Why is air pollution damaging to people's health?
Air pollution affects your body in lots of ways. It can increase the risk of developing some health problems - and can make existing health problems worse.
Air pollution can harm every organ in your body and can shorten our lives, contribute towards chronic illness and put us more at risk from COVID-19. When we breathe polluted air it can inflame the lining of our lungs and get into our bloodstream ending up in the heart and brain.
Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause a range of health problems, including damaging the lungs, triggering asthma, increasing blood pressure, and increasing lung and heart-related hospital admissions and deaths.
Long-term exposure to air pollution can cause heart and lung conditions such as heart disease and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) as well as lung cancer, leading to reduced life expectancy.
Exposure to air pollution can make coughing and mucus production in adults worse, and it can increase the risk of getting pneumonia caused by bacteria. There is emerging evidence that air pollution can increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and limited evidence that it may increase the risk of bladder cancer.
More recently, researchers have started to look into the effects air pollution has on the brain and mind. People who breathe polluted air are more likely to develop mental health and brain problems than those who breathe in clean air. Research shows that there is an association between air pollution and an increasing decline in cognitive function, with a risk of developing dementia, as well as an increased risk of developing mental health issues like schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.
Air pollution & Health Inequalities
The effects of air pollution are not experienced equally, this is what is known as health inequalities.
Certain groups are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because of their age; for example, older people or children. Some groups are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because of other health conditions they are living with.
People living in certain areas are more likely to be exposed to high levels of air pollution. Big cities such as Manchester, London and Birmingham – experience greater pollution levels (particularly nitrogen dioxide) as a result of a number of causes, including having dense road networks.
People on low incomes are more likely to be affected by air pollution, this is because they are priced into housing with poorer outdoor and indoor environments.
People on lower incomes in the UK are disproportionately women, they are also disproportionately Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi households. Those most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution are also, most often, the least likely to have generated that pollution.
There are a number of ways that individuals can reduce their exposure to air pollution.
How are air pollution and coronavirus linked?
Many papers have been published about COVID-19 and air pollution. A recent review of the evidence by Imperial college suggests:
- Living in an area with high air pollution may increase the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 if you are exposed to it.
- Air pollution can worsen heart and lung disease and people with these health conditions are more vulnerable to hospital admissions from COVID-19
In this video we speak to Professor Stephen Holgate, Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology and Honorary Consultant Physician within Medicine at the University of Southampton, and UK Clean Air Champion, about the links between COVID-19 and air pollution.
There is a strong link between air pollution and the worsening of asthma symptoms and it also plays a part in causing asthma in some individuals
There is an association between exposure to the air pollutant NO2 and cough and phlegm symptoms in adults
All of the organs in the body seem to be affected in some way by breathing in air pollution
Air pollution is linked to high blood pressure
Air pollution can lead to cardiovascular disease
Studies are showing that there may be an association between air pollution and poor mental health, but more evidence is needed
Exposure to air pollution is also linked to increases in coughs and bronchitis
Air pollution can increase the risk of bacterial pneumonia
Air pollution potentially increases the risk of getting dementia
Air pollution and COVID-19
There is emerging evidence that air pollution can increase your risk of developing diabetes
Research shows that there is an association between air pollution and an increasing decline in cognitive function, with a risk of developing dementia, as well as an increased risk of developing mental health issues like schizophrenia, depression anxiety, and mood disorders.
- Cognitive decline, dementia and air pollution: A report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, July 2022
- Exposure to air pollution during childhood and risk of developing schizophrenia: a national cohort study, February 2022
- Ambient air pollution and depression: A systematic review with meta-analysis up to 2019, November 2019
- Long-term Exposure to Multiple Ambient Air Pollutants and Association with Incident Depression and Anxiety, February 2023
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