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:

  • A major review of particle pollution and other air pollutants concluded that many cause heart attacks, even when people inhaled elevated levels for as little as one week.1 This review looked at evidence from 177 studies and found that particle pollution (both fine and coarse), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide all increased the risk of heart attack.
  • Particle pollution that lasts for just a short while may be causing strokes, even at levels considered safe, according to a study of Boston area patients.2 In particular, researchers found that breathing levels of traffic-related particles were linked to increased risk of stroke within 12 to 14 hours of breathing them.
  • Up to 35,700 premature deaths can be prevented in the United States every year if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strengthens the health standards for particle pollution—also known as soot—according to a report, Sick of Soot: How the EPA Can Save Lives by Cleaning Up Fine Particle Pollution, released in November by the American Lung Association, Clean Air Task Force and Earthjustice. That report summarized the findings of an in-depth look at how cleaning up the particles could have powerful, life-saving benefits.3
  • 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 five months on average, according to a 2009 analysis.4
  • 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.5 Some new research with animals indicates that fine particle pollution may impact insulin resistance and other factors.6
  • More people may be vulnerable to air pollution than previously understood. Researchers studying people who had received kidney transplants found that long-term exposure to ozone pollution increased their risk of fatal coronary heart disease.7
  • Lower levels of ozone and particle pollution pose bigger threats. A Canadian study showed that particle pollution levels well below those considered safe in the U.S. for these pollutants caused premature death.8 An earlier study had found higher risk of asthma attacks and emergency room visits and hospital admissions for children with asthma.9 Another study found that low levels of these pollutants increased the risk of hospital treatment for pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).10
  • Ozone pollution can shorten life, a conclusion confirmed by a 2008 scientific review by the National Research Council.11 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 African-American populations.12
  • Could particulate matter cause lung cancer in never-smokers? That question is getting closer to being answered with a strong “yes” after researchers looked at the records of 1.2 million volunteers which found that levels of fine particles measured across the nation in the past few decades are linked to small, but measurable increases in lung cancer in people who never smoked.13
  • Research is warning that obesity may place people at higher risk from particle pollution. Some studies link particle pollution to increases in measurable reactions in the body that signal harm to health.14 The increase in the prevalence of obesity in the nation may mean that more people are at risk.
  • 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.15
    • Emerging research has found particle pollution associated with increasing the risk of new cases of three chronic diseases in adults: adult-onset asthma16, diabetes17, and COPD, especially in people who already have asthma or diabetes.18
    • 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.19 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.20

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: Seventeen of the 25 cities with the worst annual particle pollution saw their lowest-ever levels, including Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

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