Not everyone is equally vulnerable to the health effects of poor air quality.

The people most at risk are those with respiratory disease, especially disease of the airways such as asthma and chronic bronchitis.

African Americans suffer a high prevalence of asthma, causing vulnerability to the effects of poor air quality. The elderly are susceptible, and so are young children. Particle pollution also poses a threat to people with heart disease, including those with congestive heart disease, coronary artery disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Asthma is a special concern because the prevalence of people with asthma is on the rise. According to most evidence, air pollution does not cause asthma. However, once a person has asthma, air pollution can trigger attacks.

For children with asthma, a smoggy summer means missed games, staying indoors and in too many cases, spending the day at the emergency room instead of summer camp. Why are children so vulnerable to pollution-caused lung problems?

Asthma is more common in young children.

  • Children breathe more and faster than adults do.
  • Children are more active and more likely to play outdoors.
  • Children breathe through their mouths more, eliminating the filtering effect that comes from nose breathing.

Outdoor sports at school are most likely to occur in the afternoon hours when ozone levels are highest.

But even healthy, conditioned athletes may be affected by air pollution. In one study, day hikers on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington showed decreased lung function on high ozone days compared to low ozone days. And particle pollution is linked to significant public health risks — including death from heart and lung disease.

The effects of ozone

Ozone is a reactive and irritating chemical. When inhaled, it can irritate and inflame the airways, the passages that carry air from the mouth and nose to the lungs.

At low levels, this may not cause any noticeable symptoms, but may inflame the airways and decrease air flow, creating a sensation that feels like a sunburn in your lungs. At higher levels, symptoms can include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness or pain. People who are exercising outdoors may find that their stamina is diminished.

Particle pollution

Fine particulate matter can penetrate past the body’s defenses and lodge deep in the tissue of the lungs or even slip into the circulatory system.  When exposed to particle pollution, people with heart and lung diseases and older adults are more at risk of hospital and emergency room visits, or, in some cases, even death. These effects have been associated with both short-term (as short as one hour) and long-term exposures.

Particles can aggravate heart diseases such as congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease. Particle pollution has also been associated with cardiac arrhythmia and heart attacks.  Particles can aggravate lung diseases such as bronchitis, causing increased medication use and doctor visits. Particle pollution can also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

The more we learn about exposure to these pollutants, the more urgent it becomes to protect human health.

Many scientific studies have demonstrated the effects of exposure to ground-level ozone and particle pollution:

  • With higher levels of ozone, people report more respiratory symptoms, use more respiratory medications, make more emergency room visits, and are hospitalized more.  In recent years, studies have shown that exposure to ground-level ozone influences a range of circumstances, from fertility in women to brain development in infants and sleep in adults.
  • Fine particles aggravate heart and lung conditions, creating serious health risks — including death from heart and lung disease.

What you can do

First, be aware of your symptoms.

Some people are more sensitive than others. If you feel respiratory symptoms when the air pollution levels rise, do not ignore them. They may indicate a reaction to ozone, particle pollution, or other pollutants. People with heart or lung conditions are unusually sensitive, but even healthy athletes may have a reaction at AQI levels well below 100.

Minimize your exposure: While outdoor exercise is good for health, you should consider limiting your outdoor exercise at times when air quality is poor, such as late afternoons and early evenings in the summer on high-ozone days. Alternatives include indoor exercise, or exercise in the morning or late evening hours.

Change your activities: When particle pollution concentrations are expected to be high, take it easy. Particle pollution levels can be high inside as well as out, so cut back or reschedule strenuous activities. Changing your plans can help reduce the amount of pollutants that get in your lungs.

If you have asthma or a cardiac condition, treat it: Follow your doctor’s instructions faithfully. This will likely include taking medications and eliminating exposures at home or work that may tend to trigger your condition.

Additional Resources

“Facts About Asthma” from the American Lung Association

“Clinical Guidelines For Diagnosing And Treating Asthma” from the National Institutes of Health

Help Prevent Poor Air Quality

You can help protect your health, and your community’s health, by taking steps such as carpooling, vanpooling, teleworking and using transit. A clean air lifestyle can have a positive impact on your health.