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HOW AIR POLLUTION AFFECTS OUR HEALTH

Health Effects: Air pollution poses many health risks and different pollutants can lead to respiratory problems, exacerbated allergies, and adverse neurological, reproductive, and developmental effects. This is especially true for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, pregnant women, those with heart or lung disease, and people with weakened immune systems. People who work or exercise outdoors may also be especially sensitive.

Particulate matter: Short and long-term exposure to particulate matter contributes to chronic respiratory problems and can increase the risk of cardiac arrest and premature death. Numerous studies have attempted to quantify the number of deaths that can be attributed to fine particle pollution. The Environmental Science Engineering Program at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that approximately 4% of the death rate in the US can be attributed to air pollution. Additionally, a recent study by Abt Associates which looked at the health effects of particle pollution emitted only from US power plants, concluded that each year over 30,000 deaths and more than 603,000 asthma attacks are attributable to fine particle pollution from these sources. The research underlying this conclusion shows that these people are dying months or years earlier because of air pollution.

Particulate matter can be emitted directly from the combustion of fossil fuels, industrial processes, and transportation; created by the combination of gases such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides; and also formed from dust and smoke from wildfires.

Nitrogen oxides: Nitrogen oxides have multiple roles in adversely affecting health: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can be directly toxic in the lungs and it also combines with volatile organic compounds to form ozone. In the lungs, NO2 combines with water to form acids that damage the lung tissue. Nitrogen oxides also oxidize in the atmosphere to become nitric acid, a major component of acid rain. In addition, they combine with sulfur dioxide to form particulates.

Sulfur dioxides: Sulfur dioxides, like nitrogen oxides, are oxidized in the atmosphere to become acid rain and can combine with nitrogen oxides to form fine particles, called particulate matter.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs in the atmosphere have two major health impacts: some are directly toxic and they can combine with nitrogen oxides to form ozone. These hazardous air pollutants are associated with cancer as well as adverse neurological, reproductive, and developmental effects. VOCs are generated by power plants, municipal waste combustors, motor vehicles, solvent use, and the chemical and food industries. They are also emitted from natural sources like forests.

Ground-level ozone: Ground-level ozone, the major component of smog, is the most pervasive outdoor air pollutant in the U.S. Ozone is formed from volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. Exposure to elevated ozone levels can cause severe coughing, shortness of breath, pain when breathing, lung and eye irritation, and greater susceptibility to respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Numerous studies have shown that higher ozone levels exacerbate asthma attacks and link elevated ozone levels to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for asthma. Recent research with laboratory animals, clinical subjects, and human populations has identified a cascade of adverse health effects from ozone at levels common in the United States. Effects include increased respiratory symptoms, damage to cells of the respiratory tract, pulmonary inflammation, declines in lung function, increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, and increased risk of hospitalization and early death.

Toxic Air Pollutants: People exposed to toxic air pollutants at sufficient concentrations and durations may have an increased chance of getting cancer or experiencing other serious problems including damage to the immune system, as well as neurological, reproductive (e.g., reduced fertility), developmental, and respiratory problems. In addition to exposure from breathing air toxics, some toxic air pollutants such as mercury can deposit onto soils or surface waters, where they are taken up by plants and ingested by animals and are eventually magnified up through the food chain.

Natural allergens: Natural allergens such as pollens and fungal spores contribute to allergies, asthma, and other respiratory conditions.

Excerpted from www.envirohealthaction.org


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