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Health Impacts of Air Pollution

Reviewed by
Date published
22/04/2021
Date last updated
09/04/2021
Length of read
5 Minutes

Air pollution has been an increasing problem all over the world and is a major cause of premature death and disease. In cities, air pollution can reach extraordinary levels, leading to problems like asthma and reduced lung function, among other health concerns. For more vulnerable people, like the elderly, children or pregnant women, the effects can be even more damaging.

In fact, the World Health Organisation has provided evidence of connections between pollution and Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes, among other health concerns. But what are the health impacts of air pollution and how concerned should we be about the quality of the air we breathe in?

This guide outlines some of the primary causes of air pollution, the health impact of each and what you can do to improve the quality of the air you breathe in.

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter, or PM, is composed of small airborne particles such as soot and dust. It’s common in urban areas where cars, factories and industrial facilities are in large numbers. Other sources of particulate matter include diesel emissions and particles from gases and vapours.

What’s the damage? Coarse PM can lead to nasal and respiratory tract health conditions, while fine particles can delve deeper into the lungs and cause strokes, asthma and heart attacks. It can also cause premature death from lung disease and cancers.

Black Carbon

Black carbon is produced from burning fuel like wood and coal, and most air pollution regulations are focused on this type of air pollution.

What’s the damage? Exposure to black carbon poses a serious health threat, especially over long periods of time, as it can cause strokes and heart attacks. Black carbon has also been associated with bronchitis, hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Nitrogen Oxides

Primarily caused by the transportation sector, nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide are formed in higher concentrations around roadways.

What’s the damage? It can lead to asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. It can also increase your risk of heart disease and heart-related problems.

Ozone

We’re familiar with the ozone in the atmosphere but what about ozone at ground level? It’s more commonly referred to as smog and it’s a known respiratory irritant, caused by the reactions of volatile compounds and nitrogen oxides from the combustion of fossil fuels.

What’s the damage? In the short term, ozone can cause coughing, an irritated throat and chest pains, but in the long term, it can decrease lung function and cause heart problems.

Sulphur Dioxide

Sulphur dioxide is emitted from burning fossil fuels that contain sulphur such as coal, metal extraction and smelting.

What’s the damage? It may cause irritated eyes, make asthma worse and increases the chances of developing respiratory infections and heart problems.

How To Limit Your Intake Of Polluted Air

In today’s society, avoiding air pollution is almost impossible, and long-term strategies sit with businesses and corporations rather than individuals. But, there are ways to minimise the impact that polluted air has on your health.

Avoid Rush Hour: Firstly, limit walking on busy streets and near highways during rush hour, as this is a particularly polluting time when more vehicles will be on the road. It’s worth checking daily air pollution forecasts for your local area before going out each day, so you can be aware when the air quality is particularly low and make alternative plans if possible.

Head To Parks: If you choose to exercise outdoors, stay away from polluted areas and try to find areas such as parks where you’re away from busy roads and can reap the rewards of trees and plants.

Make Better Choices: You should avoid burning waste, such as bonfires, as the smoke they produce can be damaging to your lung health.

It’s also beneficial to use less energy in your home where possible, as it’s not just the outside world that causes air pollution – we contribute in our homes too. By reducing your energy use, you can help to improve the overall air quality and bring carbon emissions down.

Similarly, don’t allow people to smoke in your home as this can bring the quality of the air in your property down and means that others living in the house will be breathing in second-hand smoke.

For more information on reducing air pollution, check out this guide.