Ways Air Pollution Can Affect Your Health

Even those of us who live in the most pristine environments can be affected by air pollution. The effects from air pollution can occur whether you live in a smoggy, highly polluted environment or are just exposed to particulate matter over a short period of time. Both short-term and long-term exposure to pollutants can affect your overall state of health. In many cases, the ways in which air pollution affects our health can be via life-altering diseases. Frighteningly, you can even sustain complications from indoor air pollution. 

While many of the factors that contribute to health effects by way of air pollution are dictated by where you live and what you do for a living, there are certain inevitabilities about life — one of those being that we will all come in contact with pollutants, likely on a daily basis. To decrease your exposure in accessible ways, you can check the Air Quality Index (AQI) to make sure it is safe to be outside for long periods of time. You can also reduce your exposure by ensuring that you keep as much space as possible between your body and car exhaust, wood smoke, tobacco smoke, and other obvious pollutants. Driving less populated roads and closing your windows while you drive near diesel vehicles is another way to start protecting yourself. 

Still, even after taking these actions, air pollution can influence our health in more ways than you might imagine (via the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency). 

What is air pollution, exactly?

When we think about pollution, it is pretty easy to think about the thick smoke that billows out of smokestacks (or the general haze that blankets Los Angeles on most days). But there is more to pollution than just that which we can see. 

Pollution exists on a microscopic level as well, which makes it pretty ubiquitous and unavoidable. These pollutants, most of which are emitted by way of fossil fuels, can move into our respiratory and circulatory systems and have severely detrimental effects on our health (via the World Health Organization). "Fossil fuel" refers to a source of energy derived from prehistoric organic matter. Unfortunately, just because the raw materials are harvested from the earth doesn't mean that they are eco-friendly after processing. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. 

Fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil are the main sources of environmental pollutants. According to National Geographic, 81% of the energy used in the United States comes from fossil fuels, and they are responsible for almost 75% of the emissions humanity has created in the last 20 years. Because humans rely so heavily on nonrenewable fossil fuels for energy, scientists are in quite a pickle as they try to race against environmental destruction in order to save both the planet and humanity's collective health. 

Air pollution can increase systemic inflammation

A study conducted and published by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine concluded that urban air pollution — specifically in Taipei, Taiwan — is strongly linked to inflammation and oxidative stress, even within healthy bodies. Moreover, the researchers found that blood coagulation and autonomic dysfunction were negatively affected by pollutants emitted via traffic.

While superficially, inflammation may not seem like a huge risk factor, existing in a chronically inflamed state takes its toll on the body — and this often presents as your body becoming a breeding ground for cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and others. Inflammation is your body's way of defending against foreign invaders. When it is acute and this system is functioning properly, it helps keep you safe, healthy, and alive. However, when inflammation becomes chronic, that is when more irreparable health complications begin to mount (via WebMD). 

Constantly inhaling pollutants, especially those emitted from traffic (we are looking at you, LA), is likely to leave you at an increased risk of pollutant-induced complications. In fact, the World Health Organization states that nine out of every ten people are currently breathing polluted air. 

Respiratory diseases are a common side effect of dirty air

As you can probably guess, one of the hardest hit systems within our bodies is our respiratory system. After all, our lungs are ground zero for air exchange; hence, they end up taking the brunt of the trauma inflicted by constantly inhaling polluted air. There is plenty of evidence to show how aggressively ambient air pollution can wreak havoc on our lungs. It can create issues like emphysema, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and chronic bronchitis, to name a few (via the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences). 

A study published by JAMA found that over a ten-year period, exposure to certain ambient pollutants was shown to increase incidences of emphysema and decrease overall lung function. Unfortunately, the main pollution-related cause of these respiratory ailments is simply the inhalation of fine particulate matter. In many cases, avoiding such a thing seems nearly impossible. Between the near-ubiquitous smog and the fine particulate matter circulating in the atmosphere, we wonder if any breath we take can really be as clean as our bodies desire. Inhaling pollutants can lead to plain old irritation in the lungs, but over the long term, that irritation can develop into serious respiratory illnesses (via the Respiratory Health Association).

Asthma attacks are way too common as a result of pollution

Beyond just broad-spectrum "respiratory issues," asthma is hugely linked to environmental levels of air pollution. Asthma is a respiratory disease in which your airways experience inflammation. The inflammation can make it really difficult to breathe, or it can inhibit breathing altogether. While there are varying degrees of severity when it comes to asthma, one factor is not up for debate: Air pollutants definitely exacerbate the symptoms of asthma, and can even lead to more frequent asthma attacks (per Healthline). 

Ozone pollution, which is typically what we call smog, can greatly affect the lungs of people who have asthma. Ozone particle concentration is said to have a direct connection to asthma attacks (via the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America). Ozone pollution reduces lung function, which leads to more serious complications in people who already having trouble breathing because of asthma. Other small particles that are not necessarily ozone pollution can aggravate the lungs as well, spelling disaster for people with asthma. Both short-term and long-term exposure can have these detrimental effects on our bodies. 

Chronic bronchitis is also really widespread

Your bronchial tubes are responsible for transporting air in and out of your lungs. Bronchitis occurs when these airways become inflamed — and when the inflammation lasts for more than three months, it becomes chronic. 

When your airways are under this much pressure, they become a minefield of sticky mucus that further inhibits your capacity to breathe normally. The mucus doesn't just live there, though. Your body tries to expel it by coughing. Beyond that, people who have chronic or acute bronchitis may find themselves wheezing, struggling to catch their breath while performing mundane tasks, or even experiencing chest pain (via Healthline). 

All of the studies performed on this specific topic point to chronic bronchitis being more prevalent in areas that have more particulate pollution, though this seems to be a more common occurrence in women than in men. More studies are underway to determine how gender relates to urban pollutant exposure. However, both men and women are affected when the particulate matter of their environment reaches a certain threshold (per Occupational and Environmental Medicine). 

Autoimmune issues may be linked to air pollution

Since inflammation as a result of air pollution is fairly standard, more research studying the link between air pollution and autoimmune diseases is emerging. The phrase "autoimmune diseases" is am umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of diseases. In general, autoimmune diseases are classified this way because the body ignites an immune response based on something that it perceives as an invader. This systemic immune response leads to the body attacking its own healthy cells, which can elicit widespread inflammation. 

While the exact mechanisms have yet to be discovered, much of the link between air pollution and autoimmune diseases is thought to be attributed to oxidative stress and the inflammation caused by frequent immune reactions. In mice, ambient pollution created conditions ideal for the development of autoimmune diseases (via Science Direct). While it might be a while before we find out whether this is totally true in human bodies, much of the emerging research suggests a strong link between air pollution and incidences of autoimmune diseases. 

Your risk of heart disease can increase as a result of pollution

While it takes a little bit of critical thinking to consider how fine particulate matter can invade and mess with your cardiovascular system, it kind of makes sense since everything is so connected within the body. Inhaling pollution day in and day out can inhibit the functionality of your blood vessels, and actually speed up the hardening of plaque inside of your arteries. The narrowing of arteries due to plaque is one of the main causes of heart disease. This narrowing is a side effect usually pinned on the over-consumption of "bad" cholesterol-laden foods. Interestingly, inhaling pollutants has even been shown to lower the amount of "good" cholesterol within your body. 

Pregnant women are at increased risk when it comes to pollution because of how it can affect blood pressure (via the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences). In some cases, the volatile swings in blood pressure can have catastrophic impacts on the health of both the mother and the fetus. Menopausal women are also at an increased risk of cardiovascular complications as a result of exposure to air pollution. With too much exposure, the risk of menopausal women experiencing a hemorrhagic stroke rises.

If you have COPD, air pollution can make your symptoms worse

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, can be loosely defined as inflammation in the lungs (via the Journal of Thoracic Disease). This inflammation can often inhibit one's ability to breathe properly, creating a host of other systemic issues in the body. People who have COPD are at a heightened risk of complications due to air pollution when compared to people with ultra-healthy lungs. In fact, air pollution can make COPD worse and increase the mortality rate associated with it. Some pollutants have worse effects than others, and this is dependent upon locations and seasons.

To protect yourself if you have COPD, it is recommended that you check the AQI before spending time outside. You should also be mindful of how much of your time is spent outdoors. By wearing masks when necessary and decreasing indoor pollutants, people who have COPD will be able to breathe quite a bit easier. 

Air pollution has mental health repercussions

Beyond just thinking that smoggy skies are unpleasant from an aesthetic standpoint, living under a densely grey sky can have mental health consequences. 

One study by JAMA Psychiatry set out to determine whether there is a bond between the amount of pollution one is exposed to and the amount of psychotic experiences they have. While this study specifically focused on adolescents, the researchers remind us that urbanicity "is a well-established risk factor for clinical (eg, schizophrenia) and subclinical (eg, hearing voices and paranoia) expressions of psychosis."

Throughout the course of the study, they found that psychotic experiences were more common among the adolescents who were exposed to more pollution, specifically the kind that exists in urban environments. In the conclusion, this study states that many of the other factors that were assessed were shown to have no impact. This includes things such as socioeconomic status, substance dependence, and crime (via JAMA Psychiatry). 

Air pollution can increase your anxiety levels

Beyond psychotic experiences in adolescents, air pollution can also impact your anxiety levels, too. One study found that inhaling an increased amount of particulate matter, especially recently in relation to the time of the study, increased levels of anxiety and other feelings associated with it. These include fearfulness and a desire for avoidance, both of which can exacerbate a person's already anxious disposition. 

While more research definitely needs to be conducted to thoroughly establish the link, many researchers follow this train of thought back to inflammation and oxidative stress. Both of these factors have been observed to have an effect on a person's disposition. Specifically, oxidative stress and inflammation have been found to increase anxiety. The same researchers theorize that reducing one's exposure to air pollution and particulate matter is likely to decrease their level of anxiety, which makes sense if you think about it (via the Harvard School of Publich Health). 

Cancer rates increase in polluted areas

Cancer seems to be more widespread than ever right now — and according to a multitude of research, pollution is only bolstering those figures. 

Aerosols and paint removers both release fumes that contribute to pollution, both of which have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Women living near oft-traveled highways have been shown to have higher rates of breast cancer than those who don't, with the belief being that the noxious emissions from so many vehicles are to blame (via the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences).

But it isn't just breast cancer risk that increases with exposure to pollution. Other cancers have been linked to pollutant exposure as well. One of the chemical compounds found in gasoline has been linked to leukemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is cancer that invades the lymph system in the body. One study even found a commonality between lung cancer and the reliance of electrical plants on coal-burning for fuel. 

Low infant birth weights can be caused by air pollution

We know that pollution can have severe consequences on pregnant women and the fetuses they carry, but air pollution can affect more than just the mother's blood pressure. 

Air pollution has also been studied in conjunction with how it relates to infant birth weight, and the results are startling. Exposure to air pollution significantly increases the likelihood of an infant being underweight at birth. One study found that air pollution increased the chances of an infant weighing less than 2,500 grams, the equivalent of 5.5 pounds. This is on the low end of the average spectrum when it comes to infant birth weights (per the University of Michigan Health). 

Babies that are born at a lower weight often have a tougher time adapting to life in the outside world (via Cedars-Sinai). They are typically born with less body fat and less strength than babies with a bit more meat on their teeny, tiny bones. This, in tandem with their less-than-stellar ability to eat and gain weight, leaves them more vulnerable to infections and myriad other complications.

It can also cause developmental damage

The potential damage done to babies in utero by air pollution doesn't end in utero, unfortunately.

A mounting body of evidence suggests that air pollutant exposure while in the womb and throughout childhood can negatively impact development. The extent of what air pollution can do to the development of a child's brain is vast. Some studies suggest that pollution can change the structure of a child's brain, while others have concluded that pollution can lead to developmental disorders such as ADD/ADHD and even autism. While this study is quick to state that there are likely multiple pathways involved in such brain development complications, oxidative stress and inflammation likely play a role, as does the disruption of the endocrine system.

The researchers also indicate that we have recently seen an increase in developmental disorders, which follows the upward trend of the amount of pollution we are all exposed to on a daily basis.

Children are disproportionately affected

Unfortunately, air pollution tends to affect children's health more than any other demographic. Children have been shown to have disproportionate complications as a result of air pollution. 

Air pollution in children has been linked to short-term respiratory sicknesses, which in turn may prevent them from attending their classes (via the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences). Children who already have asthma are more sensitive to particulate matter, and are thus more likely to suffer from symptoms of bronchitis. Moreover, children who live in areas that experience high traffic are more likely to develop asthma than those that grow up farther from busy roads. Additionally, living in polluted areas can increase a child's risk of lung-related issues in the future. 

To make matters worse, even kids who play sports aren't protected from these pollution-related perils. Despite the positive health impacts of staying active and playing sports, kids who grew up playing sports in locations marked by high levels of ozone pollution are more likely to develop asthma than those who play in less urban areas.