’s ability to defend against infections and diseases. Individuals with compromised immune systems may be more susceptible to illness due to pollution exposure. On the other hand, some pollutants can also disrupt the endocrine system, affecting hormone regulation. This can lead to a range of health issues, including thyroid disorders, diabetes,
and hormonal imbalances.

Cancer Risk: Prolonged exposure to certain pollutants, such as carcinogens found in air and water, can increase the risk of various types of cancer, including lung, bladder, and breast cancer. Regular cancer screenings and risk assessments are essential for those living in polluted areas. To address the multifaceted impacts of increased exposure to pollutants, it is necessary
to adopt a comprehensive approach. This includes advocating for clean air and water, supporting policies to reduce pollution, engaging in lifestyle practices that minimise exposure, and seeking medical advice and monitoring for specific health concerns related to pollution exposure. Regular check-ups with healthcare professionals can help assess and manage potential health risks associated with pollution.


AA: Anything else to add?

CL: I would like to offer my recommendations for mitigating the health effects of pollutant exposure:

About designated Smoking Areas and Passive Smoking:

  • Implement Strict Smoking Regulations: It is crucial to enforce clear and stringent regulations that restrict smoking to designated areas exclusively. These designated areas should be well-ventilated and strategically located away from entrances and common gathering spots. This approach ensures that non-smokers are not exposed to harmful secondhand smoke.
  • Public Awareness Campaigns: Launching public awareness campaigns is essential. These campaigns should target both smokers and non-smokers, educating them about the significant risks associated with passive smoking. Emphasise the importance of adhering to designated smoking areas, fostering a culture of respect, and protecting non-smokers from the detrimental effects of secondhand smoke.

Regular Health Checks:

  • Promote Routine Health Screenings: Encouraging individuals, especially those residing in areas with elevated pollutant levels, to undergo routine health check-ups is vital. These screenings serve as an invaluable tool for early detection and intervention in addressing potential health issues linked to pollutant exposure.
  • Tailored Health Assessments: To provide comprehensive care, consider
    customising health assessments based on individual exposure levels and specific risk factors. Such tailored assessments may include specialised tests focusing on respiratory function, cardiovascular health, and blood tests designed to assess pollutant-related health risks. These recommendations encompass a holistic approach to safeguarding the health and well-being of individuals in the face of pollutant exposure.

Photos by Muhammad Faiz Zulkeflee, by Diana Polekhina, by Louis Hansel by Andres Siimon on Unsplash and Image by benzoix on Freepik