How Public Health Issues Affect Lung Health

Being healthy goes beyond eating right and staying active, and it begins long before you need medical care.

"Health begins where we live, learn, work and play, and it's important to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect us and prevent disease," says Albert Rizzo, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for the American Lung Association.

Learn how these public health concerns affect your lung health.


Though the harmful consequences of tobacco use are well known, it remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the country. Every year in the U.S., close to half a million people die from tobacco-caused disease and thousands more experience a wide range of adverse health effects, including lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Why is it such a big problem?

  • Smoke and secondhand smoke: Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals and can harm nearly every organ in your body. It affects not just the person smoking, but those who breathe secondhand smoke and even unborn babies.
  • Nicotine and addiction: Tobacco contains the highly addictive substance nicotine. Smokers not only become physically addicted to nicotine but because they also link smoking to many daily activities and social interactions, it is an extremely difficult addiction to break.
  • Kids and tobacco: Most adult smokers (76 percent) began before they were 18. Today, electronic cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco product in youth, and 5,700 kids start vaping every day. Stronger laws, including FDA oversight over tobacco products, are needed to stop kids from smoking and vaping.

Outdoor Air Pollution and Climate Change

Outdoor air pollution—smog (ozone), particle pollution and other pollutants—continues to threaten our nation's health. Especially at risk are children, older adults and people with lung diseases. Ensuring the air outside is safe to breathe is a challenge. Here's why:

  • Air pollution: Major sources of pollution are all around us, from power plants to manufacturing facilities to the vehicles we drive. Want to know how much pollution is in your community? You can find out from the American Lung Association's State of the Air annual report.
  • Climate change: The buildup of greenhouse gases is creating warmer temperatures, which increase the risk of unhealthful ozone and particle pollution levels. Climate change also leads to other health threats from heat waves, drought, flooding, more intense hurricanes and the spread of disease.
  • Threats to the Clean Air Act: Industrial polluters are pressuring Congress to roll back key provisions of the Clean Air Act, one of the nation's most effective public health laws. The Clean Air Act helps prevents tens of thousands of asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths each year by cleaning up pollution from power plants and vehicles.

Indoor Air Quality

You may not know it, but the air in your home or workplace can be hazardous to your health. For example:

  • Radon: Every home should be tested for radon, the second-leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is found at elevated levels in homes in every state. Nearly one out of every 15 homes in the U.S. has unsafe indoor radon levels. High radon can be readily fixed.
  • Smoking in multi-unit housing: For residents of multi-unit housing (e.g., apartment buildings and condominiums), secondhand smoke can be a major concern as it migrates from other units and common areas, traveling through doorways, cracks in walls, electrical lines, plumbing and ventilation systems.

Obesity Epidemic

Obesity is a national epidemic. About 90 million adults and 13 million children and adolescents in the U.S. are obese. Obesity contributes to a host of health problems, including those that affect lungs, such as:

  • Asthma: Obesity is a risk factor for the development of asthma. Obese asthma sufferers often use more medications, suffer worse symptoms and are less able to control their asthma than those at a healthier weight. Poor asthma control over time can lead to airway remodeling, a feature of asthma that leads to diminished lung function.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea: Being overweight is a risk factor for sleep apnea, a disorder that causes you to stop breathing briefly while you sleep. If not treated, it can cause serious health problems.

Disease Prevention

"It's always better to prevent a disease than to treat it," says Rizzo. "Proven public health strategies, such as washing your hands and staying up-to-date on vaccinations, can protect both you and those with whom you come in contact." Missed opportunities for disease prevention include:

  • Vaccinations: Despite the readily available safe and effective vaccines for influenza and pneumonia, millions of people who are at an increased risk from these preventable, yet deadly, respiratory diseases don't get vaccinated.
  • Regular healthcare: Regular health check-ups are an important part of disease prevention, even when you are feeling well.

Page last updated: June 7, 2024

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