Even Low Levels of Air Pollution Can Damage Your Lungs as Much as Smoking a Pack a Day

Illustration for article titled Even Low Levels of Air Pollution Can Damage Your Lungs as Much as Smoking a Pack a Day
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Breathing polluted air could impact a person’s health just as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.


That’s according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Tuesday, which is the first of its kind to take a long-term look at the role various air pollutants play in causing emphysema. The findings show that air pollution can seriously damage the lungs.

The study relied on data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis study, which includes more than 15,000 heart and lung CT scans, as well as lung function tests, from 7,071 adults aged 45 to 84 in six communities throughout the U.S. from 2000 to 2018. The data is a real plus here. Not only is the sample size large; it includes people from a variety of major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York and of different race and ethnicities.

Most of these cities have been seeing their air pollution levels of particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and black carbon decrease. Ozone is the lone exception, which has increased. The cities studied saw average annual levels of ozone between 10-25 parts per billion. Levels lower than 100 parts per billion don’t raise any health alarms, per the Environmental Protection Agency standards, but this study shows that long-term exposure to low levels can be dangerous to public health, too.

People who were exposed to just 3 parts per billion more of ozone over 10 years face the same risk for emphysema as that of a person who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years. Extreme heat exacerbates ground-level ozone pollution, and the authors note that this pollutant may become more prevalent under the climate crisis.

“What this is showing us is there is no safe level of air pollution
,” Brian Christman, the vice-chair for Vanderbilt University’s Department of Medicine who didn’t work on the study, told Earther.


Unfortunately, not everyone experiences this pollution equally. Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live closest to poor air quality, several studies have found. We already know the way air pollution can cause heart and other lung diseases. Now, we can add emphysema—which can age the lungs and accelerate death—to the list of threats these communities face.

As the Trump administration continues to roll back environmental protections, marginalized communities may bear an even greater burden if their air quality diminishes. That doesn’t have to be the case. Adding more electric cars to the road and developing clean energy sources could help, Christman noted.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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While I’m sure the ground-level ozone breathing versus cigarette smoking research was done meticulously, for some reason it doesn’t seem to make sense to compare the two for just one analyte, i.e. ozone, without context. Maybe ozone isn’t formed from smoking a cigarette. Maybe it is, but to a negligible extent. Or maybe dragging on 20 smokes a day is like sucking on the outlet of an ozone generator. That’s not explained.

Who knows, maybe the control should be someone who grew up around Northwest Indiana and smoked at least a pack a day for years prior to the Clean Air Act.

From the great Climate Central (a tip of the hat, of course):

Explainer: How Ground-Level Ozone Is Formed

Unlike natural stratospheric ozone, which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, ground-level ozone is a pollutant. It forms when heat and sunlight allow the reaction of two other pollutants: nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. These chemicals come from industrial plants, electric utilities, vehicle exhaust, wildfire smoke, and oil and gas extraction. High heat can accelerate this process. The resulting ground-level ozone can build up to unhealthy levels—especially without wind or rain to mix up the air.