Guest Blog: The Health Effects of Air Pollution

May 5, 2018

Health Effects
of Air Pollution

Sara Intner

Pediatric Resident

MAHA Member

Four out of every ten people in the U.S.  live where there is unhealthy air.

A 16-year-old male comes into a clinic to ask his doctor why his asthma has been getting worse. He recently moved to a new high school right off the interstate and near a construction site. He has continued to take his medications as prescribed. He enjoys walking to school with his brother and sometimes rides his bike after school. His parents are frustrated because they don’t understand why his asthma is not controlled despite taking his medications.

From this story alone, we can deduce that particle pollution is contributing to this student’s worsening asthma. Doctors take care of patients every day affected by the downstream effects of the particulate matter we breathe in, but fixing the cause of some of these health problems stems from improving air quality and advocating for cleaner air.

What makes the air we breathe unhealthy?


Asthma exacerbations, heart disease, cancer, worsening COPD, and increased hospitalizations. These are just a few examples of how air pollution can affect our health.

Cars, natural gas, burning coal, heating and cooling, and climate change can all produce emissions leading to polluted air. By driving less or carpooling, using less electricity, and advocating for cleaner air, we can all help make a difference in our own health and the health of our friends. Exposure to particle pollution from haze, dust, and smoke can cause adverse cardiac and respiratory effects – and even premature death. Certain populations are more vulnerable than others. The American Lung Association considers children, older adults, people with outdoor careers, those with a medical history, or people living in close proximity to a highway or factory to be at high risk for negative effects of air pollution. That is why healthy, clean air is so important. It directly affects each one of us or someone we love.

Particles come in all shapes and sizes, but smaller particles are the greatest risk. We cannot see them, but they pass through our nose and throat to enter our lungs. Smaller particles can also get inside which increases indoor particle pollution.

Let’s take a trip with a particle in the air. Imagine rush hour near the highway. The air you see may even appear thicker. A particle is emitted into the air from the cars. A man is on a jog nearby and is breathing quickly. He breathes in the particulate matter, and particles deposit in his nose, throat, trachea, and small airways in his lungs. He starts coughing to clear some of the mucous and particles. His body also sends a signal to mount an immune response. Due to inflammation now in the lungs, the particle can go through a blood vessel and travel through the body causing more inflammation and possibly affect the heart.

These effects can be both acute or chronic. However, that one instance can be prevented by monitoring air quality and staying inside when the air quality index is high. So, let’s all work together for cleaner air to help us all have healthier hearts, lungs, and safe places to play.

At risk patients should check air quality daily, and if the air quality index is high, take preventive measures to decrease exposure.