Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Breathing Polluted Air is Like Smoking a Pack a Day

Health + Wellness
Visitors to Griffith Park observe a smoggy Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 2014. Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

It turns out you don't need to smoke for a lifetime to get emphysema. Just breathing polluted air can give it to you, according to a new study that is the largest and the longest of its kind.


The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA, found that long-term exposure to ground level ozone, the main component of smog, is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, as CNN reported. Just a slightly elevated level of air pollution can lead to lung damage, even for people who have never smoked.

"We found that an increase of about three parts per billion [of ground-level ozone] outside your home was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years," said Joel Kaufman, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington who contributed to the study, as NPR reported.

The study tracked 7,071 adults aged 45 to 84 living in six U.S. cities: Chicago; Los Angeles; Baltimore; St. Paul, Minnesota; New York City and Winston-Salem, North Carolina for up to 18 years.

The researchers created an exposure assessment method that looked at air pollution levels outside participants' homes and carried out CT scans and breathing tests, according to U.S. News and World Report. They assessed environments for levels of fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, black carbon and ozone.

All major air pollutants were linked to an increase of emphysema, a debilitating, chronic and irreversible lung disease that causes shortness of breath and shrinks the amount of oxygen that reaches the bloodstream. It's almost always associated with smoking or long-term exposure to second hand smoke.

However, exposure to ground level ozone pollution showed the strongest link to an increased prevalence of emphysema. It was also the only pollutant to show an additional decrease in lung function, as CNN reported.

"Rates of chronic lung disease in this country are going up and increasingly it is recognized that this disease occurs in nonsmokers," said Kaufman, as U.S. News and World Report reported. "We really need to understand what's causing chronic lung disease, and it appears that air pollution exposures that are common and hard to avoid might be a major contributor."

This is particularly troubling since the climate crisis is accelerating ground level ozone. While most air pollutants have declined thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act, ground level ozone has actually increased. Ozone is colorless and forms when pollutants from fossil fuels interact with sunlight. Pollution from cars, power plants, refineries and chemical plants all contribute to smog, and it is on track to get worse, as U.S. News and World Report reported.

"These findings matter since ground-level ozone levels are rising, and the amount of emphysema on CT scans predicts hospitalization from and deaths due to chronic lower respiratory disease," said Dr. R. Graham Barr, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and a senior author of the paper, to CNN.

He added that smog "is accelerated by heatwaves, so ground-level ozone will likely continue to increase unless additional steps are taken to reduce fossil fuel emissions and curb climate change. But it's not clear what level of ozone, if any, is safe for human health."

"And so as climate change progresses, we expect that vulnerable populations and — even healthy populations — are going to see increased effects," said Emily Brigham, a pulmonologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in this study, to NPR.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A general view of fire damaged country in the The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area near the town of Blackheath on Feb. 21, 2020 in Blackheath, Australia. Brook Mitchell / Getty Images

In a post-mortem of the Australian bushfires, which raged for five months, scientists have concluded that their intensity and duration far surpassed what climate models had predicted, according to a study published yesterday in Nature Climate Change.

Read More
Sea level rise causes water to spill over from the Lafayette River onto Llewellyn Av.e in Norfolk, Va. just after high tide on Aug. 5, 2017. This road floods often, even when there is no rain. Skyler Ballard / Chesapeake Bay Program

By Tim Radford

The Texan city of Houston is about to grow in unexpected ways, thanks to the rising tides. So will Dallas. Real estate agents in Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; and Las Vegas, Nevada could expect to do roaring business.

Read More
Sponsored
Malala Yousafzai (left) and Greta Thunberg (right) met in Oxford University Tuesday. Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

What happens when a famous school striker meets a renowned campaigner for education rights?

Read More
A coal-fired power station blocks out a sunrise in the UK. sturti / E+ / Getty Images

According to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, the last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was 3 million years ago "when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today."

Read More
Passengers arrive in Los Angeles from Asia on Feb. 2. MARK RALSTON / AFP via Getty Images

The spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, could cause "severe" disruption to daily life in the U.S., public health officials warned Tuesday.

Read More