Health effects

Health effects of main air pollutants

Air pollution cuts all of our lives short. In 2010 alone, more than 400,000 people died earlier because of it or dying of a heart attack when pollution levels go up. Air pollution inside and outside has an enormous impact on our health, which ranges from immediate effects such as coughing and wheezing, to triggering and aggravating respiratory diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to people having to be hospitalised for heart problems. There are also studies that show how air pollution harms children that are not born yet, via the air their mothers breathe in.

Pollutants and health


Source: EEA Signals report 2013

Most of these air pollution related health problems are linked to the following four pollutants: particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

Particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10)
Particulate matter (PM) pose the greatest risk to human health in Europe as they are small enough (1/30 to 1/5 of the diameter of a human hair) to easily enter not only the lungs, but also the bloodstream. Long-term exposure to particles increases the risk of developing heart and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer. The average life expectancy in the EU is nearly nine months lower due to the exposure to fine particulate matter produced by human activities.

Ozone (O3)
Ozone can cause breathing problems, trigger asthma, reduce lung function and lead to lung diseases. As it is formed in a reaction with sunlight, concentrations of ozone are higher in the summer and in the afternoon. Short-term increases in ozone can already lead to more people dying.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
Studies have shown that symptoms of bronchitis in asthmatic children increase in association with long-term exposure to NO2. Reduced lung function growth is also linked to this pollutant.

Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
SO2 can affect the respiratory system and the lung function, and cause irritation of the eyes. Inflammation of the respiratory tract causes coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma and chronic bronchitis. Hospital admissions for cardiac disease and death rates increase on days with higher SO2 levels.

Indoor air pollution and its effects on our health

Air pollution does not stop at our doorsteps. Most outdoor pollutants enter into our homes, offices or schools where people in Europe spend the majority of their time.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) therefore has an enormous impact on the quality of people’s lives and health. Indoor air is affected by various pollution sources, such as building construction and decoration materials, indoor allergens, moulds, viruses and bacteria, or furnishings for example. The behaviour of the people living in the house also matters: the cooking habits, if people smoke indoors, how often they open the windows or which cleaning products they use. Last but not least, the air coming from outdoors also determines what we breathe inside.

Bad indoor air increases the risk of earlier death from pneumonia, COPD, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases; it worsens asthma and allergies and reduces productivity.


Source: EEA Signals report 2013, European Commission Joint Research Centre

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