The World Health Organization (WHO) defines ambient air pollution as potentially harmful pollutants emitted by industries, power plants, cars, and trucks. Indoor smoke also represents a serious health risk. Additionally, biomass and coal are highly pollutant and are often found inside our homes. 

Some of the pollutants that affect us are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2); all of them cause great damage to our health.

How do pollutants affect our environment and us?

The main cause of nitrogen dioxide emissions is traffic, especially in urban areas where the traffic density is high. People who work near busy roadways can experience high exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Also, the levels of nitrogen dioxide surrounding people who live close to heavy traffic or freeways can be twice as high as the levels measured for people who live in residential areas or on lesser-used roads. 

High levels of carbon monoxide can be found in indoor areas, especially among poor and marginalized populations. According to PAHO, “household air pollution is the second largest environmental-health risk among low- and middle-income countries, estimated to be responsible for 3,8 million deaths in 2016 (6,7% of total mortality).’’

Carbon monoxide is a gas produced by burning any type of fuel, gas, oil, kerosene, coal, wood, or tobacco product. When ingested, it replaces oxygen in the red blood cells; people who have a heart disease are already more likely to develop chest pains when exposed to low levels of carbon monoxide. If you are exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, it can slow your reflexes and cause confusion and drowsiness; at very high concentration in enclosed spaces, it can result in death.

Ozone formation responds to natural sources such as volatile organic compounds which, according to the Government of Canada, can significantly affect vegetation and decrease the productivity of agricultural crops. Ozone can also damage flowers and shrubs and contribute to forest decline. It can damage synthetic materials, it causes dyes to fade faster, and accelerates the deterioration of some paints and coatings. It also damages cotton, acetate, nylon, polyester, and other fabrics.

Who is most affected?

According to South Coast Air Quality Management District from the United States, people who are most likely to suffer serious health problems due to air pollution are:

How does ambient air quality affect our health?

The University of Rochester Medical Center from New York states that some of the symptoms related to air pollution are watery eyes, coughing, an irritated throat, or heavy breathing. The actual risk depends on current health status, the type and concentration of the pollutant, and the length of time a person has been exposed to polluted air. 

Spare the Air reported that high levels of air pollution can damage the cells of the respiratory system and can cause health problems, such as aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. As this produces more stress for the heart and lungs, they would consequently have to work harder to supply oxygen to the body.

A study in 2020 demonstrated that lungs aged rapidly when exposed to high levels of pollution, which can lead to the development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer. High pollution levels can also shorten a person’s life.

A 2013 evaluation by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to us and that particulate matter in polluted air is closely linked to the increasing incidence of cancer, especially lung cancer. A link has also been observed between outdoor air pollution and an increase of urinary tract and bladder cancer.

What can I do to help?

To help the environment and consequently help to improve air quality, you can do the following:

To reduce pollutants inside your home you could try the following: