How do the major air pollutants impact our bodies?

Ever since the industrial revolution, the air quality is ever deteriorating. But how much does it really affect us right now? We breathe in air every day and nothing serious may seem wrong with us now but what about in the future? Being exposed to air pollutants can have both short term and long term consequences on our health and can take the form of mild symptoms or may even become life threatening for some. You may have associated these symptoms as being caused by a change in season/ weather or that you’ve somehow caught a bug from a friend or family member when in fact it may have been caused by the air surrounding you every day.

The short term effects of exposure to air pollutants may have been something you’ve experienced before, these consequences include exacerbation of breathing problems such as asthma, allergies, pneumonia, bronchitis or simply a headache and dizziness. Long term health impacts include chronic asthma, respiratory diseases, lung cancer and is said to cause long term damage to the nervous system and other major organs such as the kidneys leading to premature deaths.

Some of the major air pollutants with the most adverse health effects are carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and different sized particulate matter. A brief summary of how these pollutants could harm our health.

Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odourless gas which can be produced by incomplete combustion of fuels in car engines. Due to increased vehicle emissions, more carbon monoxide is released into the air daily. Breathing in carbon monoxide causes mainly short term health effects. Cells require oxygen to carry out its functions, this oxygen is transported around the body by a protein called Haemoglobin, however carbon monoxide if breathed in will bind to haemoglobin instead of oxygen therefore reducing the overall oxygen uptake in the body. This short term exposure to carbon monoxide makes the heart more vulnerable commonly leading to chest pains known as angina.

Nitrogen Oxides
Nitrogen oxides similar to carbon monoxide are produced as a product of combustion. Nitrogen oxides can damage the respiratory tract and lead to asthma attacks and respiratory infections, long term exposure can lead to chronic lung diseases. Nitrogen oxides themselves can cause the formation of ozone and fine particles which are other examples of pollutants.

Particulate Matter
Different sized particulate matter can be found, they can be classified into two categories, fine PM which are particulates with a diameter of less than 2.5μm and coarse particulates with a diameter between 2.5μm and 10μm. Because of their sheer size, they are able to travel and penetrate deep into the respiratory system and deposit there. Biologically, mucous membranes that line the nose and throat will capture these particles and remove them, however if there is an abundance not every single particle can be captured. The finest particles will be able to travel the furthest and are likely to be deposited in the alveoli and bloodstream, slightly coarser particles will be deposited in bronchioles or in the trachea in general. PM that penetrate the lung epithelium will cause lung inflammation and can worsen respiratory diseases such as pulmonary disease and asthma or cause the lungs to be more sensitive to other irritants.

Sulfur Dioxides
Sulfur dioxides mainly attack the respiratory tract as well, short term exposure leads to irritation of skin and mucous membranes, when the skin and mucous membranes do not function properly, pathogens are much more likely to enter the body increasing the chances of inflammation in the respiratory tract due to the immune system being activated. Long term exposure will decline the lungs ability to function.

More on more studies are currently investigating further the long term effects of health and action is being taken in order to try and tackle the number of hospitalisations, premature deaths and cancer diagnoses that were caused by high levels of exposure to these air pollutants.


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