Who is Most Affected by Outdoor Air Pollution?

Someone in every family is likely to be at risk from air pollution.

Outdoor air pollution is unhealthy for everyone, but some groups of people are more vulnerable than others. Taken all together, these groups make up a large portion of the population.

Children face special risks from air pollution because their airways are small and still developing, and because they breathe more rapidly and inhale more air relative to their size than do adults. In addition, the body’s defenses that help adults fight off infections are still developing in children. Children have more respiratory infections than adults, which increases their susceptibility to air pollution. Kids are also more likely to spend time being active outdoors, which can increase their exposure on bad air days. Growing up breathing high levels of air pollution can affect how children's lungs develop, putting them at greater risk of lung disease as they age. 

Older adults are at increased risk of harm from air pollution for several reasons. Even in healthy people, the aging process gradually reduces the lungs’ breathing ability, which can then easily be made worse by exposure to air pollution. Older immune systems do not work as well to protect the lungs from inhaled contaminants, including air pollutants. Because exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to respiratory infections, it also increases the risk of pneumonia and other serious illnesses. And older adults are more likely to be living with one or more chronic illnesses, such as lung and heart disease, which may be made worse by exposure to unhealthy air.

Individuals who are pregnant and their fetuses are in a stage of life that is uniquely susceptible to harm from environmental contaminants, including air pollution. The physical changes of pregnancy are already a stressor on an individual’s body. The additional inflammation and stress caused by exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of hypertensive disorders, including preeclampsia, and lead to intrauterine inflammation and damage to the placenta that can disrupt the growth and development of the fetus. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is strongly associated with premature birth, low birth weight and stillbirth. These risks are amplified in pregnancies where the mother is already in another demographic group that experiences higher risk, such as people of color and those chronic conditions, especially asthma.

People living with asthmaCOPD and other chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are already living with physical challenges. The cellular injury and inflammation triggered by breathing air pollution puts additional stress on people’s lungs, heart and other organs that are already compromised by disease. This can result in a worsening of symptoms, increased medication use, more frequent emergency department visits and hospitalizations, an overall reduced quality of life and even premature death.

People of color are more likely to be exposed to air pollution and more likely to suffer harm to their health from air pollution than white people. Much of this inequity can be traced to the long history of racism and discriminatory practices such as redlining and segregation that restricted people’s mobility options and limited their economic and political power. This has left communities of color concentrated in less desirable, and often more polluted places and has contributed to higher rates of emergency department visits for asthma and other diseases. People of color are also more likely than white people to be living with one or more chronic conditions that make them more susceptible to the health impact of air pollution, including asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Learn more about disparities in the impact of air pollution.

People who have lower incomes are more likely to live in close proximity to sources of pollution and have fewer resources to relocate than people with more financial security. Some of the problems faced by many low-income communities, such as lack of safety, green space, and high-quality food access, have been associated with increased psychosocial distress and chronic stress, which in turn make people more vulnerable to pollution-related health effects. People with low income also have lower rates of health coverage and less access to quality and affordable health care to provide treatment to them when they get sick. Learn more about disparities in the impact of air pollution.

People who live or work near sources of pollution breathe more polluted air over longer periods of time than others, and in general, the greater the exposure, the greater the risk of harm. Low-wealth communities and communities of color are most likely to bear the brunt of proximity to busy roadways, transit depots, industrial facilities, power plants, oil and gas operations and other hazardous pollutants sources.

  • Living near a busy roadway exposes residents to a complex mixture of harmful pollutants that includes nitrogen oxides, particle pollution and VOCs coming from the tailpipes of cars, trucks and buses as well as from the wear of brakes and tires, the resuspension of roadside dust and the abrasion of the road surface itself. Although traffic pollution has an impact on air quality over a large area, people who live closest to highways and other busy roads are most likely to be affected. Long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution is associated with asthma onset in children and adults, lower respiratory tract infection in children, and premature death.
  • The extraction and production of oil and gas produce air pollutants and greenhouse gases that affect the entire country, but people living closest to oil and gas industry operations, including wells, face greater harm. The VOCs produced can worsen asthma and other respiratory diseases, damage the nervous system and cause developmental harm. Some VOCs, like benzene, are known carcinogens. Studies show that low-wealth, rural, and people of color communities bear the brunt of exposures to air pollution and toxics from fossil fuels.

People who work outdoors can face higher risk because of the amount of time they spend exposed to air pollution on bad air days, often engaged in strenuous activity that increases their breathing rate and the amount of polluted air they inhale. Many outdoor workers have limited options for reducing their exposure without jeopardizing their employment.

Page last updated: June 17, 2024

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