How does air pollution affect our health?

Air pollution appears to cause or contribute to a variety of health conditions. The effects of air pollution on a person’s health can range from mild breathing difficulties to severe cardiovascular issues, including heart disease and stroke.

Harmful gases and particles in the air come from a range of sources, including exhaust fumes from vehicles, smoke from burning coal or gas, and tobacco smoke.

There are ways to limit the effects of air pollution on health, such as avoiding areas with heavy traffic. However, significant change relies on improvements to air quality on a global scale.

In this article, we discuss how air pollution can affect a person’s health.

What is air pollution?

air pollutants coming out of a car exhaust pipe that may have negative health effects on the body
Avoiding areas with heavy traffic may help limit the effects of air pollution on health.

Air pollution consists of small particles that can be natural or artificial.

The range of possible pollutants means that air pollution can affect people both outdoors and indoors.

Outdoor air pollution consists of:

  • particles from burning coal and gas
  • harmful gases, such as nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxide
  • tobacco smoke
  • ground-level ozone

Indoor air pollution consists of:

  • household chemicals
  • harmful gases, such as carbon monoxide or radon
  • building materials, such as lead or asbestos
  • pollen
  • mold
  • tobacco smoke

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the pollutants that pose the highest risk to a person’s health are:

  • particulate matter (particle pollutants), which comprises suspended solids and liquid droplets
  • nitrogen dioxide
  • sulfur dioxide
  • ozone

Short-term exposure

Short-term exposure to air pollution, such as ground-level ozone, can affect the respiratory system because the majority of the pollutants enter the body through a person’s airways.

Short-term exposure to air pollution may lead to respiratory infections and reduced lung function. It may also aggravate asthma in people with this condition.

Exposure to sulfur dioxide may cause damage to the eyes and respiratory tract, as well as irritating the skin.

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