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Air Pollution Diseases

Air pollution is undoubtedly the most problematic of all types of pollution that may involve serious long-term health effects. The trickiest and most dangerous aspect of air pollution relates to the fact that everyone could be exposed since we need to breathe every other moment! We cannot choose to not breathe or select the air we breathe. Additionally many air pollutants can travel long distances from their source being of risk for our health in concentrations below the threshold of smell. In other words, we may not feel that we are breathing a polluted air! However, over long periods of time even low concentrations of contaminants in air may have devastating health effects. Obviously, the most exposed people are those working and living in polluted air environments (e.g., various industries and buildings with pollutants in indoor air due to various causes – see Air Pollution Section). Additionally, big city’s smog is a reality all over the world involving outdoor air pollution and potentially affecting a large number of people.

There are two main types of air pollutants:

  • 1) Gases
  • 2) Particulate matter (tiny solid particles suspended in air such as dust particles).

It has to be mentioned that although air pollutants get in our bodies through the respiratory tract and lungs, they could get absorbed in our bloodstream and circulate affecting various other parts and organs.

The effects of air pollution involve a large variety of illnesses, starting with the simple irritation of eyes, nose mouth and throat or reduced energy levels, headache and dizziness, but also involving more serious conditions of which the most common are:

  • Respiratory and lung diseases including:
    • Asthma attacks
    • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease –COPD
    • Reduced lung function
    • Pulmonary cancer – caused by a series of carcinogen chemicals that through inhalation
    • Mesothelioma – a particular type of lung cancer, usually associated with exposure to asbestos (it usually occurs 20-30 years after the initial exposure)
    • Pneumonia
  • Leukemia – a sort of blood cancer usually associated to exposure of benzene vapors (through inhalation)
  • Birth defects and immune system defects
  • Cardiovascular problems, heart diseases and stroke (an increased risk especially due to particulate matter)
  • Neurobehavioral disorders - neurological problems and developmental deficits due to air toxins such as mercury (which is the only volatile metal in elemental form)
  • Liver and other types of cancer – caused by breathing carcinogenic volatile chemicals
  • Premature death

According to a Cornell University study ((available at ) air pollution from smoke and various chemicals kills 3 million people a year!