Environmental Toxins from Air Pollution Responsible for Increased Respiratory Illnesses


Many people know that the air we breathe is important, but why? Air pollution may sometimes be invisible, but it can leave a significant imprint on human health. Evidence shows that environmental toxins caused by air pollution can impact human health in more ways than previously imagined.

According to a recent report published by the American Lung Association’s State of Air report, two types of pollution are dominant in the U.S.: ozone and particle pollution. These two pollutants threaten the health and lives of millions of Americans. 

Today, pollution levels in many areas of the United States exceed national air quality standards for at least one of the six common pollutants. Although particle pollution levels and ground-level ozone pollution are substantially lower than in the past, levels are unhealthy in numerous areas of the country. Both pollutants result from emissions from diverse sources and travel long distances and across state lines.

Long-Term Exposure

An extensive body of scientific evidence shows that long- and short-term exposures to fine particle pollution, also known as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), can cause premature death and harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for heart attacks and strokes. Scientific evidence also links PM to harmful respiratory effects, including asthma attacks.

Ozone can increase the frequency of asthma attacks, cause shortness of breath, aggravate lung diseases, and cause permanent damage to the lungs through long-term exposure. Elevated ozone levels are linked to increases in hospitalizations, emergency room visits and premature death. Both pollutants cause environmental damage, and fine particles impair visibility.

Fine particles can be emitted directly or formed from gaseous emissions, including sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. Ozone, a colorless gas, is created when emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react.

Admissions for Respiratory Illness

For unhealthy peak levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, EPA is working with states and others on ways to determine where and how often unhealthy peaks occur. Both pollutants cause multiple adverse respiratory effects, including increased asthma symptoms and increased emergency department visits and hospital admissions for respiratory illness. Both pollutants cause environmental damage and are byproducts of fossil fuel combustion.

 Airborne lead pollution, a nationwide health concern before EPA phased out lead in motor vehicle gasoline under Clean Air Act authority, now meets national air quality standards except in areas near certain extensive lead-emitting industrial facilities. Lead is associated with neurological effects in children, such as behavioral problems, learning deficits and lowered IQ, and high blood pressure and heart disease in adults. The entire nation meets the carbon monoxide air quality standards, largely because of new motor vehicles’ emissions standards under the Clean Air Act.

Here are the ten most common health risks from breathing polluted air:

  1. Premature death: Science shows that both short-term and long-term exposure to unhealthy air can shorten your life and lead to premature death. Medical experts have known about this risk for decades —remember our blog about the great smog event depicted in ““The Crown””?
  2. Asthma attacks: Breathing ozone and particle pollution can lead to increased asthma attacks, resulting in visits to the emergency room and hospital admissions, not to mention missed work and school.
  3. Cardiovascular disease: Air pollution can increase the risk of both heart attacks and stroke.
  4. Lung cancer: In 2013, the World Health Organization determined that particle pollution can cause lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S.
  5. Developmental damage: Exposure to air pollution can slow and stunt lung development in growing children, harming their health now and reducing their lung function as adults.
  6. Susceptibility to infections: Air pollution increases the risk of lung infections, especially in children.
  7. Worsened COPD symptoms: Exposure to air pollution can make it even harder for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to breathe. Severe symptoms can lead to hospitalization and even death.
  8. Lung tissue swelling and irritation: Even people with healthy lungs are susceptible to irritation and swelling. These effects can be especially harmful to those living with chronic lung diseases, such as asthma and COPD.
  9. Low infant birth weight: Some studies show exposure to air pollution may increase the risk of low infant birth weight and infant mortality.
  10. Wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath: Like many of the other conditions in this list, these can be caused by both long-term exposure and short-term exposure to high levels of air pollutants.

The list doesn’t end here. For example, new research is uncovering links between the air we breathe and mental health concerns. The more scientists look at this invisible threat, the more they find that air pollution poses a serious threat to our nation’s health.

People’s health risk from air pollution varies widely depending on age, where they live, their underlying health, and other factors. Many studies show that people with lower socioeconomic status and minority populations are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and are more vulnerable to adverse health impacts. Data from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) show disparities in heart and lung disease by age, race/ethnicity, income level, and geography.

Populations most at risk of health problems related to air pollution:

  • People with lung diseases, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Infants and young children
  • People who work or exercise outdoors
  • Adults over 65
  • People with cardiovascular disease
  • People in poverty; people who lack access to health care
  • People who smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke
  • People working in occupations where there is high exposure to contaminated air
  • People who spend a lot of time near busy roadways

Air quality in Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro area currently meets standards. Still, even low and moderate air pollution levels can contribute to serious health effects and early death for these groups.

Studies have shown that people who live, work, or attend school near major roadways have an increased incidence and severity of health problems, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, low birth weight, pre-term newborns, reduced lung function and impaired lung development in children, and premature death.



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