Impacts of Air Pollution on Animals

The below article talks about air pollution, air quality, impacts of air pollution on animals, along with some frequently asked questions about the impacts of air pollution on animals. 

Does air pollution have an impact on animals?

Just like the impacts, humans would face due to air pollution, animals too face serious impacts as a result of prolonged exposure to poor air quality. The most common health effects observed amongst animals due to poor air quality are birth defects, increased rates of diseases, lower reproductive rates, etc. (Rutledge K., 2011). 

About Air Pollution 

Air pollution is a result of multiple sources of emissions globally, that let out toxic airborne pollutants into the atmosphere, which has the potential to harm human, animal, and plant health. It causes severe damage to surrounding habitats and ecosystems and can take various forms such as pollutants in solid, liquid, or gaseous states. Air pollution is majorly produced by mindless anthropological activities such as industrial emissions, smoking, vehicular emissions, burning of waste, usage of chemical agents that emit volatile organic compounds, etc. There are environmental reasons such as volcanoes or wildfires, that contribute to poor quality, as well; however, there are increasing rates of these environmental disasters being triggered by careless activities of humans. 

WHO estimates that about 99% of the global population lives in areas that far surpass the set standards for air quality and most of these populations are from lower or middle-income countries. Air pollution is vastly observed in developing countries and larger cities, where emissions are not considered of prime importance, and economic development is considered over environmental protection. 

It is in such cases that animals and other ecosystems are disturbed as their habitats are being destroyed in our greed for profits. As countries promote deforestation for new infrastructures or lease out protected lands for extractive industries, we are providing private and public actors with the permission to destroy these habitats, which have chronic impacts on the sustenance of animals and increase the human-wildlife conflict. 

Air Pollution and Animals 

Effects of air pollution on animals have been researched for years, and various studies show that the impacts observed vary across the species observed and the habitat in which they live. Air pollution has been found to cause respiratory illnesses, cancer, and even death amongst animals. The sections coming up will talk in brief about some impacts observed in animals due to air pollution. 

Air pollution and animal health

Just as air pollution has impacts on human health, it is the same for animal health. The only challenge is that it is harder to diagnose such cases as diseases in animals develop over long periods of time and may not be easily identified. Studies have shown that toxic emissions from vehicles, factories, industries, etc. have impacts on the respiratory systems of animals, leading to increased difficulties in breathing during their adulthood. It has been reported that exposure to toxic airborne pollutants has often altered genetics and caused mutations and cancer amongst some animals. The most vulnerable animals to these effects are species that live close to human settlements and man-made roads. Not only does this destruct their natural habitat and behaviors, but it also drastically reduces their life spans, causing for extinction or threat for extinction amongst various species such as pandas, tigers, koalas, etc. 

Exposure to toxic pollutants affects reproductive systems, thus adding another dangerous element to the threat of extinction and increased risks and possibilities of infertility or disabilities. Animal immune systems are compromised at the face of man-made pollutants, thus making them immunocompromised and it puts them at an increased risk for any form of illness. The most deadly of these is respiratory illnesses such as ashtma, bronchitis, and even cancer. The impact of air pollution is much worse on animals as diseases onset slowly and animals do not have the kind of systems that humans do to help them with their health concerns. This reason specifically makes it more dangerous for animals to be exposed to air pollution as they could develop serious conditions such as leukemia, neurological disorders, heart diseases, brain damage, etc. and it would never be diagnosed or treated. 

Animal health risks and vulnerabilities 

Animals are more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses than humans as they have more sensitive respiratory systems. Animals require clean air for survival, and therefore their respiratory systems overwork to compensate for the lack of clean air. The effects of pollution in animals would vary from species to species but the effects of exposure are harmful nonetheless. Animals are quite often sensitive to changes in air quality, and usually display some symptoms that denote a decline in their health due to air pollution, some of these symptoms include (Sam, 2021):

  • Eye irritation and infections 
  • Nosebleeds 
  • Inflammation of the lung tissue, characterized by bouts of coughing; and increased breathing difficulties 
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased rates of asthma attacks 
  • Liver damage, especially when animals do not have access to clean sources of water
  • Loss of sense of smell, especially amongst animals that use it to find food such as sea turtles or whales
  • Decreased abilities to do their daily activities such as foraging for food or flying. 

Long-term health impacts

Effects of air pollution on animals could also cause long-term damage to their health. Lung damage is the most commonly observed chronic impact and is found most commonly in birds. Pollutants are able to enter respiratory systems and lodge in the lung tissues, causing inflammation and leading to severe health effects including lung cancer, asthma, or bronchitis. Similarly, pollutants can lead to increased cardiac stress amongst animals and can be usually observed through their increased blood pressures. This could be attributed to two factors, either their respiratory systems having to work overtime for clean air is stressing their cardiovascular system, or the pollutants that have entered their body is creating a blockage with a possible rupture in their arteries, and due to the lack of sufficient oxygen, their hearts are having to take extra work to meet the body’s needs. 

Just as humans face inflammation when in contact with toxic pollutants, so do animals. Several researchers have observed that animals have inflammations of their eyes, nose, skin, etc. on exposure to air pollution. This inflammation is their body’s response to fighting the new pollutant that has entered their body, thus causing an allergic response in their system, causing inflammation. 

Commonly observed impacts 

Below are some impacts observed on different kinds of animals due to air pollution:

  • On Pets: Studies show that pets face an increased risk for tumors when there is prolonged exposure to harmful airborne pollutants. Increased particulate matter concentration has been found to cause increased cardiac arrests n dogs, and there is an increasingly alarming trend of veterinarians attributing pet deaths to the effects of air pollution. 
  • On Amphibians: Studies on amphibians have found that air pollution has triggered changes in their physiology and behaviors. An increase in ozone concentrations impairs their immune systems and makes them vulnerable to illnesses. 
  • On Birds: There are a number of studies being conducted on birds, specifically to identify the impacts of air pollution. These studies have reported that birds are directly impacted due to air pollution, specifically those caused by emissions from factories and industries that emit larger particulate matter that is capable of damaging a birds’ respiratory system. It has also been found that the increase in pH of water bodies has also reduced their preying activities as species are being killed due to increased environmental degradation, and food for them becomes scarce. 
  • On Fish: Marine ecosystems are largely affected by air pollution, especially since waterbodies are capable of acting as carbon sinks, and due to the fact that increased air pollution causes increased risks for acid rains. Both of these factors contribute to ocean acidification, threatening the very sustenance of marine ecosystems, and severely destroying natural habitats. Changes in the properties of water have also caused for relocation of several native marine species and have thus contributed to the decrease in the number of these species. 
  • On Insects: Insects are extremely susceptible to small changes, and this includes air pollution. Insects rely on crops and other insects for their food, and bioaccumulation of toxic pollutants causes an impact on their health, leading to adverse impacts on their health. While insects are more resilient than birds and other animals, these changes will eventually force insects to relocate from their native habitats in order to survive. Their resilient characteristics have stemmed from their ability to digest organic waste, and if they were forced to relocate or if they were to go extinct, it would cause an organic waste buildup. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Does air pollution have an impact on animals?

Are animals able to adapt to increasing levels of pollution?

Yes, over the years animals have adapted to anthropological changes that have occurred around them, causing them to modulate their behaviors and activities to suit the changes they observe every day. We can see this behavior amongst almost all kinds of species, from raccoons who scavenge for food from our waste to monkeys recognizing food amongst humans and raiding spots in search of food. Therefore, it is inevitable that animals would have to take some form of action to get away from pollution, this would be through relocating from their natural habitat, changing their predatory activities, shrinking their habitats, etc. just so that they can survive. Often the lack of clean water bodies and loss of their habitats often force them to relocate to other areas, during which there is increased wildlife-human conflict, leading to a large number of deaths amongst animals. Over time, scientists have observed more resilient genetics amongst animals, that make it capable for them to survive these changes caused by pollution. 

Could animals survive climate change?

Yes, there are several studies being conducted on observable changes amongst different species, as triggered by climate change. These studies being conducted to recognize evolutionary practices, have forced researchers to identify why these changes are being made, and it was reported that most changes are being triggered by their bodies’ need for adaptive measures to survive climate change, this could be through larger ears, beaks, legs, etc. They are changing their body characteristics to adapt to the needs of their local climate. More information on this can be found in the following article (Franklin J., 2021). 

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

Checking AQI before exercising outdoors

Atmospheric Pressure: What do you need to know?

Advantages and Disadvantages of Air Pollution


Franklin J. (2021, September 09). Climate Change is making some species of animals shape-shift. National Public Radio (NPR). Viewed on 12-22-2021.  

Hull R. W. (2011). How does air pollution affect animals? Mothers and Others for Clean Air. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

Oosthoek S. (2017, April 06). Cities drive animals and plants to evolve. Science News for Students. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

Rutledge K., Ramroop T., Boudreau D., McDaniel M., Teng S., Sprout E., Costa H., Hall H., & Hunt J. (2011, April 04). Air Pollution. Resource Library. Encyclopedic Entry. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

Sam. (2021, June 26). 10 deadly effects of air pollution on animals. Eco Mastery Project. Viewed on 12-22-2021. 

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