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Can Air Pollution Be As Harmful As Smoking?

August 21, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

The health effects of air pollution are well-known: Cancer, heart disease and stroke are just some of the risks one faces by breathing in polluted air. Now, a new study has found that long-term exposure to air pollution is “significantly associated” with the development of lung damage commonly seen in smokers.

 

The study

 

The research, published in 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), examined the lung scans of 7,071 adults aged 45 to 84 living across six metropolitan areas in the United States: Baltimore, St. Paul, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Winston-Salem. The 7,071 participants were all exposed to a certain annual amount of ground-level ozone, or smog–on average, between 10 to 25 parts per billion.

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Researchers then attempted to determine how breathing in ground-level ozone as well as a number of other pollutants affected the participants’ health. They followed up on the participants over an average of 10 years and found that those who were exposed to fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, black carbon, and ozone had an increased risk of emphysema, a lung condition commonly diagnosed in smokers that causes a shortness of breath.

 

In addition, they found that participants exposed to high amounts of ground-level ozone developed a form of emphysema usually found exclusively in smokers. Essentially, their lungs were impacted the same as people with a 29-year, pack-a-day cigarette habit.

 

“We found that an increase of about three parts per billion [of ground-level ozone] outside your home was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years,” said study collaborator Joel Kaufman, physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington.

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Global air pollution and how it affects us

 

Although air quality is improving across the U.S, pollution is still a huge concern, especially in lower-income areas. People living in low-income communities are most affected by air pollution, concluded a 2019 study. Kerry Ard, associate professor of environmental sociology at Ohio State University, found that pollution “hot spots” are present in states with a lot of industrial plants, such as Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. These “hot spots” primarily affect African-Americans, many of whom live in industrial areas.

 

But make no mistake, air pollution affects everyone living in cities across the United States and all over the world. Concentrations of smog fluctuate with the weather, rising with the heat. It’s estimated that 7 million people worldwide die prematurely every year from air pollution. Think of a country like India, which is notorious for having shockingly high levels of ozone along with boiling hot summers. The combination of heat and smog causes a needless amount of deaths every year: In 2012, 1.5 million people died from air pollution in India.

 

To sum up

 

Researchers discovered that exposure to high levels of ozone impacts the lungs similarly to tobacco smoke, contributing to the development of emphysema. Although the United States and other countries have seen a drop in air pollution in the last few decades, there is still much work that needs to be done in order to prevent millions of deaths worldwide.

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