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Effects of Air Pollution on Human Health

Describes the human health consequences of air pollution such as asthma and lung cancer.

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Effects of Air Pollution on Human Health

How is breathing on a smoggy day like breathing trash?

On a smoggy day, you're breathing garbage. No different from tossing trash out of a car window with no intention of picking it up, we spew trash into the air as we drive, as we heat our homes, and as we manufacture goods. Would we tolerate all this trash if it were in our houses laying on the ground?

Smog Effects on Human Health

Human health suffers in locations with high levels of air pollution.

Pollutants and Their Effects

Different pollutants have different health effects:

  • Lead is the most common toxic material and is responsible for lead poisoning.
  • Carbon monoxide can kill people in poorly ventilated spaces, such as tunnels.
  • Nitrogen and sulfur-oxides cause lung disease and increased rates of asthma, emphysema, and viral infections such as the flu.
  • Ozone damages the human respiratory system, causing lung disease. High ozone levels are also associated with increased heart disease and cancer.
  • Particulates enter the lungs and cause heart or lung disease. When particulate levels are high, asthma attacks are more common. By some estimates, 30,000 deaths a year in the United States are caused by fine particle pollution.

Human Illnesses from Air Pollution

Many but not all cases of asthma can be linked to air pollution. During the 1996 Olympic Games, Atlanta, Georgia, closed off their downtown to private vehicles. This action decreased ozone levels by 28%. At the same time, there were 40% fewer hospital visits for asthma. Can scientists conclude without a shadow of a doubt that the reduction in ozone caused the reduction in hospital visits? What could they do to make that determination?

Lung cancer among people who have never smoked is around 15% and is increasing. One study showed that the risk of being afflicted with lung cancer increases directly with a person’s exposure to air pollution (Figure below). The study concluded that no level of air pollution should be considered safe. Exposure to smog also increased the risk of dying from any cause, including heart disease.

A lung tumor is highlighted in this illustration

A lung tumor is highlighted in this illustration.

One study found that in the United States, children develop asthma at more than twice the rate of two decades ago and at four times the rate of children in Canada. Adults also suffer from air pollution-related illnesses that include lung disease, heart disease, lung cancer, and weakened immune systems. The asthma rate worldwide is rising 20% to 50% every decade.

Science Friday: Pedaling Through Pollution

Peddling is often a popular activity, with some obvious dangers such as cars. However, air pollution is another danger that is often harder to measure. In this video by Science Friday, researchers Steven Chillrud and Darby Jack describe how their experiment aims to measure the amount of air pollution exposure experienced by a cyclist.


  • Pollutants emitted into the air cause lung and other diseases in humans.
  • Asthma, lung cancer, and other lung diseases are linked to air pollution.
  • Disease rates for air pollutant related diseases are rising.


  1. Lung cancer is on the rise in people who've never smoked. To what might you attribute this fact?
  2. What experiments have been done, deliberately or inadvertently, to test the effects of air pollution on asthma?
  3. How might the increase in asthma be related to air pollution?

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Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What is the your body's first line of defense against air pollutants?
  2. What happens when people breath in air pollutants?
  3. Besides lung problems, what other types of problems can air pollutants cause?
  4. Which populations are most effected by air pollution?
  5. Why is air population especially dangerous for infants and toddlers?
  6. When does pollution affect everybody?
  7. What else does poor air affect negatively?
  8. How much does poor air cost Washington state each year?

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