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Air pollution linked to emergency hospital visits for breathing problems

Last Update 06/04/2021

In a new study, researchers reported on the link between air pollution and breathing-related emergency hospital visits in the USA.


In a new study, researchers reported on the link between air pollution and breathing-related emergency hospital visits in the USA.

The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, focused on the impacts of two types of air pollution: ozone, which forms smog, and particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), fine particles that can travel deep into the lungs. It also used data collected across 17 different states in the USA to make sure that the results were widely relevant.

Researchers took the hospital records of almost 40 million breathing-related emergency visits and compared them with local pollution levels in the week before the visit.

They were also interested in the effects of air pollution on people of different ages, so split the records into three groups: visits from children under 19, visits from adults under 65 and visits from adults over 65.

As well as confirming the link between air pollution and emergency visits, the study provided details about the type of visits each pollutant was most strongly associated with. For example:

  • Higher ozone levels were linked with more emergency hospital visits for asthma, acute lung infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pneumonia. The link was strongest for visits related to asthma in adults over the age of 65.
  • Increased visits for asthma, acute lung infections and pneumonia were also associated with high levels of PM2.5.
  • The researchers found a strong link between higher PM2.5 levels and emergency visits from children and adults under the age of 65.

The researchers did not have information on individual exposure (how much air pollution any one person breathed in), making it difficult to say for sure whether air pollution was the direct reason for a hospital visit. Yet, the level of detail in this study means that its results could help to guide policies to better protect people from the effects of air pollution. 

Read the original news story.

Read the abstract of the journal article.

Read our factsheets on outdoor air pollution and on air quality and lung health.

Find out more about the Healthy Lungs for Life campaign, which is raising awareness of the importance of clean air.

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