New research suggests that individuals exposed to even moderate levels of air pollution could suffer similar lung function impairments and disease as those seen among those who smoke cigarettes, raising concerns about the acceptable levels of ambient air quality.
A study published in the European Respiratory Journal this month warns that men and women exposed to moderately low air pollution could be at risk of increased lung and breathing complications.
Researchers from Canada, the U.K. and Switzerland sought to evaluate whether ambient air pollution was associated with increased diagnosis of lung complications such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which is an irreversible lung disease that causes airflow obstruction.
The study involved 303,887 British men and women from different areas. Researchers took air pollution samples to compare the impact on the participants.
According to the findings, each increase of five micrograms per cubic meter in particulate matter, known as PM2.5, led to a 52% increase in the diagnosis of COPD.
Results indicated higher levels of pollutants collected from certain areas corresponded with increased lung impairment diagnosis. Even those in areas of respectively low particulate matter, but with high exposure, were found to have an increased risk of lung complications.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines 12 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter as the maximum for healthy air quality. According to the study, even areas within this range were found to increase the risk of obstructive air flow complications.
Researchers indicated each five microgram per cubic meter increase in PM2.5 resulted in a decrease in lung function for study participants. The overall decrease in lung function was more than four times greater than the effects of secondhand smoke.
Several studies focusing on the adverse effects of poor air quality have been released this year, with one of the most recent published in May by the Environmental Health Perspectives, suggesting exposure to air pollution may negatively impact adolescent cognitive function and cause anxiety.
A supporting study published in the medical journal Cardiovascular Toxicology found that air pollution negatively impacts the cardiovascular development of a fetus. Researchers indicated pregnant women’s exposure to air pollutants could impact fetal size, due to the particulate matter restricting blood flow to the uterus, which deprives the fetus of nutrients in the final stage of growth and development.
Research also indicates air pollution greatly affects the brain development of young children, when it undergoes the most critical and rapid growth outside of the womb. Other studies link air pollution to increased risk of developmental disabilities, including autism and behavioral problems.