"We have found yet another reason why air pollution should be addressed as a public health priority, and that avoiding sources of air pollution could be worthwhile for eye health alongside other health concerns", said the study's lead author, Paul Foster, PhD, professor of ophthalmic epidemiology & galucoma studies, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital.
Scientists from King's College London looked at the health of people living in high-pollution areas, like parts of London, Birmingham and Liverpool.
Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness and affects over 60 million people worldwide.
According to the researchers, living in a polluted area with high levels of particulate matter increases the risk of developing glaucoma by 6 per cent.
Scientists believe air pollution may cause glaucoma due to the constriction of blood vessels killing off the retina cells or by chemicals being directly toxic to nerves.
"Most risk factors for glaucoma are out of our control, such as older age or genetics", said Foster.
Researchers from University College London (UCL) looked at 111,370 participants from the UK Biobank study who had eye tests from 2006 to 2010. The participants were asked whether they had glaucoma, and they underwent ocular testing to measure intraocular pressure, and spectral-domain optical coherence tomography imaging (a laser scan of the retina) to measure thickness of their eye's macula (central area of the retina).
Researchers also said if air pollution was cut by a fifth, there would be thousands fewer cases of children with symptoms of bronchitis across those United Kingdom cities.
The research team found that people in the most-polluted 25% of areas were at least 6% more likely to report having glaucoma than those in the least-polluted quartile, and they were also significantly more likely to have a thinner retina, one of the changes typical of glaucoma progression. The researchers compared the results from these eye exams with recorded measures of air pollution based on participants' addresses to determine how the air they were exposed to most often was affecting their eye health.
Experts suggest particulates may damage the nervous system and contribute to inflammation.
Air pollution has been implicated in elevated risk of pulmonary and cardiovascular disease as well as brain conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and stroke. The latest study adds to previous evidence that people in urban areas are 50 per cent more likely to have glaucoma than those in rural areas, suggesting that air pollution may be a key contributor to that pattern.
The groups are also calling for the introduction of a national network of Clean Air Zones in the United Kingdom, citing London's Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) having already had an impact on reducing air pollution since its introduction earlier this year.
"It seems as if every day we see more and more evidence of the awful health effects air pollution is having on our lungs", Dr Woods said.