Why we should not underestimate the effect of air pollution on our health

According to WHO, a staggering 800 deaths every hour are attributable to air pollution (UNEP,2019). Yet the impact of air pollution on our health is often overlooked.

Pollutants in Air

Examples of pollutants involved in air pollution affecting respiratory health are Nitrogen Oxides(NOx,) Carbon Monoxide(CO), Particulate Matter(PM), Ozone(O3)and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) (CDC, no date).

A car releasing pollutants which contribute to air pollution

ARI (Acute Respiratory Infection)

ARI is the most common cause of illness in children. Air pollutants increase the chance of contracting and the severity of ARIs as they significantly affect specific and non-specific defences against pathogens in the respiratory tract. The specific mechanisms involve vital counterparts in cellular and humoral immunity-these are crucial in antibody production and generating cell-mediated immunity.Non-specific mechanisms are filtration and removal of particles in the upper airway and the mucociliary apparatus of the trachea and bronchi.

NO2 has been shown to affect both specific and non-specific defences - it affects the mucociliary apparatus and the cellular and humoral response. Furthermore O3 increases the severity of respiratory tract inflammation and impairs phagocyte functions (Smith, et al., no date).


COPD is the group of lung conditions that causes breathing difficulties (NHS,no date).

According to data from the German Study on the Influence of Air Pollution on Lung, Inflammation and Ageing, females living within 100m of a busy road had poorer lung function and increased risk of COPD (Schikowski,et al.,2014).

After an exposure of NO2 for patients with COPD, harm is caused to the upper and lower respiratory tract, including the alveoli and the bronchioli. After the exposure, there was a reduction in the effectiveness of the lower pulmonary defences (Petit,et al.,2017).

Exposure to PM2.5 causes inflammatory cell infiltration in the lung tissues and increases the number of inflammatory cells in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid. PM2.5 is engulfed by phagocytes, stimulating inflammatory factor release. These factors accumulate in the damaged area, and stimulate cells to release more inflammatory factors (Duan, Hao, and Yang 2020).

Mental Health

Not only does air pollution affect our respiratory health, it also significantly impacts our mental health. Exposure to air pollution is linked to an increasing severity of mental illness for those with pre-existing mental conditions such as depression and schizophrenia. A recent study involving 13887 people in London has discovered that for a small increase in exposure of nitrogen dioxide(15 micro grams per cubic metre) over a period of a year has led to an increase of 32% needing community based treatment and 18% increase in the risk of hospital admission. For a 3 microgram per cubic metre increase of PM2.5, there was an increase of 11% in the risk of hospital admission and 7% increase in needing community-based mental healthcare. This study used the frequency of visits to community doctors or hospital admissions as a measure of severity (Kings College,2021).


Overall, the impact of air pollution on these diseases demonstrate how air pollution can exacerbate respiratory diseases and pre-existing mental conditions. However air pollution does not only affect people with these conditions. “If the water you drank was brown and toxic, would you drink it? Then why should we be okay with breathing toxic air?” asked powerfully by Alina Barcelo (Dunning 2021). We should open our eyes to the damaging impacts of air pollution on our health before we are faced with an air pollution epidemic.


UNEP(2019)Five Reasons you should care about air pollution.Available at:

(Accessed: 23 December 2021)

CDC(no date)Air Pollutants.Available at:

(Accessed:23 December 2021)

Smith,K. et al.(No date)Indoor air pollution in developing countries and acute lower respiratory infections in children.Available at: (Accessed:23 December 2021)

NHS(No date)Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease(COPD).Available at: (Accessed:23 December 2021)

Schikowski,T. et al.(2014) ‘Ambient air pollution: a cause of COPD?’,European Respiratory Journal, 43,pp.250-263.doi:10.1183/09031936.00100112.

Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2021)

Duan,R., Hao,K and Yang,T(2020)Air Pollution and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2021)

Petit,C. et al.(2017) ‘The Pathophysiology of Nitrogen Dioxide During Inhaled Nitric Oxide Therapy’,ASAIO Journal,63(1),pp.7-13.doi: 10.1097/MAT.0000000000000425 Available at: 24 December 2021)

2021. Exposure to air pollution linked with increased mental health service-use, new study finds. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 December 2021].

Dunning,H.(2021) ‘We need bolder action on air pollution following new WHO guidelines, say experts’. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2021)

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