Air Pollution and your Health

The Problem

Climate change is exacerbating the negative health effects that come with air pollution. This is a huge issue, considering over 40% of Americans, or over 135 million people, are living in areas that do not meet acceptable levels of air quality according to the American Lung Association. The variation in the size and chemical properties of air pollutants allows them to infiltrate and affect every organ in the human body, with a number of them listed here:

MRI Scan Image

Brain

There is growing evidence that particulate matter, especially smaller particles that are less than 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5), increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and related dementias. One study demonstrated that higher exposure to PM2.5 contributed to declines in immediate recall and new learning in women over 65. Air pollution exposure has also been linked to risk of stroke.

Cardiovascular

The effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health are related to acute and chronic illness of the heart and blood vessels. Because the cardiovascular system is the circulatory system of the body, impairment in cardiovascular health multiplies the negative effects of air pollution on other body systems. Specific examples of cardiovascular-specific effects include impaired blood vessel function, more rapid calcification of arteries, lowered levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol), and increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke and heart attacks.

Image by Robina Weermeijer

Respiratory

The long-term sequelae of breathing dirty air have been researched for years. Air pollution is known to affect lung development in children and increases the development of asthma, COPD and emphysema throughout the lifetime. In addition to development of chronic illnesses, acute exacerbations of chronic respiratory conditions can be triggered by poor air quality. Particulate matter decreases the lungs’ innate ability to breathe as measured by spirometry (the standard method for assessing lung function). Air pollution resulting from wildfire has been linked to increased risk of respiratory-tract infections.

Skin

Increasing levels of air pollution exacerbate severity and incidence of atopic dermatitis (eczema). The depletion of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are found in aerosol sprays, may increase the risk and incidence of skin cancer. Other forms of skin disease that are influenced by climate change are also highlighted in another section on this site.

Image by Christin Noelle

Reproduction

While this is a newer field within air quality research, the implication that what we put in the air affects not just our generation, but future generations, cannot be overstated. The reproductive effects of air pollution are not limited to the ability to reproduce but also affect the quality of reproduction. Studies show that air pollutants cause errors during gametogenesis, or the body's creation of eggs or sperm cells, which decreases human reproductive ability. Increased miscarriages during periods of especially poor air quality have also been described in medical literature. 

Image by Ben Wicks

Development

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of air quality because of their rapid growth and development. Exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons has been shown to decrease development of brain white matter which is associated with ADHD, slower information processing during intelligence testing, and conduct disorder throughout childhood. Additionally, elevated levels of biomarkers tied to higher exposure to air pollution have been associated with lower child IQ levels.

Microscope

Cancer

The causes of cancer, like many other illnesses, are multifactorial. Air pollution and various environmental exposures and chemicals that exacerbate it have been proposed as risk factors in many types of cancer. Plausible and probable links exist between certain pollutants and leukemia, traffic-related air pollution and breast cancer, coal and lung cancer, among others.