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Globally, nine out of 10 people inhale unhealthy, polluted air. Air pollution is the impurification of the atmosphere by the dispersion of solids, liquids, and certain gases in the air; it can happen indoors or outdoors.
Air pollution is a growing problem in many cities around the world, and it has far-reaching consequences for human health. The toxic chemicals and particulate matter found in polluted air can cause a range of health problems, from respiratory issues to heart disease.
Reports1 indicate that air pollution is the world's largest environmental risk for premature death –, between 1,000 to 4,300 additional premature deaths will occur countrywide each year by 2050 due to the combined health effects from ozone and particulate matter, assuming no change in regulatory measures or population characteristics.
Let’s discuss the various ways in which air pollution affects our health and what we can do to minimize this harmful effect.
What does ambient air pollution mean? The air we breathe, all around us, is what we call ambient air or atmosphere. Naturally, we do not want it to contain any contaminants or pollutants. Ambient air pollution refers to potentially harmful pollutants or toxins that are emitted into the atmosphere by various processes2.
Indoor air pollution3 is specifically the dust, filth, or gases in the air inside structures, such as your house or workplace, that are potentially unhealthy to breathe. In developing countries, household air pollution is one of the primary causes of sickness and early mortality.
According to WHO data, 99% of the world's population breathes air that contains high levels of pollutants that exceed WHO guideline limits, with low- and middle-income countries experiencing the highest exposures4.
Both human activities and natural sources contribute to air pollution, but because of the world's accelerating urbanization and industrialization, human activities are having an ever-greater impact. There are two types of air pollutants:
Depending on the origins of the air pollutants or the sources of their precursors, pollutants may be natural, anthropogenic (from man-made sources), or mixed.
Forms of primary air pollution include:
Forms of secondary air pollution include:
Both natural and artificial sources might be the source of these pollutants and their precursor gases.
Outdoor sources include:
Many people do not understand indoor air pollution as well as they do outdoor pollution. The majority of contaminants that lower indoor air quality come from sources inside buildings, with a small amount of pollutants arriving from the outside.
To that extent, let us look at some of the major sources of air pollutants that infiltrate indoors5:
There are fewer anthropogenic contaminants in arid areas. On a worldwide scale, however, the contribution of man-made pollutants greatly outweighs that of natural sources. Therefore, even if someone resides in a less polluted location, atmospheric circumstances can make it possible for air pollution to travel great distances and damage people distant from the sources of the pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that indoor air pollution levels are often two to five times higher than the same pollutants outdoors6 and may be up to 1,000 times higher than outside levels after certain activities7, and may potentially have a more detrimental impact on health8.
Respiratory problems are one of the most common health effects of air pollution. Pollution has been linked to many respiratory diseases9; exposure to polluted air can irritate the airways, leading to conditions such as:
Air pollution can also weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections10. The toxic chemicals in polluted air can disrupt the body's natural defenses, making it harder for the immune system to fight off harmful pathogens. This can lead to various health problems, from colds and flu to more severe infections.
While air pollution affects everyone's health, certain groups may be harmed more including:
Particulate matter is a mix of solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air. Typically, it's too small to be seen with the naked eye. It is one of the most harmful air pollutants with many negative health effects.
Particulate matter is labeled depending on its maximum size in micrometers. One micrometer is 0.001 millimeters. PM10 (particulate matter 10 micrometers or smaller) is linked to nasal and upper respiratory tract health problems, while PM2.5 poses the most significant health risk because these particles are tiny enough to travel through the lungs and into the bloodstream21.
PM can also exacerbate symptoms in individuals with pre-existing heart or lung conditions. This is because particulate matter can cause inflammation in the blood vessels, leading to the formation of blood clots.
Recent toxicological research indicates that wildfire particulate matter may be more harmful24 than equivalent amounts of ambient PM2.5.
Nitrogen dioxide is a toxic gas mainly resulting from burning fossil fuels containing sulfur, such as coal, oil, or diesel. It is produced by cars and power plants. Health risks of nitrogen oxides include25. Basic Information about NO2. Retrieved 22 March 2023 from https://www.epa.gov/no2-pollution/basic-information-about-no2#Effects)):
Children, the elderly, and those with asthma are typically more vulnerable to the negative health consequences of NO2
Ozone is a highly reactive gas present in the whole atmosphere. While ozone in the upper atmosphere protects us from harmful UV radiation, ground-level ozone is a toxic air pollutant.
Health risks of ozone26 include:
Ozone can harm the lungs even after symptoms have subsided.
Emissions of SO2 often also emit other sulfur oxides (e.g., SO3), which increase the level of PM in the air through forming small particles with other substances in the air.
The EPA's most recent review of sulfur dioxide27 lists the main effect, particularly for asthmatics and children, as difficulty breathing.
The following are possible signs of carbon monoxide poisoning32:
High-level acute poisonings can also result in33:
If someone suspects they may be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, they should leave the vicinity and get care right away.
Amidst all that comes with air pollution, you will want to protect your health. So how do you do this? Below are a few steps you can take:
Since 2013, the WHO has partnered with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), with which is develops various interventions aimed at reducing air pollution35. These currently include:
As far as improved indoor air quality is concerned, the EPA recommends three main steps36:
To this extent, we can help reduce air pollution by:
The energy sector is a major source of air pollution. Supporting clean energy policies, such as investing in wind and solar power, can help reduce air pollution from power plants. More people are now using clean energy technologies, and some governments have been giving grants to consumers who are interested in installing solar panels in their homes.
One of the major drivers of air pollution is the transportation sector. To reduce pollution caused by transportation, the Department of Transportation suggests a number of actions37:
Many industrial processes emit harmful pollutants into the air. Improving these processes, such as by developing, using, and providing incentives to use cleaner technologies, can reduce air pollution.
Trees play a crucial role in cleaning the air. By planting more trees, we can absorb pollutants from the air, making it cleaner and healthier for us to breathe.
Raising awareness about the far-reaching effects of air pollution and the ways to reduce it is an important step in controlling air pollution. By educating the public, we can encourage them to take actions that will help reduce air pollution.
Global supply chains are crucial to continuing our way of life in a linked world. However, buying locally whenever possible can significantly reduce the number of industrial sources of air pollution associated with the transit of those goods.
The WHO estimates that air pollution causes nearly seven million deaths annually throughout the world related to pollution. Specifically, ambient air pollution causes 4.2 million fatalities annually38, while indoor air pollution causes 3.2 million preventable deaths39. Alarming, yes?
Worse still, according to WHO data, 99% of people breathe in air that is worse than the levels recommended by the organization40. Numerous areas have significant pollution levels, with low- and middle-income nations suffering the most.
Indoor air quality levels in facilities are being held more and more responsible for chronic ailments. Studies suggest that indoor air plays a role in the occurrence of a phenomenon known as "Sick building syndrome41,” which occurs when people who occupy a building report experiencing similar symptoms after being in the building, with the symptoms subsiding or going away after they leave.
Ultimately, improving air quality matters because poor air quality can affect your lungs' ability to function adequately indoors or out, which can have major health effects.
The Clean Air Act continues to be an important tool in the fight against air pollution and the protection of public health and the environment42. It has been instrumental in reducing air pollution and improving air quality in the United States. Since its passage, levels of criteria pollutants have decreased, resulting in improved health outcomes and a cleaner environment.
The EPA updates and enforces air quality standards to reflect the latest science and technology. The act has also been a model for similar legislation in other countries worldwide. More impressive steps by EPA include the regulations on new vehicles, engines, and cleaner fuels, which have led to a nearly 99% improvement in emissions.
In addition to setting air quality standards, the Clean Air Act also established a national permit program for new and existing industrial sources of air pollution and provided funds for research and development of new pollution control technologies.
For instance, nanotechnologies can also be used effectively in environmental health. Nanotechnology43 can trap or destroy interior toxins on a molecular level, which may be used to reduce indoor air pollution. Air purifiers are already using this technology, which has the ability to eliminate indoor contaminants at a far finer scale than existing techniques.
Interestingly, numerous businesses have committed to implementing improved environmental practices in their daily operations through both long-term and short-term initiatives, such as California Clean Air Day44. Even many major shops have asserted that they will reach net-zero emissions within prodigious time frames.
International efforts outside of the United States to fight pollution include The United Nations Environment Programme's work on “Preventing and reducing air pollution to improve global air quality.”45”. In 2019, the 7th of September every year was declared International Day of Clean Air for blue skies46.
Air pollution affects us all. No amount of polluted air is safe to breathe, and everybody is susceptible to its negative effects on health. While visible haze and smog can result from extremely high concentrations, dangerous air pollution can exist even when the sky is clear.
From respiratory problems to heart disease, the effects of air pollution can be far-reaching and devastating. Therefore, by taking simple steps to reduce our exposure and advocating for cleaner air, we can help to protect ourselves and future generations from the harmful effects of air pollution.References
Marion is a freelance health and wellness writer with a passion for all things digital health. She loves diving deep into the latest research and trends in the industry and distilling them down into fun, relatable pieces that people can relate to. Whether you're a health nut or a tech geek, she is always looking for new and interesting ways to help readers access quality and evidence-based information.