Health Effects of Ozone and Particle Pollution

Ozone and particle pollution are the most widespread air pollutants—and among the most dangerous. Recent research has revealed new insights into how they can harm the body—including taking the lives of infants and altering the lungs of children. All in all, the evidence shows that the risks are greater than we once thought.

Recent findings provide more evidence about the health impacts of these pollutants:

  • Ozone pollution can shorten life, a conclusion confirmed by a 2008 scientific review by the National Research Council.1 Evidence warns that some segments of the population may face higher risks from dying prematurely because of ozone pollution, including communities with high unemployment or high public transit use and large Black/African-American populations.2
  • Good news: Reducing air pollution has extended life expectancy. Thanks to a drop in particle pollution between 1980 and 2000, life expectancy in 51 U.S. cities increased by 5 months on average, according to a 2009 analysis.3
  • Growing evidence shows that diabetics face a greater risk from air pollution than once believed. Several studies found increased risk of several factors associated with cardiovascular risks in people with diabetes.4 Some new research with animals indicates that fine particle pollution may impact insulin resistance and other factors.5
  • Lower levels of ozone and particle pollution pose bigger threat than previously thought. A Canadian study showed that levels well below those considered safe for these pollutants triggered asthma attacks and increased the risk of emergency room visits and hospital admissions for children with asthma.6 Another study found that low levels of these pollutants increased the risk of hospital treatment for pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).7
  • Busy highways are high risk zones. Not only may they worsen diseases, but some evidence warns that years of breathing the pollution near busy roads may increase the risk of developing chronic diseases.
    • A growing body of evidence suggests breathing pollution from heavy traffic may cause new cases of asthma in children.8
    • Some emerging research has found particle pollution associated with increasing the risk of new cases of three chronic diseases in adults: adult-onset asthma,9 diabetes,10 and COPD, especially in people who already have asthma or diabetes.11
    • Research had already connected pollution from heavy highway traffic to higher risks for heart attack, allergies, premature births and the death of infants around the time they are born.12 Evidence of the impact of traffic pollution, even in a city with generally “cleaner” air, expanded the concern over the health effects of chronic exposure to exhaust from heavy traffic.13

Two types of air pollution dominate the problem in the U.S.: ozone and particle pollution. They aren’t the only serious air pollutants: others include carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, as well as scores of toxins such as mercury, arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, and acid gases. However, ozone and particle pollution are the most widespread pollutants.

The health effects of air pollution.

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FACT: When inhaled, ozone irritates the lungs, resulting in something like a bad sunburn within the lungs.

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SOTA 2011 Survey