What Are the Health Effects of Air Pollution?
Air pollution is the black cloud belching from an industrial smokestack. It's the
smog that settles over certain cities, dimming the skyline. It's the smelly exhaust
of an old car that burns oil.
Air pollution also can be invisible, causing lung damage, cancer, or other serious
health problems in people who may not realize the potential danger of the unseen gases
or particles suspended in the air.
What are you breathing?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tracks 6 major air pollutants that
cause significant health effects: ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides,
carbon monoxide, lead, and microscopic particles called particulate matter. Both the
outside air and the air in your home or workplace can have these pollutants. The amount
of pollutant in the air and the length of time you are exposed to it determine how
the pollutant will affect you.
When you breathe in gases like carbon monoxide or nitrogen dioxide, the cells that
line the airways to the lungs absorb them. Once taken in, the gases can pass into
the bloodstream and travel to your internal organs, where they can cause damage. If
the pollution isn't absorbed into the blood stream, then damage can still be done
to the lungs themselves.
Large particles in the air are filtered out by cilia, the small hairs that line your
respiratory tract. Smaller particles, however, reach your airways and lungs. Particles
of all sizes also land on crops and in water and are eventually consumed by humans
and by animals that humans eat.
The effects of air pollution differ from person to person. A healthy adult who is
exposed to these pollutants for a short time or at low dose may not develop long-term
problems. For a person with a heart or respiratory condition, however, even a small
dose or a short exposure can make symptoms worse. Longer exposure or a higher dose
can lead to serious illness and, in some cases, death. Children and the elderly are
more susceptible to air pollution than others and can suffer the effects at lower
Air Quality Index
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a national index for 5 major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act:
ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen
dioxide. The index tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what you may experience
within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air.