If you buy something through a link on this page, we may earn a small commission. How this works.
Air pollution appears to cause or contribute to a variety of health conditions. The effects of air pollution on a person's health can range from mild breathing difficulties to severe cardiovascular issues, including heart disease and stroke.
Harmful gases and particles in the air come from a range of sources, including exhaust fumes from vehicles, smoke from burning coal or gas, and tobacco smoke.
There are ways to limit the effects of air pollution on health, such as avoiding areas with heavy traffic. However, significant change relies on improvements to air quality on a global scale.
In this article, we discuss how air pollution can affect a person's health.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution consists of small particles that can be natural or artificial.
The range of possible pollutants means that air pollution can affect people both outdoors and indoors.
Outdoor air pollution consists of:
- particles from burning coal and gas
- harmful gases, such as nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxide
- tobacco smoke
- ground-level ozone
Indoor air pollution consists of:
- household chemicals
- harmful gases, such as carbon monoxide or radon
- building materials, such as lead or asbestos
- tobacco smoke
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the pollutants that pose the highest risk to a person's health are:
- particulate matter (particle pollutants), which comprises suspended solids and liquid droplets
- nitrogen dioxide
- sulfur dioxide
Short-term exposure to air pollution, such as ground-level ozone, can affect the respiratory system because the majority of the pollutants enter the body through a person's airways.
Short-term exposure to air pollution may lead to respiratory infections and reduced lung function. It may also aggravate asthma in people with this condition.
Exposure to sulfur dioxide may cause damage to the eyes and respiratory tract, as well as irritating the skin.
Research into the long-term health problems that air pollution can cause is ongoing. Research has linked air pollution to serious health problems, adverse birth outcomes, and even premature death.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Exposure to particle pollutants may cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). According to the WHO, air pollution causes 43% of COPD cases and deaths worldwide.
There is no cure for COPD, but treatment can help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.
Particle pollutants are likely to contribute to this figure significantly as their small size allows them to reach the lower respiratory tract.
A 2018 review notes that the Global Burden of Disease Study estimated air pollution to be responsible for 19% of cardiovascular deaths in 2015. It was also the cause of about 21% of deaths due to stroke and 24% of deaths from coronary heart disease.
According to research that featured in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, exposure to polluted air can make pregnant women more likely to experience preterm delivery.
The researchers found that the chance of preterm delivery lessened with decreased exposure.
Health effects from specific pollutants
Polluted air contains separate particles and chemicals, each of which has a different effect on health.
Particle pollutants consist of a combination of different particles in the air.
Due to the small size of these particles, they can reach the lungs and raise the risk of lung and heart disease.
They may also cause a worsening of symptoms in people with asthma.
Pollutants react with sunlight to create ground-level ozone. Smog consists largely of ozone and is a key trigger of asthma symptoms.
According to a 2016 article, if the levels of carbon monoxide are lower than 2%, this gas does not appear to affect a person's health.
However, if the levels are higher than 40%, carbon monoxide may be fatal.
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include:
- chest pain
- a headache
If a person suspects that they are experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, they should move to an area with fresh air and seek immediate medical help.
Sulfur dioxide is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, such as coal and oil.
It can cause eye irritation and make a person more vulnerable to developing respiratory tract infections, as well as cardiovascular disease.
Nitrogen dioxide is present in vehicle exhaust emissions. Gas and kerosene heaters and stoves also produce large amounts of this gas.
Exposure to nitrogen dioxide may lead to respiratory infections. Typically, inhaling nitrogen dioxide causes wheezing or coughing, but it may also lead to headaches, throat irritation, chest pain, and fever.
How can we reduce exposure?
People can reduce their exposure to air pollutants by limiting the amount of time that they spend in areas with poor air quality. It is important to be aware of possible air pollutants both outdoors and indoors.
Outdoor air pollution
Governments, businesses, and individuals can all help in minimizing air pollution. Reducing emissions from vehicles and the levels of pollutants in the atmosphere may improve the quality of the air.
A person can also check the current air quality by using the AirNow website. This government service monitors air quality across the United States.
The site provides information on air pollution levels, which it color codes according to their potential effect on health. If the rating is orange or above, people can help protect their health by:
- avoiding walking beside busy roads
- exercising for less time outdoors or using an indoor venue instead
- staying indoors until air quality improves
Indoor air pollution
A person can reduce indoor air pollution by ensuring that buildings are clean and ventilated.
Dust, mold, and pollen may all increase the risk of respiratory problems.
Radon gas can build up in homes that developers built on land that has uranium deposits. Radon gas can cause lung cancer.
A person can check for radon in the home by using a radon test kit. Alternatively, they can hire a professional to take this measurement for them.
A person can use a carbon monoxide detector to monitor the carbon monoxide levels in their home or workplace.
Air pollution can be harmful to a person's health. It may cause respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.
A person can reduce the likelihood of health problems by checking the air quality in their local areas and being aware of any existing health conditions.
Carbon monoxide can be fatal. If a person thinks that they have carbon monoxide poisoning, they should get into fresh air and seek medical help immediately.