A Straight Line: Research, Air Pollution and Your Health

(May 3, 2008)

You are sitting in traffic behind a large truck with black fumes spewing from the tailpipe. Ever wonder just what that exhaust is doing to you? To your kids? That black plume is more complex—and more dangerous—than you might think. Research can explain the details.

That plume of smoke can do much worse than make you cough and blink. The tiniest soot particles in that noxious mix are the most dangerous because they penetrate deep into the lungs and remain there. They can even be absorbed into the bloodstream and travel throughout your body. Ozone (smog), too, causes its own harm. It’s that haze of dirt hanging over you on hot summer days, when the sizzling sunlight reacts with vehicle and other emissions to pollute the air you inhale. Just like sunburn irritates your skin, ozone especially irritates your airways as you inhale. Imagine rubbing sandpaper on a wound; that’s what ozone does to the lining of your airways.

Ozone and particle pollution are the most widespread and deadly types of air pollution, which could take months to years off your life and harm your children’s lungs—for life. Scientists keep finding out more about how dangerous they are.

Air pollution can affect anyone and is proven to be particularly harmful to children, seniors, and people with chronic illnesses. But new research found that even lifeguards—young, healthy athletes—can suffer significant problems from inhaling particle pollution and ozone. University of Texas scientists measured the lung function of beach lifeguards in Galveston, at three different times daily during the study, and compared that data to air pollution levels. They found that lung function decreased from morning until afternoon, even with air pollution at levels far below the national standards.

If air pollution can compromise the breathing of healthy lifeguards, imagine what it could do to the elderly, people with chronic diseases, or children. Kids’ lungs are still developing, so they can be easily damaged. And because children are active and outdoors more often, they can end up breathing more air pollution per pound than adults. 

Researchers are understanding more about the relationship between ozone and chronic lung diseases -- particularly asthma and COPD. Breathing ozone is clearly linked to increased emergency room visits due to asthma attacks; for people with asthma, ozone can cause problems at relatively low levels. Ozone is proven to aggravate COPD, which affects over 12 million Americans. The lung inflammation caused by exposure to ozone over a period of years can lead to a chronic “stiffening” of the lungs. Inhaling ozone may affect the heart as well as the lungs. Scientists have studied the effects of ozone on health for decades. Hundreds of research studies have confirmed that ozone harms people at levels currently found in the United States. In the last few years, we’ve learned that it can also be deadly. In 2005, a landmark study by three groups of researchers working independently reviewed and analyzed recent research around deaths associated with short-term exposures to ozone. The three teams—at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and New York University—used different approaches but all came to similar conclu­sions: there is a robust link between daily ozone levels and increased deaths.

Indoors, the air you breathe can be even more dangerous for your health. Research has proven the health effects of indoor air pollutants. Short-term exposure to indoor air pollution may cause immediate effects such as headaches, dizziness, allergies and asthma attacks and even premature death. But breathing indoor air pollutants over the long term can cause lung damage, heart disease and lung cancer.

The primary sources of indoor air quality problems release gases or particles into the air. These range from oil and gas-powered appliances, to building materials such as asbestos, cleaning products, central heating and air conditioning, humidifiers, wood smoke, and biological contaminants like animal dander, mold and cockroaches—or even from a naturally occurring source like radon.  Secondhand smoke, however, may be the best-known indoor air pollutant—and perhaps the simplest to eliminate from the home. It contains hundreds of chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic, including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic ammonia and hydrogen cyanide. Secondhand smoke causes disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke. Making your home smoke-free protects everyone.  

Ongoing investments in research will deepen our understanding of environmental health. Ultimately, new knowledge will help Americans protect themselves and further empower the American Lung Association’s fight for cleaner indoor and outdoor air.