Health Effects of Air Pollution

Are we spending time and money on health care because of the air we breathe?

Young woman wearing protective face mask outdoors due to the polluted air

 d3sign / Getty Images

Air pollutants are everywhere in our daily environment, and they can come from emissions from car exhausts, factories, and other sources in the communities where we live. When we breathe in air pollutants daily over periods, those pollutants can build up in our systems and cause us to become ill.

What you may not realize is just how detrimental air pollution is to our health. One study found that 16% of deaths worldwide in 2015 were directly or indirectly related to pollution. This alarming statistic proves the dangers that continued exposure to air pollution can cause to human health. Furthermore, these health effects of pollution can cause increased costs for health care. Individuals could face increased premiums and payments for their health insurance and out-of-pocket expenses. The better you understand the health effects of air pollution, the more you can minimize those risks and prevent paying more for your health care.

Health Risks Related to Air Pollution

Continued exposure to air pollution has detrimental health effects on humans. Air pollution contributes to myriad health problems and medical conditions including cardiovascular disease, liver and blood diseases, headaches, anxiety, eye/nose/throat irritation, breathing conditions such as asthma, nervous system disorders, lung cancer, problems of the reproductive system, and other chronic and long-term diseases.

Common Pollutants

An air pollutant is defined as any material in the air, which could potentially affect human health or the environment. The World Health Organization has identified six major air pollutants:

  1. Particle pollution: Particle pollution consists of mixtures of particles in the air most associated with pulmonary and cardiac-related conditions. Small particle pollutants reach the heart and lungs and can result in heart attacks, asthma, decreased lung function, coughing, wheezing, bronchitis—and ultimately—a reduction in life expectancy.
  2. Ground-level ozone: A high-level of ground-level ozone poses dangers to humans, animals, and plant life. It irritates the respiratory system and can aggravate health conditions such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis. Continued exposure to ground-level ozone can also damage the immune system’s ability to fight off bacterial infections. Continued exposure to ground-level ozone can produce permanent lung damage.
  3. Carbon monoxide: Carbon monoxide is dangerous to humans, especially since the gas is colorless and odorless, and dangerous levels in the air can go undetected. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal. Exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and unconsciousness, and continued exposure can contribute to cardiovascular disease, including premature angina and arrhythmias. 
  4. Sulfur oxides: Sulfur Oxides are produced as a result of fossil fuel consumption, such as the gas we use to drive our cars. Human exposure to sulfur oxides can provide respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease. Sulfur oxides are more readily absorbed by mouth-breathing than by breathing through the nose. This tendency puts people who exercise in polluted areas, such as joggers, at greater health risk.
  5. Nitrogen oxides: Nitrogen oxides are emitted from motor vehicle engines, and people who are exposed to high levels can develop pulmonary edema. Other health effects include coughing, wheezing, ear/nose/throat irritation, headaches, and chest pain.
  6. Lead: Lead is toxic to humans, and pollution may result from both indoor and outdoor sources. Battery plants, wastewater, and irrigation wells can be possible emission sources of lead into the environment. Lead paint is a leading source of contamination when the paint is disturbed, and lead particles contaminate the air. Paint manufactured before 1978 is likely to contain lead. Lead poisoning is especially dangerous to children, potentially causing brain damage and damage to other vital organs, including the kidneys.

The True Cost of Air Pollution

While air pollution can have serious effects on your health, it can also impact your wallet. With the increased need for health care comes the potential for increased costs of health insurance and out-of-pocket expenses.

According to a study by the RAND Corporation, 30,000 people were admitted to the hospital or emergency room between 2005 and 2007 for asthma, respiratory, and cardiovascular issues related to California’s air quality. The study found that three-fourths of the cases could be attributed to high ambient levels of fine particulate matter, while the rest were related to high ozone levels. As a result of these hospitalizations, the public and private health insurance companies—and thus the employers and employees—ultimately paid about $193 million for the care.

This study is just an example of the financial costs that can come from the health effects of air pollution. On a larger scale, pollution-related health care costs could increase individuals’ health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses for drugs and services associated with these effects, such as respiratory issues like asthma. And, depending on the type of plan, such as one with a high deductible, the costs to manage these health effects with medicine, inhalers, and more could be higher.

While many individual factors into play with the true cost of air pollution, it may still be smart to consider how health risks can pose a threat to your financial situation. Understanding how to prevent the health effects of air pollution could help you save money in the future. 

What You Can Do to Combat Air Pollution

We can all do our part to reduce air pollution and the risks it poses to our health and finances. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers several tips, including:

  • Carpool to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
  • Use environmentally safe paints and cleaning products in your home.
  • Combine errands to reduce the number of trips you make in your car.
  • Do not idle your vehicle unnecessarily.
  • Avoid the use of gas-powered lawn equipment.
  • Combine home deliveries into one shipment to minimize packaging and reduce the driver’s time on the road.

For more information on what you can do to reduce air pollution, check out the EPA’s “Report on the Environment.”