Air Pollution and Your Respiratory Health

Air pollution is not only a threat to the environment, but also to our respiratory health. According to the Respiratory Health Association, more than 137 million Americans live in communities that have unhealthy levels of air pollution. Air pollution is a health risk to everyone, but especially those who live with lung disease.

What is Air Pollution?

Most air pollution emanates from particulate matter, or soot, as well as ground-level ozone, or ozone smog. Particulate matter is made up of chemicals that pollute the air we breathe and is responsible for most health complications from air pollution in the United States. According to the National Library of Medicine, outdoor air pollution, mostly particulate matter, is responsible for about 3.3 million premature deaths in the world yearly.  Ground-level ozone is created when pollutants, specifically nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, chemically react with sunlight or heat. The higher the temperature, the faster this process happens, which results in an increased and unhealthy ground layer ozone level. Air pollution consists of harmful chemicals and compounds that can occur naturally, or from human activity. Common causes of air pollution include:

  • Vehicle emissions
  • Oil and gas extraction
  • Industrial processes, especially when coal-fueled
  • Chemical production fumes
  • Construction
  • Fireplaces, industrial/trash burning and wildfire smoke

How Does Air Pollution Affect Your Lungs?

Over time, inhaling particulate matter and ground-level ozone into your lungs can cause irritation and you may start to experience symptoms such as:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath

This can lead to even more severe health risks over time such as lung cancer, stroke, heart attack, and even premature death. Certain demographics are more at risk of lung damage from air pollution. These groups include babies and young children, the elderly, people who work or spend a large amount of time outdoors, as well as those who already suffer from heart or lung conditions.

Protecting Yourself and Your Lungs from Air Pollution

If your health, age or occupation places you at a higher risk for air pollution exposure, always check the Air Quality Index (AQI) before going outside. AQI is associated with a numerical value along with a color, making it easier to determine if the air quality is safe or not. The AQI scale ranges from 0-500, with 0-50 being the safest and 301-500 being the most hazardous. Exposure to the outdoors poses the highest risk, especially for sensitive groups, when the AQI is over 100. On days when the AQI levels are high, avoid going outside unless it is necessary.

Reducing Air Pollution

Even though it may seem like one person cannot make a difference, by making just a few changes you can help reduce how much ozone is formed on hot days. Much of the ozone smog that is present in cities comes from vehicles. When possible, take public transportation or carpool to limit driving your personal vehicle. Make sure to turn your car off when it is not in motion, and do not let the engine idle. You may also consider switching to an electric vehicle. Electric vehicles are better for air quality and likely have less impact on climate change. It is crucial that everyone makes an effort to reduce air pollution in our cities so we can lower the number of people that are negatively impacted by it.


While there will always be challenges to making the air we breathe cleaner, it is important to do your part to reduce it. Since particulate matter and ground-level ozone are harsh on our respiratory system, taking precautions such as checking the AQI and staying indoors when it is high will help you protect your lungs.