Air Pollution and Human Health

Outdoor sports support an active and healthy lifestyle except on days when air quality is poor.
Click on image for full size (490 Kb)
Source: T. Eastburn

People have no choice but to breathe the air around them regardless of its quality. When they breathe ground-level ozone or air laden with particulates, they do so at risk to their health. Symptoms of air pollution exposure include irritation to one’s eyes, throat, and lungs. Wheezing, coughing, burning eyes, chest tightness, headaches, and difficulty breathing are all commonly reported when air quality is poor. Increased doctor visits, hospitalization, and school absences also frequently occur at such times. People’s symptoms often disappear once air quality improves, but air pollution exposure can also result in tragedy.

The first major air pollution event to be studied occurred in 1930 in the Meuse Valley of Belgium. A dense blanket of smog hung over the valley for five days, which killed 63 people and caused 6000 others to become ill. A similar event occurred in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948. Almost 6,000 of the 14,000 people in the town became ill, and 20 died. The most notorious of these tragedies occurred in London in 1952 as a result of dense smog caused by the burning of coal fires. More than 4000 people died over a five-day period. But tragic consequences are not always immediate. Slow and subtle health effects from long-term air pollution exposure are also of great concern and may culminate in life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.

Certain people appear to be more vulnerable to air pollution, namely the elderly, the young, and those with cardiopulmonary disease such as asthma or severe bronchitis. Ozone and air particles appear to be especially harmful to children’s health. This is because their lungs are still growing, they are often outside for long periods, and they are usually quite active. As a result, pound for pound they inhale more polluted outdoor air than adults typically do.

Although people have no choice but to breath the air around them, they do have choices that can help them stay healthy. Paying attention to air quality forecasts, avoiding outside exercise or spending more time inside when ozone levels are high, and supporting measures to improve air quality and reduce sources of pollution are all commendable and health-saving measures. Such actions are a positive response to a problem that can literally steal one’s breath away.


Air Pollution's Effects on Us

Air Pollution and Visibility

Air Pollution and Property

Air Pollution and Wildlife and Forests

Air Pollution and Water Resources

Air Pollution and Climate

Air Pollution and Human Health

Outdoor sports support an active and healthy lifestyle except on days when air quality is poor.
Click on image for full size (490 Kb)
Source: T. Eastburn

People have no choice but to breathe the air around them. When it is polluted, they breathe in ozone, particles and harmful gases that can hurt their lungs, heart, and overall health. Air pollution can cause coughing, burning eyes, and breathing problems. Fortunately, people usually start to feel better as soon as the air quality improves, but not always.

63 people died in Belgium in 1930, 20 people died in Pennsylvania in 1948, and more than 4,000 died in London in 1952 as a result of severe air pollution. Breathing small amounts of air pollution over many years is also considered dangerous. It may even contribute to life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

The elderly, the young, and those with cardiopulmonary disease, such as asthma or severe bronchitis, are the most vulnerable to air pollution exposure. Children are at greater risk because their lungs are still growing. Also, they play outside and are active. As a result, pound for pound they breathe more outdoor air pollution than most adults.

Although people have no choice but to breathe the air around them, they do have choices that can help them stay healthy. They can choose to stay indoors or be less active on poor air quality days. They can avoid high-traffic and highly industrialized areas whenever possible. They can also choose to support collective efforts and take individual steps that reduce air pollution. Such actions are a positive response to a problem that can literally steal one’s breath away.


Air Pollution's Effects on Us

Air Pollution and Visibility

Air Pollution and Property

Air Pollution and Wildlife and Forests

Air Pollution and Water Resources

Air Pollution and Climate

Air Pollution and Human Health

Outdoor sports support an active and healthy lifestyle except on days when air quality is poor.
Click on image for full size (490 Kb)
Source: T. Eastburn

People have to breathe the air around them. When the air is dirty, breathing it can be harmful. Air pollution can cause coughs, burning eyes, and breathing problems. These symptoms often go away as soon as the air quality improves, but not always.

In 1948, 20 people died and 6000 people became ill in Pennsylvania from air pollution. In 1952, a dense smog filled the skies of London and killed 4000 people in five days. Breathing small amounts of air pollution over many years is also considered dangerous. It may even contribute to life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

The elderly, the young, and people who are already sick are more sensitive to air pollution than others. Children’s health is at greater risk because their lungs are still growing. They also play outside more than most adults. As a result, they breathe in more pollution from cars, refineries, factories, fires, and windblown dust.

Although people have to breathe the air around them, they can take actions to keep themselves healthy. They can pay attention to air quality reports. When air quality is poor, they can stay indoors or be less active outside. Such actions can limit exposure to harmful air pollutants that can literally steal one’s breath away.


Air Pollution's Effects on Us

Air Pollution and Visibility

Air Pollution and Property

Air Pollution and Wildlife and Forests

Air Pollution and Water Resources

Air Pollution and Climate


Page created February 19, 2006 by Teri Eastburn.
The source of this material is Windows to the Universe, at http://www.windows.ucar.edu/ at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). © The Regents of the University of Michigan. All Rights Reserved. Site policies and disclaimer