Impacts on Health

Air pollution plays a role in many of the major health challenges of our day, and has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia.

This table highlights the short term health impacts of the key local air pollutants.

Pollutant Health effects at very high levels
Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide, Ozone These gases irritate the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases
Particles Fine particles can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of heart and lung diseases
Carbon Monoxide This gas prevents the uptake of oxygen by the blood. This can lead to a significant reduction in the supply of oxygen to the heart, particularly in people suffering from heart disease

Air pollution is harmful to everyone. However, some people suffer
more than others because they live in deprived areas, which often have higher levels of air pollution; live, learn or work near busy roads; or are more vulnerable because of their age or existing medical conditions.

This damage occurs across a lifetime, from a baby’s first weeks in the womb all the way through to the years of older age.  Gestation, infancy and early childhood are vulnerable times because the young body is growing and developing rapidly. We know that the heart, brain, hormone systems and immunity can all be harmed by air pollution. Research is beginning to point towards effects on growth, intelligence, and development of the brain and coordination. Harm to babies and children will have an impact that lasts far into the future.

For the same reason, any air quality improvements we make now will have long-lasting benefits.  Older people, and adults with long-term conditions, are also vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Improving air quality will help them to stay independent and well, benefiting individuals and easing the pressure on our NHS and social services.

You can learn a lot more about the health impacts of air pollution by reading the Royal College of Physicians report, “Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution, ” from which the above extracts were taken.

Advice for people with health problems

Use the Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) to understand air pollution levels and find out about recommended actions and health advice. The advice here applies to anyone experiencing symptoms.

This video explains how to make use of the DAQI.

Short-term effects

Air pollution has a range of effects on health. However, air pollution in the UK on a day-to-day basis is not expected to rise to levels at which people need to make major changes to their habits to avoid exposure; Nobody need fear going outdoors, but they may experience some noticeable symptoms depending on which of the following population groups they are in:

  • Adults and Children with lung or heart conditions – It is known that, when levels of air pollutants rise, adults suffering from heart conditions, and adults and children with lung conditions, are at increased risk of becoming ill and needing treatment. Only a minority of those who suffer from these conditions are likely to be affected and it is not possible to predict in advance who will be affected. Some people are aware that air pollution affects their health: adults and children with asthma may notice that they need to increase their use of inhaled reliever medication on days when levels of air pollution are higher than average.
  • Older people – Older people are more likely to suffer from heart and lung conditions than young people and so it makes good sense for them to be aware of current air pollution conditions.
  • The general population – At Very High levels of air pollution, some people may experience a sore or dry throat, sore eyes or, in some cases, a tickly cough even in healthy individuals.
  • Children – Children need not be kept from school or prevented from taking part in games. Children with asthma may notice that they need to increase their use of reliever medication on days when levels of air pollution are higher than average.

Follow your doctor’s usual advice about exercising and managing your condition. It is possible that very sensitive individuals may experience health effects even on Low air pollution days. Anyone experiencing symptoms should follow the guidance provided.

This video also explains the health effects of air pollution.

Technical Reports

This expert testimony to a NICE committee preparing guidance on air pollution summarises the evidence about transport related air pollution.

The expert Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) produces reports on the effects of air pollution on health, available here.

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidance on air pollution