Outdoor air pollution
The term “air pollution” refers to harmful particles suspended in the air, or gases in the atmosphere, that can be breathed in. It is a mixture including particles, ozone, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide. The mixture is different depending on location, season and sources of pollution in the area.
Where does outdoor air pollution come from?
Air pollution comes from:
- Human activity: including the burning of fuels in cars, trucks and aeroplanes, industrial activity, power plants and household heating and cooking systems
- Natural processes: such as volcanic eruptions, dust storms in deserts
How does outdoor air pollution affect our lungs?
Air pollution has a negative impact on human health and exposure to it can affect 100% of the population, from unborn babies to the very elderly. The lungs are the first point of entry for air pollution into the body and are therefore the first affected organ. Pollution also has a serious effect on the heart and circulatory system and increases the risk of heart attacks.
Air pollution affects people in different ways. Factors such as current health conditions, age, lung capacity, lifestyle and time spent in polluted air can all influence how pollutants affect overall health.
There are many different pollutants in the air. The interactions between these pollutants and the different levels of pollution can produce a range of health effects, both in short term (within hours and days) and long term (after a number of years).
There is not one single pollutant that is responsible for all the adverse effects. The consequences are due to the whole mixture.
Different types of particulate matter are measured by their size. For example, PM10 refers to particulate matter that is up to 10 micrometers in size.
Levels of air pollution are often measured by the mass per volume of air. The measurement commonly used is the number of micrograms of pollution per cubic meter. The symbol for this is: μg/m3
Air pollution is known to trigger heart attacks in people with cardiovascular diseases and to exacerbate symptoms for people who already suffer with lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Studies have shown an increase in wheezing, cough and attacks of breathlessness with a reduction in lung function and need for medication when pollution levels are increased.
Research has shown an increase in doctors’ consultations, emergency hospital visits and hospital admissions for asthma and heart conditions, such as heart attacks, on days with higher pollution levels. Health registries also report more cases of death from these problems on days with higher pollution levels.
Lifetime exposure to air pollution can have a range of effects in adults and children, leading to long-term problems, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart diseases. Pollution has been shown to decrease life expectancy due to earlier death from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer.
Children are generally more active, engage in more outdoor activities than adults, and breathe more rapidly, even with the same level of activity. As a consequence, they inhale more pollution. Their immune system is also not fully developed and their lungs are still growing. Air pollution has been shown to impair growth of the lungs in children, which will have an impact for the rest of their life.
Long-term effects in children and adults
- Acute bronchitis
- Lower lung volumes
- Chronic cough
- Accelerated loss of lung function
- Lung cancer
Top tips for healthy lungs
- Check the air pollution alert for the day – check the local air quality online or sign up to a pollution alert service.
- In winter, avoid walking along busy streets with lots of traffic fumes.
- In summer, air pollution levels are generally higher on hot, sunny days. So try to avoid energetic outdoor activities or do them in the morning when pollution levels are usually lower.
- Think seriously before using your car for a journey. Consider the benefits offered by other modes of transport, like cycling, walking or using public transport (for example: increased safety, particularly for children; reduced congestion; better health by ensuring you meet the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended 20 minutes of exercise every day; saved time, it can be much quicker to travel by other forms of transport than by car; saved money).
- When doing the school run, shopping or going to work, think about car sharing, turn off your engine while stationary, maintain your car properly and reduce your speed.
- Buy ‘green’ and ‘efficient’ (for example, when buying your next car look at the vehicle that uses the least fuel and is the least polluting).
- Look at reducing your energy consumption at home or switching to clean renewable energy sources, don’t breathe in hazardous materials (read hazard labels) and stop burning solid fuels, particularly rubbish or treated woods.
Factsheets and videos
Scientific and clinical information
- 10 principles for clean air - Air pollution has been linked with a number of health problems including chronic cough, phlegm, lung infections, lung cancer, heart disease and heart attack. Daily concentrations of air pollution in most of Europe are still higher than European Union (EU) target values, causing harm to millions of people across the continent. Experts from the European Respiratory Society (ERS) have released 10 principles for clean air to help guide Europe’s policy makers to take action to protect people from health risks caused by poor air quality.
- The role of air pollution and lung function in cognitive impairment. Anke Hüls, Andrea Vierkötter, Dorothea Sugiri, Michael J. Abramson, Ulrich Ranft, Ursula Krämer, Tamara Schikowski. European Respiratory Journal 2018 51: 1701963
- Outdoor air pollution and the burden of childhood asthma across Europe. Haneen Khreis, Marta Cirach, Natalie Mueller, Kees de Hoogh, Gerard Hoek, Mark J. Nieuwenhuijsen, David Rojas-Rueda. European Respiratory Journal 2019 54: 1802194;
- Air Polllution and multiple acute respiratory outcomes. Faustini Annunziata, Stafoggia Massimo, Colais Paola, Berti Giovanna, Bisanti Luigi, Cadum Ennio, Cernigliaro Achille, Mallone Sandra, Scarnato Corrado, Forastiere Francesco. Eur Respir J 2013; 42: 304-313.
- An association of particulate air pollution and traffic exposure with mortality after lung transplantation in Europe. David Ruttens, Stijn E. Verleden, Esmée M. Bijnens, Ellen Winckelmans, Jens Gottlieb, Gregor Warnecke, Federica Meloni, Monica Morosini, Wim Van Der Bij, Erik A. Verschuuren, Urte Sommerwerck, Gerhard Weinreich, Markus Kamler, Antonio Roman, Susana Gomez-Olles, Cristina Berastegui, Christian Benden, Are Martin Holm, Martin Iversen, Hans Henrik Schultz, Bart Luijk, Erik-Jan Oudijk, Johanna M. Kwakkel-van Erp, Peter Jaksch, Walter Klepetko, Nikolaus Kneidinger, Claus Neurohr, Paul Corris, Andrew J. Fisher, James Lordan, Gerard Meachery, Davide Piloni, Elly Vandermeulen, Hannelore Bellon, Barbara Hoffmann, Danielle Vienneau, Gerard Hoek, Kees de Hoogh, Benoit Nemery, Geert M. Verleden, Robin Vos, Tim S. Nawrot, Bart M. Vanaudenaerde.European Respiratory Journal 2017 49: 1600484
- Neighbourhood air quality and snoring in school-aged children. Kheirandish-Gozal Leila, Ghalebandi Mirfarhad, Salehi Mansour, Salarifar Mohammad Hosein, Gozal David. Eur Respir J 2014; 43: 824-832.
- Chronic burden of near-roadway traffic pollution in 10 European cities (APHEKOM network). Laura Perez, Christophe Declercq, Carmen Iñiguez, Inmaculada Aguilera, Chiara Badaloni, Ferran Ballester, Catherine Bouland, Olivier Chanel, Francisco B. Cirarda, Francesco Forastiere, Bertil Forsberg, Daniela Haluza, Britta Hedlund, Koldo Cambra, Marina Lacasaña, Hanns Moshammer, Peter Otorepec, Miguel Rodríguez-Barranco, Sylvia Medina, Nino Künzli. Eur Respir J 2013; 42: 594-605.
- Why an ERJ series on air pollution? Annesi-Maesano Isabella, Heinrich Joachim, Ayres Jon G., Forastiere Francesco. Eur Respir J 2012; 40: 12-13
- Climate change, extreme weather events, air pollution and respiratory health in Europe. M. De Sario, K. Katsouyanni, P. Michelozzi. Eur Respir J 2013; 42: 826-843
- The airport atmospheric environment: respiratory health at work. Léa Touri, Hélène Marchetti, Irène Sari-Minodier, Nicolas Molinari, Pascal Chanez. Eur Respir Rev, 2013; 128: 124-130.
- ERS Vision: Clean Air and Lung Health - Healthy Lung For Life