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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.


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.

A line illustation of weather symbols, including the sun, a cloud that is raining, and a cloud with lightning

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. There is now emerging evidence on the link between air pollution and brain functions, such as memory, and increased risk of dementia.

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[1]. 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.


Is there a link between air pollution and coronavirus?

Emerging evidence has linked air pollution with an increased vulnerability to the most severe impacts of COVID-19. Knowledge of the impacts of air pollution on health suggest that it is likely that those with health conditions that are worsened by air pollution – such as asthma, heart disease and COPD – may be more vulnerable to complications if they contract COVID-19. 


In this video, we spoke 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 are a number of ways that individuals can reduce their exposure to air pollution.

Video shows Professor Stephen Holgate discussing potential links between air pollution and coronavirus.

If you would like to find out more about where all the stats, facts and figures have come from, see our references page