Air Pollution Effects: What Are We Breathing and How Bad Is It for Us?

Global warming and climate change were trending topics for many years before the advent of COVID-19. We have probably heard of acid rain, greenhouse gasses, melting glaciers, and much more.

But what do you need to know about ambient air pollution? How is it affecting you?

In this article, we’re covering the most critical air pollution effects breaking down pollutants into different types.

We’re differentiating between outdoor and indoor air quality and giving you helpful advice to reach higher air quality standards in your home.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution results from the release of hazardous substances into the atmosphere.

Significant pollutants in air pollution include aerosols, carbon oxides, Sulphur oxides, and ozone.

We also have particulate matter, fossil fuels, volatile organic compounds, persistent free radicals, ammonia, odors, nitrous oxide, etc.

They cause harmful effects on living beings, non-living material, and climate. For example, they cause several respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, or stroke.

The driving force behind chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis is air pollution.

Economic loss from air pollution is calculated at around $5 trillion per year worldwide. Thus, it is a considerable burden for our health, economy, and society.

Air pollution is caused by human waste as well as anthropogenic activities.

Anthropogenic activities are only found in humans-for example, fossil fuel power stations, motor vehicles, and fumes from paints.

We also need to count in aerosol sprays and varnish applications of fertilizers and pesticides. 

Natural sources are also relevant. They include dust storms, volcanos, lightning, wildfires, forests, terpenes, sea salt, and pollen (1). 

Indoor air pollution

Indoor air pollution is the presence of pollutants within and around buildings and structures. For example, burning fossil fuels for heating and cooking results in household air pollution.

The World Health Organization declared indoor air pollution the most considerable environmental health risk. Indeed, it is a risk factor for several death causes, such as lung cancer, pneumonia, and cardiovascular disease.

According to “Global Burden of Disease,” during the year 2017, approximately 1.6 million people died due to indoor air pollution (1).

Measuring air pollution

Air quality defines how clean or polluted the air is in our atmosphere. Measuring air quality is relevant because polluted air can be harmful to humans. The air quality can be measured with the “Air Quality Index” (AQI).

The AQI is like a thermometer that runs from 0 to 500 degrees. The measure indicates the quality of air. This index also shows changes in the pollutant concentration in the atmosphere. If the AQI number is below 50, the air quality is good, and humans can breathe the air without fear. As the number on the AQI scale increases, the air quality is becoming poor.

Ultimately, it will impose adverse effects on the health of human beings. Different devices and methods are used to measure air quality. The most significant device is the “diffusion tube,” which can be used to measure the primary air pollutants (2).

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Short term exposure

Short-term exposure is the experience of air pollution for a short time or temporarily. Short-term exposure can remain from several hours to many days.


It can cause the following health-related problems (3):

  • Irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, or skin

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Pneumonia

  • High blood pressure

  • Stroke

  • Hypertension

  • Diabetes mellitus

  • Reduction in pulmonary function

  • Premature death

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest tightness

  • Coughing

  • Stress and anxiety 

Long term exposure

Long-term exposure is continuous or repeated exposure to a toxic substance over a more extended period. The air quality and the concentration of pollutants may vary.


These health problems are associated with long-term exposure to air pollution (4):

  • Lung cancer

  • Heart disease

  • Decreasing lung activity

  • Aggravated asthma irritation of the airways and throat

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Emphysema

  • Nerve damage

  • Chronic bronchitis

  • Loss of lung capacity

  • Accelerated aging

Health effects from specific pollutants

Each pollutant poses a different impact on human beings. Also, some pollutants may aggravate the effects of others. This section discusses the most important air pollutants and their effects on the human body.

Carbon monoxide

Incomplete combustion of organic matter results in the production of carbon monoxide. It is also released from some natural sources.

It is an explosive, odorless, colorless, flammable, and very toxic gas. In the body, it reduces the concentration of oxygen in blood after being inhaled. 

The health effects of carbon monoxide depend on the concentration of inhalation. It is measured in ppm or parts per million (5):

  • 50ppm is permissible for up to 6-8 hours

  • 200ppm causes a slight headache within few hours

  • 400ppm results in nausea, headache, and migraine within 2 hours

  • 800ppm causes dizziness, nausea, migraine within 45 minutes, and potential death within 2 hours

  • 1600ppm results in migraine, headache, nausea, and breathing difficulty within 20 minutes. It causes potential death within 1 hour

  • 3200ppm causes migraine and dizziness within 10-15 minutes. Then, loss of consciousness and death within 30 minutes.

  • 6400ppm causes dizziness within 2 minutes and potential death within 10-15 minutes.

  • 12,800 ppm results in loss of consciousness and potential death within 1-3 minutes. 


Ozone can be good or bad, depending on where it is found. Ground-level ozone is pretty much harmful because it contributes to smog. It acts as a primary as well as a secondary air pollutant. It is even worse during sunny days because it reacts with other pollutants forming other hazardous substances.

Children, older people, outdoor workers, and malnourished people are at a higher risk.

Inhalation of ground-level ozone triggers a variety of symptoms, such as (6):

  • Chest pain

  • Coughing

  • Airway inflammation

  • Throat irritation

  • Emphysema

  • Chest tightness

  • Pain or burning in the chest

  • Wheezing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Bronchitis

  • Asthma

  • Lung cancer

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease

  • Potential death

Sulfur dioxide

Sulfur dioxide is a colorless and toxic substance with a pungent smell. It acts as a primary and secondary pollutant in the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels produces it.

Some other natural and anthropogenic activities also release sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.

It triggers many respiratory problems. Symptoms and health conditions associated with sulfur dioxide pollution include (7):

  • Coughing

  • Tightness of chest

  • Phlegm

  • Asthma attack

  • Wheezing

  • Heart stroke

  • Irritation of throat, eyes, and nose

  • Premature death

Particulate matter

Particulate Matter (PM) is the mixture of airborne particles that differ in size, chemical composition, toxicity, and origin. They all are <10 μm in size, coming as dust particles, soot, and smoke.

Sources of PM can be natural as sea spray, dust storms, volcanos, and forest fire. It is also human-made, as in smelting metals, thermal plants, and incinerating waste. 

The health effects of particulate matter are directly linked with the size of pollutant particles. So, particulate matter with less than 10 micrometers causes the most significant health problems than coarse particles.

The particulate matter’s most affected organs include the lungs and heart, resulting in respiratory and cardiac disturbances.

Exposure to particle pollution poses a variety of health problem such as (8):

  • Cardiac arrhythmias

  • Aggravated asthma 

  • Premature death with heart or lung disease

  • Decreased lung function

  • Irritation of the airways

  • Shortness of breathing

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Nonfatal heart attack

  • Dementia

  • Myocardial infarction

  • Loss of cognitive function

Nitrogen dioxide

Nitrogen dioxide is a reddish-brown, pungent, and acidic gas that is also corrosive. It is not usually released into the atmosphere because it forms when the NOx reacts with other air chemicals.

Some anthropogenic activities such as combustion of fossil fuels, welding, refining, food manufacturing, and commercial packaging play a significant role in producing nitrogen dioxide.

The most significant health effects of NO2 are located on the respiratory system. Its inhalation increases respiratory infection risk by impairing lung defenses and function.

Breathing air with a high concentration of nitrogen dioxide irritates the airways. It aggravates respiratory diseases, particularly asthma.

Breathing air with nitrogen dioxide reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. This results in oxygen deficiency in other tissues. A higher concentration can lead to lung cancer, cardiac attack, and emphysema (7).


Lead can be found in different parts of the environment. It is released into the atmosphere by natural as well anthropogenic activities. Lead has significant harmful impacts on the human body. It stores in the bones, blood, and tissues, causing progressive damage.

Lead poisoning can be as bad as increasing mortality and hospital admission. People with prolonged exposure may experience high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and infertility.

Exposure to lead can lead to the following health conditions and symptoms (9):


Asbestos is a group of six mineral fibers that are naturally occurring in the environment. Common types are Amosite, Crocidolite, and Chrysotile.

Asbestos is frequently used in textiles, fireproofing, pipe insulation, and paving. From these materials, it is released into the atmosphere.

Asbestos is not much harmful until it breaks down into tiny particles. Then, these particles are inhaled by human beings.

Long-term unsafe asbestos exposure poses detrimental effects on our health. Asbestos particles can easily enter and reach the lower regions of the lung. Here, it causes asbestosis and damages the lining of the pleura.

Enlargement of the heart is also reported in people who breathe a higher concentration of asbestos. 

Asbestos exposure can increase the risk of developing (10):

  • Pleural effusion, in which fluid collects around and within the lungs

  • Mesothelioma, in which chest and stomach cancer take place

  • Lung cancer that results in permanent lung damage.

There are two kinds of asbestos-related diseases. Pleural diseases include pleural thickening, mesothelioma, benign pleural effusion, and pleural plaques. Pulmonary diseases include lung cancer, and asbestosis, etc.


Benzene is a highly flammable, light yellow, and colorless liquid at room temperature. It is evaporated into the atmosphere by natural as well anthropogenic activities.

Natural sources include volcanos, forest fires, and spray salts, etc. Man-made sources include crude oil, smoke, gasoline, and paints, etc.

The following symptoms may develop in people who are frequently exposed to benzene (11):

  • Confusion

  • Dizziness

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Unconsciousness

  • Tremors

The worse impact of benzene exposure is located in the blood. It reduces the count of red blood cells and leads to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and affect the immune system.

Exposure to benzene for more extended periods can cause irregular periods, a decrease in the size of ovaries, and infertility in men.

Bone marrow damage can also occur. Benzene is classified as carcinoma because it can trigger leukemia and other types of cancer.

Kerosene and fuel oils

Kerosene is a liquid mixture that is also known as paraffin and produced from the distillation of crude oil. 

It is used for heating and cooling purposes and as a solvent agent. It is not much poisonous in a short time exposure.

However, frequent skin exposure may lead to dermatitis and skin cancer. It is also linked with deformation of lung structure, asthma, cancer, and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Chronic kerosene exposure may lead to infertility in men and women by disturbing testosterone and luteinizing hormones.

Breathing the fumes from kerosene and crude oil causes symptoms such as (12):

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea

  • Irregular breathing

  • Convulsion

  • Coma

  • Irritation of the nose throat

  • Loss of memory

How can you reduce your exposure?

Reducing your exposure to outdoor pollution

You can take these steps to reduce exposure to outdoor pollution:

  • Try to plan your outdoor activities when the air quality is best or less polluted.

  • Avoid going outside when the traffic is heavy.

  • Use public transportation or cycling instead of personal driving.

  • Try to wear personal protective equipment such as a respirator to filter the inhaled air in highly polluted cities.

  • Choose travel routes that minimize near-road and heavy traffic pollution exposure.

  • Monitor and measure the air pollution levels before leaving your home.

  • Use clean fuels for transportation

Reducing your exposure to indoor air pollution

Consider these recommendations to prevent air pollution exposure indoors:

  • Purchase carpets with a Carpet and Rug Institute Green Label Plus logo

  • For construction and renovation purposes, try to purchase formaldehyde-free products like bricks

  • Cigarette smoking, vaping, and marijuana smoking should be restricted to the outside

  • Scented products such as air fresheners should be minimized

  • Cleaning products and fragrances products with a citrus smell shouldn’t be purchased because they react with ozone and form formaldehyde

  • High emitting products such as paint and glue should be used in the outdoors. You can also open the doors and windows to increase the ventilation

  • The use of facial tools, vegetable washers, and ozone fruit should be reduced as they cause ozone pollution

  • Try to use an electric gas stove instead of a wood stove

  • If you heat your house with a gas stove, hibachis, charcoal grills, or a portable generator, they should be placed outside the door

  • Try to check the maintenance of gas heaters and stoves regularly to avoid the release of carbon monoxide

  • Use an efficient filter in your central air system to remove airborne particles

  • Keep the windows and doors closed when the air pollutants concentration is high in the outdoor atmosphere.

Contributing to the environment

We should all contribute to preserving the environment. If we do that, our planet will be able to sustain life for several thousand years. No mega-projects are required.

It is an individual effort with basic steps to control the release of air pollutants into the atmosphere.

For example:

  • Avoid taking cars when possible

  • Use reusable bags 

  • Print as little as necessary

  • Learn to recycle waste

  • Use a reusable beverage container

  • Save electricity by utilizing eco-friendly appliances

  • Save water by changing your habits


Air pollution is hazardous for our health as human beings. It is also dangerous for all living beings.

Most types of air pollutants enter the human body via inhalation and cause respiratory problems and cardiac disease. 

The Air Quality Index can measure air pollutant presence and their concentration in the atmosphere. But it is not limited to the outdoors.

Both indoor and outdoor air pollution can be harmful, and the exposure can be short-term or long-term.

Different steps can be taken to control the release of air pollutants into the atmosphere.

As responsible citizens, we can play a significant role in preserving our environment for future generations.


  1. Akhtar, R., & Palagiano, C. (2018). Climate Change and Air Pollution. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, AG.
  2. Nigam, S., Rao, B. P. S., Kumar, N., & Mhaisalkar, V. A. (2015). Air quality index—a comparative study for assessing the status of air quality. Research Journal of Engineering and Technology, 6(2), 267-274.
  3. Rajak, R., & Chattopadhyay, A. (2020). Short and Long Term Exposure to Ambient Air Pollution and Impact on Health in India: A Systematic Review. International journal of environmental health research, 30(6), 593-617.
  4. Chen, H., Goldberg, M. S., & Villeneuve, P. J. (2008). A systematic review of relation between Long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and chronic disease: on-line appendix. TSP, 1, 0-99.
  5. Stewart, R. D. (1975). The effect of carbon monoxide on humans. Annual review of pharmacology, 15(1), 409-423.
  6. Nuvolone, D., Petri, D., & Voller, F. (2018). The effects of ozone on human health. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 25(9), 8074-8088.
  7. Chen, T. M., Kuschner, W. G., Gokhale, J., & Shofer, S. (2007). Outdoor air pollution: nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide health effects. The American journal of the medical sciences, 333(4), 249-256.
  8. Harrison, R. M., & Yin, J. (2000). Particulate matter in the atmosphere: which particle properties are important for its effects on health?. Science of the total environment, 249(1-3), 85-101.
  9. Needleman, H. L. (1991). Human lead exposure. CRC Press.
  10. Boffetta, P. (1998). Health effects of asbestos exposure in humans: a quantitative assessment. La Medicina del lavoro, 89(6), 471-480.
  11. Zhang, L., McHale, C. M., Rothman, N., Li, G., Ji, Z., Vermeulen, R., … & Lan, Q. (2010). Systems biology of human benzene exposure. Chemico-biological interactions, 184(1-2), 86-93.

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