Physical Health

Health Impacts Of Air Pollution

What is air pollution?

Air pollution can be considered to be tiny particles, chemicals or gases that are introduced into the air by human activities and that pose a threat to humans and the environment.

What are the main sources of air pollution?

There are several sources of man-made air pollution:

  • Industrial processes, including power generation and manufacturing
  • Transport
  • Heating for houses, especially when wood or coal is being used
  • Waste processing
  • Farming

A report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) points out that road transport is the single largest air polluter in Europe. Through the burning of fuel, motor vehicles, cars and trucks emit a range of health damaging pollutants, such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some of the substances in motor vehicle exhaust also cause ‘secondary pollutants’, which are formed through chemical reactions in the air. One example is ground-level ozone.

Air pollution is especially a problem in urban areas, where there is a lot of traffic. Some pollutants however can travel long distances and may accumulate in suburban or rural areas because of weather conditions such as wind or low pressure.

Compared with traffic, industrial activities are responsible for a larger total emission per year. However, industries tend to be located outside residential areas and their emissions occur at considerable heights.

What are the health effects of air pollution?

The health effects caused by air pollution depend on a number of factors:

  • The type of pollutant considered
  • The level of air pollution (concentration of chemicals in the air)
  • The duration of exposure (short-term vs. long-term effects)
  • Individual sensitivities

Different pollutants have different effects on health. For an overview, click here.

In general, short-term exposure to air pollution can cause:

  • irritation to the eyes, nose and throat
  • difficulty breathing
  • upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia and
  • exacerbation of respiratory disease
  • other symptoms, including headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions.

Scientific studies indicate that air pollution can be very damaging to health in the long-term. Long-term effects include:

  • chronic respiratory disease,
  • lung cancer,
  • heart disease,
  • reduce lung function,
  • onset asthma, and
  • even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys.

In the European Union, air pollution, notably fine particles and ground-level ozone, causes the premature death of almost 370,000 citizens every year. Particulate matter in the air decreases life expectancy of every European by, on average, almost one year.

Some groups of people, such as the elderly, children and people with chronic respiratory conditions, are at an increased risk of experiencing harmful effects. A longitudinal study conducted in the Netherlands, with an active follow-up of more than 4,000 infants, showed that children who live close to busy roads are more at risk of developing respiratory diseases such as asthma, wheezing, and ear, nose and throat infections.

If you have sensitive airways, exposure to air pollution can trigger asthma attacks and cause coughing, wheezing and chest pain.

More information on the health impact of air pollution can be found on the website of WHO Europe.

How can I protect my health?

Exposure to some level of traffic pollution is unavoidable in most urban and rural areas. Nevertheless, there are some steps you can take to reduce exposure to air pollution and minimise the risk for health effects:

  • Check the daily air quality forecasts for your city or town and use this information to plan your activities: when pollution levels are high, avoid energetic outdoor activities or do them in the morning or late in the evening. Avoid exposure, especially in the afternoon, when ozone levels tend to peak.
  • Avoid walking along busy streets with lots of traffic fumes. Avoid exercising near areas where traffic is heavy, especially during rush hour.
  • Remain indoors and close external doors and windows on smoggy days.
  • If you live near a busy road, close windows and doors during peak traffic hours.
  • Try to find a house and workplace not too close to a busy road or highway.
  • If necessary, you can use an effective breathing mask outside, for example when bicycling.

For people with respiratory disease it is important to:

  • Regularly follow your prescribed treatment.
  • Carry with you your rescue medication.
  • Talk with the health care professional who treats you about actions to take during peak air pollution, if necessary.

Patient organisations also have good practical tips for you. Find your local patient group here: http://www.efanet.org/about/members.html

Special action for children

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because their immune and respiratory systems are not yet fully developed, and they tend to breathe through the mouth as well. Because their airways are smaller, they are more likely to become blocked when irritated by pollutants. Also, they breathe more rapidly, taking in more pollution per kilogram of body weight.

Scientific studies point out that exposure to air pollution is associated with:

  • preterm birth ,
  • infant mortality,
  • deficits in lung growth,
  • respiratory symptoms,
  • asthma exacerbations and possibly the development of asthma.

Some studies and scientists also say that air pollution has an effect on the development of the brain.

Children at greatest risk from the effects of air pollution include: children with sensitive respiratory systems, such as children with allergy or asthma, and children who live near areas of heavy traffic and/or industrial pollution sources.

For more information on the effects of air pollution on children’s health and development, see WHO Europe’s website.

There are some things you can do to protect your child from the effects of air pollution, especially when they already have respiratory conditions:

  • Pay attention to warning signs of undiagnosed asthma, such as frequent coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath when exercising. Consult a physician when these symptoms are present.
  • If your child already suffers from a respiratory condition, monitor his or her health when pollution levels are high.
  • Always follow prescribed treatment and have the child carry their rescue medication if they have one. Day-care and school personnel needs to be informed of what action to take when necessary.
  • Contact a physician when needed.
  • Check the daily air quality forecasts. If air pollution is high, the time your child spends playing outside should be limited. Plan any outdoor activities early in the day, when pollution levels are usually lower.
  • Outdoor activities ideally should take place as far as possible from areas where there is a lot of traffic and other sources of pollution.
  • Try to find a house and school not too close to a busy road or highway.
  • Ask your child’s school to pay attention to air pollution and encourage them to take appropriate measures, such as avoiding sports when air quality is poor. You could also talk to the school about indoor instead of outdoor sports during peaks in air pollution.

ELF-HEAL Children’s indoor air pollution factsheet

How can I help reduce air pollution?

As an individual, there are several things you can do to reduce pollution levels:

  • Avoid using your car as much as possible, especially for short distances. Try other modes of transport, like cycling, walking or using public transport. When you have no choice but to use your car, consider carpooling and car-sharing.
  • When using a car, adopt a style of driving that reduces emissions: reduce your speed and never drive above the speed limit, avoid heavy braking and rapid accelerating, and turn off your engine while stationary. Maintain your car and see to it that the engine and filters are in good condition. Regularly check your tire pressure.
  • Buy a less polluting car.
  • Plant a tree: trees clean the air, but remember the pollen risk for those with allergic rhinitis.
  • Reduce your energy consumption.
  • Buy locally produced products (for example vegetables and fruit) in order to reduce freight transport.
  • Don’t light a bonfire in your garden when air pollution levels are high. Never burn household waste, especially plastics and rubber.
  • Encourage your policymakers to take measures to diminish air pollution.

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