5 Serious Health Risks Associated With Air Pollution

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July 2, 2019

Whether you realize it or not, the air you breathe has a direct impact on your short- and long-term health. Below, we’ve listed five serious health risks linked to air pollution.

1. Asthma

Breathing ambient particle (PM2.5) and Ozone (O3) pollution can cause chronic airway swelling and irritation, which is especially dangerous for people with preexisting respiratory conditions. In addition to aggravating asthma symptoms, breathing high levels of air pollution can increase the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.

But air pollution doesn’t only affect people with existing respiratory issues. Studies have shown that ambient air pollution also increases your chances of developing asthma, particularly in young children whose lungs are still developing. In fact, a recent University of Southern California study found that a slight decline in L.A.’s ambient air pollution over the last two decades reduced local childhood asthma rates by 20 percent.

2. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is the overarching term given to a variety of inflammatory lung diseases that cause difficulty breathing and inhibit healthy lung functioning. COPD produces symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, excess mucus, chronic coughing, fatigue, and more frequent respiratory infections. People with COPD may suffer from a single condition, or they may have multiple respiratory conditions, such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma. 

Prolonged exposure to air pollution — at home, work, or outdoors — has been shown to contribute to the development of COPD in healthy individuals. It also worsens COPD symptoms for those with existing conditions and increases morbidity and mortality rates associated with the disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution accounts for 43 percent of all global deaths and disease from COPD.

3. Lung Cancer

When the link between lung cancer and cigarette smoking became clear in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, smoking in restaurants, bars, and workplaces was soon outlawed by almost every U.S. state. Due to the fact that smoking is so publicly associated with lung cancer, it’s easy to assume that if you don’t smoke, you’re not at risk. In truth, worldwide air pollution accounts for 29 percent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer.

When the 2018 Northern California wildfires caused an air pollution crisis in San Francisco last year, UC Berkeley researchers helped drive home the seriousness of the situation by translating local Air Quality Index (AQI) readings into an equivalent number of cigarettes.  During the height of the crisis, they estimated that breathing San Francisco air was the health equivalent of smoking 12 cigarettes a day.

The takeaway? Even if you practice healthy habits, you’re not necessarily immune to respiratory health risks. Although most people made an effort to stay indoors during the 2018 air pollution crisis, our own research found that indoor PM2.5 levels surged as high as 80μg/m3 in the Bay Area during the same period.

If you assume that a PM2.5 level of 22μg/m3 is the equivalent of smoking one cigarette per day (as UC Berkeley researchers estimated), that means that staying indoors was the health equivalent of smoking 3.6 cigarettes — a substantial improvement from being outside, but far from a “healthy” alternative. As wildfires become more common, more people are taking steps to protect their health and keep their indoor air healthy during pollution alerts.

4. Increased Vulnerability to Infection

Because PM2.5 air pollution is so small, it has the potential to travel deep into our lungs and enter into our bloodstream. When PM2.5 levels are elevated, even for a short period, they increase our likelihood of developing a respiratory infection.

A 2019 study revealed that increased PM2.5 concentrations in New York State were associated with an increase in the number of culture-negative influenza and pneumonia infections reported the following week. These infections persisted even as PM2.5 levels started to improve.

5. Reduced Life Expectancy

The fatal effects of breathing PM2.5 have been studied for a number of years.  In 2008, researchers attributed 1.3 million deaths globally to the combined effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution. By 2016, that number had risen to seven million.

Last year, however, was the first time that air pollution was studied in relation to global lifespans — and the results were sobering. Despite drastic differences in air quality by region, the study found that air pollution had reduced global life expectancy rates by over a year.

Take Control of the Air You Breathe

When it comes to air quality, knowledge is power. Contrary to popular belief, indoor air tends to be significantly more polluted than outdoor air. Although you can’t influence outdoor conditions, you can take steps to monitor your indoor air quality and protect your health. 

Awair can help you understand what’s in your air and empower you to improve the air quality in your home, office, and beyond. To learn more about Awair and how it can help you create a healthier indoor environment, follow the link below.