Effects of air pollution on health

The effects of air pollutants on human health are directly related to exposure to such pollutants. This makes it possible to determine the short-term and long-term effects of exposure to airborne pollutants.

Short-term exposure, i.e. exposure to high doses of pollutant concentrations over a period of a few hours, up to a few days at most, results in an acute reaction of the body. This can be, for the most sensitive individuals: premature death (associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases), but also an increase in drug consumption due to aggravation of symptoms of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, adverse effects on the functioning of the respiratory system, and increased number of hospitalisations due to the diseases mentioned above.

Long-term exposure to air pollutants – exposure to low levels of pollutants over a period of many years may result in, among other things: increased mortality from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases (e.g. asthma).

Due to the development of transport, humans are much more exposed to emissions from this source. High concentrations of nitrogen oxides in the air are associated with an increased risk of brain and cervical cancer in women.

Children are the group most vulnerable to the effects of particulate air pollution. This is because their immune, respiratory and central nervous systems are not fully developed. Due to the fact that children spend more time outdoors than adults and their lung capacity is smaller, they breathe more frequently and inhale a considerable amount of air (including polluted air). Elderly people should also be particularly concerned about the quality of the air they breathe. But it is not only children and senior citizens who are at risk of respiratory diseases due to poor air quality. Other groups vulnerable to the severe effects of air pollution-related diseases are people with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes, obesity and people with a low socio-economic status.

The proper functioning of the human respiratory system is greatly affected by both long- and short-term exposure to air pollution. Short-term exposure usually results in exacerbation of symptoms of already existing diseases. People in the vulnerable group are extremely sensitive to being in an area where the air is polluted, the exposure being of short duration with high concentrations of the pollutant. Such exposure can result in breathing problems, shortness of breath, coughing, rhinitis, eye irritation, and sinusitis. Exposure to the negative effects of air pollution starts in foetal life, which may result in the development of respiratory diseases (bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), as well as an increased incidence of lower and upper respiratory tract infections. Long-term exposure to air pollution may result in an increased incidence of upper and lower respiratory tract infections even at low pollution levels.

Although not often associated with cardiovascular disease, air pollution has a huge impact on cardiovascular function. It is now thought that exposure to air pollution not only increases the symptoms of such diseases, but also has a significant impact on their development. Long-term exposure to tidal air pollution results in an increased risk of stroke by as much as 11%. Research carried out by the Silesian Medical Institute in Katowice has shown that air pollution affects, among other things, an increased risk of heart attack (with higher concentrations of nitrogen oxides and PM10 particulate matter), more frequent hospitalisations due to pulmonary embolism (with higher concentrations of nitrogen oxides), and higher mortality due to cardiovascular diseases (with higher concentrations of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter).

The negative impact of air pollution on the possibility of cancer is confirmed by the announcement of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which classified air pollution and particulate matter as a carcinogen. This refers to cancers of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, but cancers of the bladder can also occur as a result of exposure to polluted air.

WHO analyses indicate that the proportion of the European population exposed to short-term concentrations of PM10, above the recommended level, is over 60%. For PM2.5, the figure is as high as 90%. Compliance with the standards in force in the European Union does not guarantee a sufficient way of ensuring clean, unpolluted air. It is therefore necessary to take all measures possible to limit as far as possible human exposure to places where concentrations of air pollutants are exceeded.