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What is the link between air pollution and health?

Thomas, aged 10

Due to years of efforts across Europe, today’s air quality is better than it used to be, but it still isn’t what it should be. The air quality still needs improvement. Scientific research shows that air pollution has a major impact on our health. Thomas (10) was recently diagnosed with a mild form of asthma. He now brings his meds along to athletics and skateboarding practice out of precaution. Poor air quality can lead to increased health risks. Not only children but also elders and people with lung or heart disease are susceptible to increased health risks caused by poor air quality.

What is the link between air pollution and health?

Scientific research has shown that air pollution has a great impact on our health. Especially children, the elderly and people already suffering from pulmonary or cardiovascular disease are extra vulnerable.

Lifelong exposure to the current concentration of particulates in the air reduces our average life expectancy by one year. Air pollution affects the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, in particular.

The effect of air pollution in respect of loss of healthy years of life and quality of life for the total population is:

• comparable with the effects of obesity and lack of exercise;

• greater than that of traffic accidents and infectious diseases;

• smaller than that of smoking, bigger than that of passive smoking.

Note: this is the effect for the total population and not for an individual.


How dangerous is air pollution? Is everything in the air harmful?

Air pollution consists of a mixture of substances. Not all pollutants are equally harmful to health. It depends chiefly on the harmfulness of the substances, the quantity in the air and the length of exposure. In the North West Europe (NWE) region, particulates, nitrogen dioxides, soot and ozone chiefly cause health problems. The smaller the particles, the deeper they penetrate into the lungs and the more harmful they can be.

Click here to find out more on the effects of particulates, nitrogen dioxides, soot and ozone on health.

Is air pollution harmful for everyone?

The longer you are exposed to air pollutants and the higher the concentrations, the more harmful it is to your health. That applies to everyone. However, not everyone will exhibit health problems at the same rate. This is because people react differently to air pollution and some people are more vulnerable. We can make a distinction between ‘healthy’ people and risk groups. The risk groups primarily include small children, the elderly, people suffering from chronic pulmonary disease and those with cardiovascular disease.

Can I get ill or die from air pollution?

Extended inhalation of traffic-related air pollution (a mixture of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and soot) can continually reduce lung function and cause or aggravate respiratory conditions such as coughing and asthma. The chances of having cardiovascular diseases such as vasoconstriction, increased blood clotting, increased heart rate, heart attack or stroke may increase as well. These effects can lead to hospital admissions and even premature death. Even short-term peak exposures to high concentrations of particulate matter can cause severe airway - or heart diseases.


The more ozone in the air, the more people will exhibit health problems and the more serious the conditions will be. People with respiratory conditions and children are more sensitive to ozone. An additional roughly 10% of the population reacts far more violently to ozone, for no apparent reason. The primary effects to health of short-term exposure are irritations of the eyes, nose and throat and respiratory symptoms, such as coughing, pains in the chest, shortness of breath, an increase in the seriousness and frequency of symptoms in people with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), feelings of discomfort, tightness of the chest, headaches, nausea, dizziness and a reduction in lung function. These complaints generally disappear automatically once the ozone concentration drops. It is not yet clear what the health effects are of long-term exposure to ozone.

What is the link between air pollution and health? How do the most common pollutants in the air affect our health? Thomas explains.
Drag the particles to Thomas to discover their effects on health

  • Nitrogen

    Nitrogen dioxide is a toxic gas formed in most combustion processes. Inhaling nitrogen dioxide may cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat and can also cause asthma attacks in people with sensitive airways.

  • Ozone

    Ozone is a gas formed from dioxygen by the action of sunlight and atmospheric electrical discharges. Especially during Summer, high concentrations of ozone are detected in the air. This may cause a shortness of breath, irritation of the eyes nose and throat, nausea and dizziness.

  • Particulate

    Particulate matter is a generic term for small and almost invisible particles in the air. The smaller the particles, the deeper they spread into the lungs. Particulate matter mainly affects the respiratory and cardiovascular system.

  • Soot

    Soot consists of small particles formed in combustion processes. It’s also called black carbon. The concentration of soot in the air is linked with respiratory problems and a reduced function of the lungs among children.