Health Effects of Air Pollution

You can live a few weeks without food and a couple of days without water, but you’ll only make it a matter of minutes without air. Our air quality is declining all over the world due to increased particulate pollution from industry, transport, and energy usage— and some areas are more affected than others. In cities like Beijing, air pollutions masks are the norm while in other urban areas, we’re just beginning to see increased rates of respiratory illnesses tied to air pollution.

What Is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a mixture of solid particles and gases present in the air we breathe. When we think of air pollution in the United States, we usually think of man-made sources, like vehicle emissions and industrial chemicals, but it can also come from natural sources like pollen, wildfires, and mold spores.

What Are the Health Effects of Air Pollution?

Air pollution doesn’t just ruin the view of the skyline; it’s a major threat to public health. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that outdoor air pollution alone caused 4.2 worldwide million deaths in 2016.[1]

Certain groups face a particularly high risk of being affected by poor air quality. With their still-developing systems, young children and unborn babies are extremely vulnerable to air contaminants. As many as 90% of the world’s children breathe unsafe air every day.[2] The elderly are another at-risk group—as we age, our bodies are less able to overcome the effects of pollution.

But age isn’t the only factor that determines a person’s susceptibility to air pollution—socioeconimic factors also come in to play. Low-income communities tend to be exposed to much higher concentrations of air pollution. This may be due to these communities’ proximity to highways and industrial plants, and less political or financial protection from potentially hazardous developments or projects being built in their communities.[3]

Health Effects of Air Pollution

Even with the ties to social class, air pollution’s effects are far-reaching and they extend throughout the world’s population. Breathing in polluted air contributes to the following effects.[4]

  • Lung Disease
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Pregnancy complications such as low birthweight and preterm births
  • Developmental Issues in children
  • Cancer, especially cardiovascular cancers
  • Shorted lifespan
  • Increased mortality in all age groups

Common Types of Air Pollution

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter (PM) is the term for tiny particles in the air emitted from vehicles, factories, construction, cigarette smoke, burning wood, and burning fossil fuels. Some of these particles are large enough to see, while others are microscopic. Larger particulate matter can become lodged in the lungs while fine particulate is small enough that it can actually pass through the tissues of the lungs and enter the human bloodstream. Particulate matter is a major contributor to asthma, heart disease, respiratory problems, cancer, and death.

Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are toxic gasses emitted from a variety of common household products including solvents, paints and thinners, adhesives, cleaning supplies, moth repellents, and air fresheners. Cigarettes and pesticides also emit VOCs. The compounds can cause nausea, dizziness, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. VOCs are known to cause cancer.

Sulfur Dioxide

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is a colorless gas with a powerful odor like a burnt match. SO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, primarily in power plants. Some trains, ships, and diesel engines also produce this contaminant. Inhaling SO2 causes difficulty breathing and burning of the nose, throat, and lungs. Exposure to higher concentrations can be fatal.

Nitrogen Oxides

Nitrogen oxides are a group of gases composed of nitrogen and oxygen. The two most dangerous to humans are nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. These gases come from burning fossil fuels, vehicle exhaust, cigarettes, gas stoves, kerosene heaters, and burning wood. Exposure can contribute to asthma, respiratory diseases, genetic mutations, fertility problems, developmental issues in children, and death. Nitrogen oxides combine with sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere to form acid rain.

Ground-Level Ozone

Ozone is a double-edged sword. In the upper atmosphere, it creates the ozone layer and protects the Earth from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. At ground level, however, ozone is a deadly contaminant and can cause lung damage when inhaled. Ground-level ozone is produced by vehicle, power plant, and industrial emissions. Along with VOCs and nitrogen oxides, ozone is one of the principal components of smog.

Major Contributors to Air Pollution

Climate Change

Air pollution in the form of greenhouse gasses is the most significant contributor to climate change. However, climate change itself can make air quality worse. Increased global temperatures have a significant effect on ground-level ozone, particulate matter, and pollen outbreaks.[5]

Industrial Facilities

Stationary sources of air pollution, such as factories, power plants, industrial facilities, and oil refineries are a leading contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.


Mobile sources of air pollution include cars, trucks, motorcycles, ships, planes, and trains. Combined, transportation accounts for more than half of all the air pollution produced in the United States.[6]


While sometimes significant, natural sources of air pollution like wind-blown dust, volcanoes, and wildfires do not normally create ongoing problems. However, the recent wildfires sweeping across the American West are causing a massive spike in particulate matter in our atmosphere.[6, 7]

Tobacco Smoke

The EPA classifies tobacco smoke as a Group A carcinogen, which means that it is known to cause cancer in humans. It’s a significant contributor to indoor air pollution, and you don’t even have to be a smoker to suffer the effects. Secondhand smoke causes nearly 34,000 deaths from heart disease among nonsmokers in the U.S. every year and has caused 2.5 million nonsmoker deaths since 1964. There is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke.[8]

How Can You Make a Change?


Recycling helps improve air quality by eliminating the pollution that comes with extracting and refining raw materials. Using recycled paper and cardboard is 73% cleaner than making new paper from trees. Recycling glass cuts emissions by 20% and recycled steel releases 86% less air pollution than digging new metal out of the earth. If we could double the amount of aluminum we recycle, we could prevent more than a million tons of air pollutants from being released every year.[9]

Walk, Bike, or Carpool

Walk or bike instead of driving whenever possible. It’s greener, and you’ll get a little exercise. If you’re traveling too far for human-powered transit, consider carpooling or using public transportation. If you get the opportunity, move to a more urban area so you can use public transport more often or go completely car-free.

Maintain Your Vehicle

If you do drive, make sure to keep your car in good working order. A well-maintained vehicle doesn’t have to work as hard and will release fewer emissions. Keep your tires properly inflated and change your oil and air filter regularly.

Use Low-VOC Products

Low-VOC materials are formulated to reduce off-gassing of hazardous volatile organic compounds. You can find low- or zero-VOC paints, cleaning products, and home improvement products.


There is much you can do to control the air quality in your own home, but when it comes to some of the major sources of atmospheric air pollution, we need our leaders to make the right decisions. That’s why it’s vital to vote for people and policies that take a stand against air pollution and support green initiatives.

Conserve Energy

Electricity generation is one of the most significant sources of air pollution, so do what you can to save energy at home. Upgrading to LED lighting, air-sealing, and investing in a smart thermostat are all great ways to save energy.

Support Green Energy

In the free market, you can let your money do the talking. Support the environment by switching to an energy supplier that uses green, renewable energy sources like solar, hydro, and wind energy. Consider signing up for 100% renewable energy with Just Energy’s JustGreen plan. With JustGreen, you can breathe easy knowing that your power only comes from eco-friendly sources.


  1. “Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health.” World Health Organization. Published May 2, 2018. .
  2. “More than 90% of the world’s children breathe toxic air every day.” World Health Organization. Published October 29, 2018.
  3. Hajat A, et al. “Socioeconomic Disparities and Air Pollution Exposure: a Global Review.” Curr Environ Health Rep. 2, no. 4(2015): 440-50.
  4. Amann, Markus, et al. “Quantification of the Health Effects of Exposure to Air Pollution.” World Health Organization, 22 Nov. 2000,
  5. Crimmins A, et al. “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.” U.S. Global Change Research Program. Published 2016.
  6. “Where Does Air Pollution Come From?” National Park Service. Updated January 17, 2018.
  7. McClure CD, Jaffe DA. “US particulate matter air quality improves except in wildfire-prone areas.” PNAS. 115, no. 31(2018): 7901-7906.
  8. “Secondhand Smoke and Smoke-free Homes.” The United States Environmental Protection Agency. Updated December 10, 2018.
  9. “Sustainability: Recycling.” The University of Central Oklahoma. Updated November 4, 2014.

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