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The Real Health Risks of Air Pollution Will Surprise You

Air pollution is a global problem with significant local consequences. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year, urban outdoor air pollution kills over 1 million people worldwide. In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that air pollution-related illness costs $150 billion annually. Conscientious citizens need to get up-to-speed on air pollution and its risks in order to encourage their governments to improve air quality.

Causes of Air Pollution

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets national quality standards for six common air pollutants.

Carbon Monoxide

The majority of carbon monoxide (CO) emissions come from aircraft, ships, trains, motorized equipment and motor vehicles. The EPA limits CO in the air to 9 parts per million (ppm) over an 8-hour period, and 35 ppm over any 1-hour period.


Since regulations in the 1980s eliminated lead from gasoline, the primary source of lead in the environment are certain aircraft and some ore and metals processing. Although lead levels in the air have dropped by 95% since 1985, it remains a dangerous air pollutant.

Nitrogen Oxides

The primary sources of nitrogen dioxide in the environment are motor vehicles, off-road equipment and power plants. Since 1980, nitrogen dioxide concentrations in the have declined from nearly 50 ppm to about 25 ppm.


Ground level ozone emissions come primarily from power plants, boilers, refineries, chemical plants and cars. Although large polluters contribute a great deal to ozone levels, individuals can help reduce emissions by maintaining their vehicles, including tire pressure and not “topping off” when filling up.

Particulate Matter

A combination of liquid and tiny solids, particulate matter is composed of nitrates, sulfates, metals and dust. When smaller than 10 micrometers, particles can enter the body and cause significant damage. Dangerous particles are found near roads and certain industries, and in haze and smoke, including from forest fires.

Sulfur Dioxide

Primarily coming from power plants and other industries burning fossil fuels, sulfur dioxide concentrations in the U.S. have declined from over 20 parts per billion (ppb) in 1980 to under 10 ppb in 2010. Although many places now meet EPA standards for sulfur dioxide levels, a few localities are persistently not in compliance. These include East Helena Area, Montana, Salt Lake City, Utah and Armstrong County, Pennsylvania.


Worst Urban Air Pollution

Although air quality has improved significantly since the passage of the Clean Air Act under President Nixon in 1970, NOAA estimates that 50,000 Americans still die each year from air pollution-related illness.

According to the American Lung Association, the top five worst cities in the United States for year-round particle pollution are all in California: Bakersfield-Delano, Hanford-Corcoran, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Visalia-Porterville and Fresno-Madera. Worldwide, the five worst cities for outdoor air pollution are Ahwaz and Sanadaj in Iran, Ulan Bator, Mongolia, Ludhiana, India and Quetta, Pakistan.

The EPA recommends industries and individuals take a number of steps to reduce air-polluting emissions; these include substituting lower-pollution materials, recycling, reducing emissions and changing processes.


Health Risks

There are a number of adverse health effects from air pollution. According to the EPA, these are the most significant:

Respiratory Effects

Ozone and nitrogen dioxide worsen asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. Particulates decrease lung function, irritate airways, cause coughing and aggravate asthma.

Even short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide can aggravate asthma and cause bronchoconstriction. Diseases like emphysema and bronchitis can be worsened by exposure to sulfur dioxide as well.

Cardiovascular Effects

People with heart conditions suffer from increased angina and myocardial ischemia when exposed to carbon monoxide (CO). Of course, in large doses, CO can be fatal.

Particulate pollution can cause irregular heartbeat and heart attack, and increased hospital admissions for heart-related issues are correlated with days of higher sulfur dioxide levels.


Although not a health effect, lead is so toxic it deserves its own section. Lead exposure can impair the nervous, immune, reproductive, cardiovascular and developmental systems as well as kidney function. Lead’s most well known effects are those on children, which include lower IQs, and learning and behavioral problems.


Get Involved

There are a variety of ways ordinary citizens can help reduce air pollution. Organizations like the American Lung Association are always in need of volunteers to lobby legislators and hold fundraising events. Letter and editorial writing campaigns, such as that sponsored by Earth  Justice, are also an effective way to encourage government representatives to enforce and enhance air quality standards.

Teachers are also actively being recruited by organizations and governmental agencies to incorporate clean air initiatives into their classrooms. The Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) sponsors lesson plans that help students learn about air pollutants, their effects and how to eliminate them.


Further Reading

American Lung Association
Environmental Protection Agency
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
World Health Organization

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