Can Air Pollution Make You Sick?

In this article, we shall discuss whether air pollution can make you sick. Furthermore, we will cover topics such as the effect of air pollution on various body functions, which chemical species contribute to sickness felt when exposed to air pollution, which groups are at a higher risk, and how to avoid sickness caused from air pollution.

Can air pollution make you sick?

Yes, air pollution can make you sick. Depending upon the concentration and period of exposure to air pollution, one can have immediate issues such as difficulty in breathing, nausea, irritation in throat and nose, asthma, decreased lung function.

Air pollution can even have long-term effects such as pneumonia, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), stroke, heart diseases, lung cancer, and so on.

Studies show that exposure to air pollution not only does affect the cardiovascular system and the respiratory system, but can also have adverse effects on the neuropsychiatric system, skin, and in the case of pregnant women, it is shown to be linked with autism and genetic disorders in foetuses. 

Ambient (outdoor air) pollution in both cities and rural areas (transport, industrial  emissions,  household  coal fires,  incineration  of  waste,  etc)  was estimated to cause 3 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012. 

Some 88% of those premature deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and the greatest number in the WHO Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions.

What components of air pollution affect our health?

Air pollution refers to the presence of any undesired substance in the air. The toxicity of the pollutant primarily depends upon two factors – the exposure duration to the toxin, and the concentration of the toxin in the ambient air.

The toxins can exist as solid or liquid particles that are suspended in the air, or can simply be gaseous substances. 

They can originate from natural as well as anthropogenic activities, but numerous studies show that the rise of air pollution over the last few decades has been primarily due to human activities, such as combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, emissions from industries, and so on.

However, the following toxins play a vital role in affecting human health.

Ground level Ozone (O3)

Ozone is a gas that is formed by interaction of light with oxygen molecules. It is a vital gas in the upper atmosphere, where it blocks the harmful UV rays from entering the atmosphere.

However, when present at the ground level, it has negative implications on human health. 

The characteristic pungent odor of ozone can irritate the inner linings of the airways and can trigger an asthma attack. However, ozone is an unstable molecule, and it can attack the DNA, causing impairment of cellular function.

Various studies have shown that ozone can have adverse effects that include functional,morphologic, immunologic, and biochemical alterations. 

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)

Sulphur dioxide is a major air pollutant. It is released from natural sources such as volcanic activities, and from human activities such as combustion of fossil fuels and industrial emissions. 

Various studies have shown that children, old people, and people with preexisting respiratory illnesses are more prone to skin and lung diseases. 

Sulphur dioxide if present in excess can combine with precipitation to form ‘acid rain’, a phenomenon which severely affects humans and plants if exposed to it. 

SO2 acts as a sensory irritant, and can cause asthma or asthma-like symptoms such as elevated mucus secretion and bronchitis. It can also aggravate pre-existing cardiovascular diseases.

Carbon monoxide (CO)

CO is a gaseous compound formed due to incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and firewood.

CO is a serious pollutant, as  it forms a stable bond with haemoglobin (Hb), a compound present in our red blood cells (RBCs) which is responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to various tissues in our body. 

At lower concentrations, CO causes headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. However, at higher concentrations, it can cause issues such as hypoxia, ischemia, and can even cause death.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

NOx species refers to various compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen atoms in varying numbers.

These are a pollutant of concern, as they increase the risk of respiratory infection. NOx are primarily traffic-related pollutants, since they are emitted from vehicular exhausts.

Various studies have shown that NOx species, particularly NO2, are responsible for the onset of asthma in children and young adults.

A study showed that an increase in 20.4 parts per billion (ppb) was associated with a 67% increase in the risk of asthma-related school absence.

NOx species are deep lung irritants, and if exposed to higher concentrations, they can cause pulmonary edema.

Particulate Matter (PM)

PM refers to particles, either solid or liquid, that are mixed and suspended in the air. They are a major part of air pollutants, and have a variety of natural and anthropogenic sources. They usually range between 2.5 to 10 microns (PM10 and PM2.5).

Particulate matter is a major contributor to both long term and short term illnesses. There are many well-documented studies that have shown progression of illnesses with an increase in the concentration of PM. 

PM2.5 is of a major concern, as it can easily enter the lower respiratory tract, therefore causing more serious cardiac and respiratory issues.

Moreover, PM is also linked to premature deaths of people who had pre-existing health issues such as people with cardiac or respiratory issues, obesity, asthma, and so on.

They can also act as adsorbents, allowing various elements to be stuck to their surface, which in turn can prove more harmful when inhaled.

Other pollutants

Other pollutants include persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals. 

POPs are organic compounds that are resilient to ecological degradation, and persist in the environment for an extensive period of time. 

Some POPs are Dioxins, Furans, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), Polychlorinated biphenyl(PCB), Hexachlorobenzene (HCB), Chlordane, Aldrin etc.

Heavy metals refers to metallic substances that have an average density of more than 4g/cm. In Trace amounts, they are important for regulating metabolic functions, but in excess can be toxic.

They include substances such as mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, etc.

Both PoPs and heavy metals are magnified  as  they  move  up  through  the  food  chain  (biomagnification). Moreover, given their poor solubility in water, they can easily accumulate in the body (bioaccumulation), and cause serious health issues.

Effect of air pollution on various organ systems

Respiratory system

Respiratory system is most affected by air pollution, as it is directly exposed to the pollutants inhaled from the ambient air. If exposed for  a short duration, the effects can be mild such as irritation in the throat, running nose, wheezing, etc.

However, under conditions of elevated concentrations and/or long durations of exposure, there can be many serious issues such as COPD, lifelong asthma, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, cancer of the lungs, throat, or mouth, and so on. 


In addition to this, certain pollutants such as particulate matter, dust, benzene, and ozone can cause serious damage to the respiratory tract.

Cardiovascular system


Cardiovascular system is closely linked to the respiratory system, as both combined are responsible for transport of oxygen to various body tissues.

So, exposure of the respiratory system to air pollution can also have negative implications to the cardiovascular systems.

Various studies have linked the onset of cardiovascular diseases to exposure to air pollution. Exposure to air pollution has also shown to affect the white blood cell (WBC) count. 

Moreover, a study done to investigate the association of acute, short-term exposure to air air pollution to heart failure (myocardial infarction) hospitalisation and mortality showed that air pollution, particularly O3, SO2, CO, NOx, and PM are pervasive public health issue with adverse health consequences.

Nervous system


Air pollution also has negative implications on the nervous system. Studies show that exposure to air pollution can cause neurological issues and psychiatric imbalances. 

Some studies found out that incidences of criminal activity, inappropriate behaviour, anxiety, aggression, are reported more for cities which have air pollution.

In the long term exposure, links to diseases such as Parkinson’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and so on were found with air pollution.

Skin

Skin is the largest organ of the human body. It serves many purposes, such as regulation of body temperature, protection from injuries, and excretion of certain toxins along with sweat. 

However, recent studies show that exposure to air pollution can impair the skin’s functions and can cause issues such as pigmentation, premature aging, and so on.

The presence of certain organic substances such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), etc. can also be absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream.

Some of these pollutants are carcinogenic in nature, and can manifest in the form of melanoma or skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer, yet very dangerous if not caught early.

FAQs

How do I stay safe when going outdoors?

The following methods help to keep you safe from the adverse effects of outdoor air pollution 

Avoid polluted places and places prone to pollution

It would be wise to refrain from going to polluted places such as areas which are prone to traffic congestion, industrial areas, and so on. 

Use a face mask when going to polluted areas

There would be circumstances where it is impossible to go to an area which is polluted. In such cases, it would be wise to wear a face mask, particularly N95 masks, as they are efficient in blocking out particulate matter and certain gaseous pollutants that would have adverse effects on your health.

How can I keep my indoor air clean?

An average American spends 93% of their total life indoors. 87% of their life is inside buildings, then another 6% of their life is in automobiles. 

Over the last several years, a significant amount of scientific reports provide evidence of air pollution inside buildings and homes, referred to as indoor air pollution (IAP), which is more serious than outdoor air pollution, even in industrialised cities and metropolitan areas. 

Thus, a person has a higher health risk from indoor air pollution than from outdoor air pollution. The best way to deal with IAP is by the following methods:

Improving ventilation of the house, which would help to dilute the indoor air pollution level by introducing outdoor air, and carry the pollutants out of the house. Furthermore, you can install exhaust fans at your windows or in the central air ducts to improve the efficiency of ventilation.

Using an air dehumidifier to reduce the relative humidity of the home. A high humidity level can promote the growth of mold and mildews, which give rise to spores, which can cause issues such as wheezing, irritation in the throat, difficulty in breathing, asthma, etc.

Avoid smoking or combustion of fuels inside the house, as these processes adversely affect the indoor air quality. Cigarette smoke contains several toxins, which can act as irritants to the airway and affect the respiration system, thereby triggering an asthma attack.

You can invest in an air purifier. The best method for reducing PM concentrations is by using an air purifier. Depending upon the size of the basement, an adequate air purifier should be used. 


Air purifiers with HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters are best suited for indoor purposes. The presence of an activated charcoal filter and a UV light further increases the efficiency of the filters.

Other FAQs about Air quality that you may be interested in.

How is the air quality in the Philippines?

How is the air quality in Yosemite?

Can my workplace have poor air quality?

References

  • Valavanidis, Athanasios & Vlachogianni, Thomais & Fiotakis, Konstantinos. (2016). Air Pollution as a Significant Cause of Diseases and Premature Death. Ambient Air Pollution in Urban Areas and Indoor Air Pollution are Associated with Adverse Health Effects and Premature Mortality. Website: www.chem-tox-ecotox.org, Scientific Reports. 1. 1-41.
  • Goswami, Meera & Mansotra, Dalip & Sharma, Shivalika & Pant, Gaurav & Joshi, Prakash. (2020). EFFECTS OF AIR POLLUTION ON HUMAN HEALTH.
  • Ghorani azam, Adel & Riahi-Zanjani, Bamdad & Balali-Mood, Mahdi. (2016). Effects of air pollution on human health and practical measures for prevention in Iran. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. 21. 10.4103/1735-1995.189646.

Web References

Air Pollution and Your Health: 

https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/air-pollution/index.cfm

Is air pollution making you sick? 4 questions answered:

https://theconversation.com/is-air-pollution-making-you-sick-4-questions-answered-91605

How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health:

https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/how-smoke-fires-can-affect-your-health

How air pollution is destroying our health:

https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/how-air-pollution-is-destroying-our-health

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