About one in 12 Canadians will get their appendix removed during their lifetime. Yet over a century after appendicitis was first discovered, we still don’t know what causes it—and so, not too much has changed about how it’s treated. “We operate on people in 2008, just like we needed to operate on them in 1908,” says the University of Calgary‘s Dr. Gilaad G. Kaplan.
New research suggests air pollution could be the culprit. Kaplan’s team looked at over 5,000 Calgary adults hospitalized for appendicitis between 1999 and 2006. They compared them to Environment Canada data on levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter, and found that more air pollution was associated with more appendicitis. This study is the first to show such a link, Kaplan tells Macleans.ca.
Unsurprisingly, the risk seems to be highest in the summer months, when the air’s more smoggy and more people are outside.
“If you look at developing countries, appendicitis is quite rare,” Kaplan says. “As they start to industrialize, you see this disease emerging.”
Studying appendicitis is a challenge, he notes, partly because no good animal model exists. The appendix is “very unique to humans, to primates,” he says. So, Kaplan hopes to take this study to other Canadian cities and see if his findings hold true. “If we get better insight into what causes appendicitis, we might be able to develop better diagnostic tests and more novel therapies,” he says—maybe even a non-surgical treatment.
Kaplan’s also hopeful his findings could make the condition less common. “Air pollution is a modifiable risk factor,” he notes. “If we can reduce air pollution, there’s the potential to reduce some cases of appendicitis.”