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Engineering LibreTexts

6.5: Effects of Air Pollution on Human Health

  • Page ID
    12203
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) and other international agencies recognize air pollution as a major threat to human health. Numerous scientific studies have linked air pollution to a variety of health problems (Table\(\PageIndex{1}\)) including: aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases; decreased lung function; increased frequency and severity of respiratory symptoms such as difficulty breathing and coughing; increased susceptibility to respiratory infections; effects on the nervous system, including the brain, such as IQ loss and impacts on learning, memory, and behavior; cancer; and premature death. Immediate effects of air pollution may show up after a single exposure or repeated exposures. Other health effects may show up either years after exposure has occurred or only after long or repeated periods of exposure.

    Immediate effects of air pollution include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Such immediate effects are usually short-term and treatable. Sometimes the treatment is simply eliminating the person's exposure to the source of the pollution, if it can be identified. Symptoms of some diseases, including asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and humidifier fever , may also show up soon after exposure to some indoor air pollutants.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sources and health effects of criteria pollutants

    Pollutant Sources Health Effects
    Ground-level Ozone (O3) Secondary pollutant typically formed by chemical reaction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and NOx in the presence of sunlight. Decreases lung function and causes respiratory symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath; aggravates asthma and other lung diseases leading to increased medication use, hospital admissions, emergency department (ED) visits, and premature mortality.
    Particulate Matter (PM) Emitted or formed through chemical reactions; fuel combustion (e.g., burning coal, wood, diesel); industrial processes; agriculture (plowing, field burning); and unpaved roads. Short-term exposures can aggravate heart or lung diseases leading to respiratory symptoms, increased medication use, hospital admissions, ED visits, and premature mortality; long-term exposures can lead to the development of heart or lung disease and premature mortality.
    Lead Smelters (metal refineries) and other metal industries; combustion of leaded gasoline in piston engine aircraft; waste incinerators; and battery manufacturing. Damages the developing nervous system, resulting in IQ loss and impacts on learning, memory, and behavior in children. Cardiovascular and renal effects in adults and early effects related to anemia.
    Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) Fuel combustion (e.g., electric utilities, industrial boilers, and vehicles) and wood burning. Aggravate lung diseases leading to respiratory symptoms, hospital admissions, and ED visits; increased susceptibility to respiratory infection.
    Carbon Monoxide (CO) Fuel combustion (especially vehicles), industrial processes, fires, waste combustion, and residential wood burning. Reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the body’s organs and tissues; aggravates heart disease, resulting in chest pain and other symptoms leading to hospital admissions and ED visits.
    Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) Fuel combustion (especially high-sulfur coal); electric utilities and industrial processes; and natural sources such as volcanoes. Aggravates asthma and increased respiratory symptoms. Contributes to particle formation with associated health effects.

    Source: www.epa.gov

    The likelihood of immediate reactions to air pollutants depends on several factors. Age and preexisting medical conditions are two important influences. Some sensitive individuals appear to be at greater risk for air pollution-related health effects, for example, those with pre-existing heart and lung diseases (e.g., heart failure/ischemic heart disease, asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis), diabetics, older adults, and children. In other cases, whether a person reacts to a pollutant depends on individual sensitivity, which varies tremendously from person to person. Some people can become sensitized to biological pollutants after repeated exposures, and it appears that some people can become sensitized to chemical pollutants as well.