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Air pollution is essentially poisoned gas we’ve pumped into the atmosphere for everyone to breathe, and while the concentrations usually aren’t enough to kill you outright (though many people DO drop dead of heart attacks, asthma attacks or strokes triggered by air pollution), breathing in these poisons at low concentrations over extended periods of time can harm your body in numerous ways. Air pollution has been linked to a number of adverse health effects:

  • Asthma (the #1 health complication from air pollution)
  • An increase in allergies
  • Lung cancer
  • Low birthweight
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Pediatric cancer
  • Respiratory infections


These adverse health effects have been found “down to the lowest levels (of air pollution) we can measure,” says Michael Brower, professor of environmental health at the University of British Columbia. (Worland, 2016)

The health consequences of air pollution

Few people truly appreciate just how harmful air pollution can be, even when exposed at relatively low doses and over short periods of time. But there’s plenty to be worried about.

  • Worldwide, around 7 million people die each year because of air pollution, and it is directly implicated in about 1 in every 8 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. (Gardner & Szabo, 2015)
  • It’s estimated that in China alone, around 1 million people die prematurely each year from the toxic inhalation of tiny airborne specks. (Raloff, 7-18-2009)
  • Some studies have suggested that free radicals created from car exhaust, smokestacks, and even your neighbor’s barbeque could be as harmful as smoking. (Castelvecchi, 2008)
  • Increases in air pollution result in shorter life expectancy. (Pope, Ezzati & Dockery, 2009)
  • Both kids and adults in polluted areas have losses in their sense of smell. (Raloff, 2010)
  • It’s estimated that around ½ of New Belhi’s 4.4 million children now have irreversible lung damage. (McKibben, 2017)


Here is an overview of the most common adverse effects from air pollution. Additional information on the health effects of each specific type of air pollution can be found in our e-book, Toxic Childhood.

Air pollution & DNA damage

Like all poisonous chemical exposures, air pollution can trigger genetic changes and damage cellular DNA. It’s been found that particles of hydrocarbons contained in soot along with other airborne contaminants can initiate cancerous DNA and chromosomal changes in human cells. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 55) A study in an Italian foundry found that exposure to particulate air pollutants can alter DNA in as little as 3 days. (Discover, Magazine, July/Aug. 2009, p. 12)

Lung & respiratory problems related to air pollution

All types of air pollution are hard on the lungs. First, there’s the size problem. Soot particles can be as small as 2.5 microns (about 1/100th the width of a human hair) which means they can be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing serious problems. (Etzel, 1999) Then there’s the toxicity issue: some of these gases and particles are poisonous in their own right. “The air is filled with contaminants that are so severe,” says Caroline Myss, Ph.D., “that living in major cities, such as Los Angeles or New York, has the same impact on the human lung as smoking one pack of cigarettes per day.” (Myss & Shealy, 1993, p. 371)

“Many of the compounds in smog are irritating to the respiratory tract,” states Dr. Andrew Weil. “I have no doubt that worsening air pollution is the major cause of worldwide increases in asthma and bronchitis as well as a contributing cause to the rising incidence of chronic sinusitis, respiratory allergies, emphysema, and lung cancer.” (Weil, 1995, p. 157) Asthma complications are considered to be the most common respiratory symptom of air pollution, and not only can toxic air worsen asthma symptoms, it can actually cause the disease to begin with. (Denworth, 2013) Air pollution is the primary cause of 15-25% of hospitalizations and other respiratory illnesses among asthmatic children. (Stevens & Malte, 2015)

Air pollution & heart health

Air pollution is bad for your heart as well. Scientists in one study found signs of inflammation and heart rhythm disturbances in 23 healthy young volunteers who briefly inhaled elevated levels of ozone, the primary irritant in urban smog. (Raloff, 7-28-2012) Meanwhile, a 10-year study published in 2016 found that air pollution seems to accelerate the type of harmful deposits in arteries that are the root cause of nearly all heart attacks and most strokes. (Hopkins, 9-29-2016)

Some studies suggest air pollution causes as much as 25-35% of strokes and heart attacks in adults 65 and older. (Stevens & Malte, 2015) One study found that the risk of heart attack increases 5% within days of exposure to polluted air. Even air that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for our health can boost the risk of stroke as much as 34% within 12 to 14 hours of exposure. (Park, 2-27-2012)

Skin damage from air pollution

If all the other dire health consequences from air pollution didn’t move you, this one might: air pollution can make you look older. As dermatologist Arash Mostaghimi, M.D., says, “There are clear data that airborne particulate matter has an association with more dark spots on your skin and a slight increase in the number of wrinkles.” A 2010 German study found that city dwellers had 22% more hyperpigmentation and wrinkles than those in the country. (Mechling, 2016)

Air pollution’s impact on human health

With such significant consequences at stake, even small changes in the amount of pollution put in our atmosphere can have a significant impact on human health. In a 2011 study, researchers at Harvard University quantified the damage caused by traffic congestion (not traffic in general, but merely the added impact of idle cars stuck in traffic) and determined that the USA’s 83 largest urban areas led to more than 2,200 premature deaths and $18 billion in extra health care costs in 2010. Yet “our estimates of the total public health cost of traffic congestion in the U.S. are likely conservative,” wrote the researchers from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, “in that they consider only the impacts in 83 urban areas and only the cost of related mortality and not the costs that could be associated with related morbidity – health care, insurance, accidents and other factors. (Copeland, 5-26-2011)

Yet even such quantifications in economic terms don’t do the problem justice. As Lisle Millay Stevens and Thomas Malte (2015, p. 34) state, “For each serious health event caused by air pollution, there are many more individuals who have symptoms related to air pollution that limit their activities, cause school and work absences and reduce their quality of life.” It’s high time we start giving this issue our full attention.


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