Outdoor Air Quality and Air Pollution

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 13, 2022
6 min read

Unlike states or countries, outdoor air pollution has no boundaries. Bad outdoor air quality can have far-reaching health effects for you and your loved ones. From wildfires, to exhaust fumes from cars or factories, to dust, mold spores, and pollen, many things can pollute and affect outdoor air quality.

Research shows that if outdoor air has too many pollutants, especially human-made toxic substances, long-term exposure to it can cause a range of diseases and hurt your body in several ways. This can include health issues like asthma, allergies, and certain types of cancer.

In severe cases, exposure to air pollution can be deadly and shorten your life by months to years. According to the World Health Organization, outdoor air pollution kills up to 3 million people each year.

Here’s a quick guide to how poor outdoor air quality affects you, what to watch out for, and how to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Yes, it can. Long-term exposure to poor outdoor air quality is linked to many health problems like:

  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Heart attacks
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Allergies
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Premature death

Bad-quality outdoor air can also make you more likely to visit the emergency room; have a hospital stay; or miss school, work, or other day-to-day activities. It can also affect how children’s lungs develop.

If you or your loved ones live or work in areas with high levels of air pollution and breathe in too much of it, you might notice signs and symptoms like:

Smog from air pollution, wildfires, or smoke from a factory chimney may also reduce your range of vision or create a hazy environment. This might make it hard to drive or get around and increase your risk for roadway accidents.

People who have a higher risk of bad health effects from poor air quality are:

People with heart or lung disease. Those with conditions like heart failure, angina, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, or asthma are more likely to have bad reactions to poor outdoor air quality.

Older adults. They are more likely to have heart or lung disease than younger people.

Children and teenagers. Their lungs and respiratory systems are still developing. They also tend to breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and are also more active outdoors, compared to adults. This makes them more likely to be affected by poor air quality.

People with diabetes. This can affect heart and health. Exposure to bad air can make your condition worse.

Pregnant people. Breathing in bad air with toxic substances could put you and your developing baby inside the womb at risk.

People who have lower incomes. Those who have lower incomes and other social and economic barriers tend to live closer to sources of air pollution like factories, urban city centers, or highways. This puts them at a higher risk for long-term exposure to dirty air than those who live where the air is cleaner.

People who are active outdoors. If you like to exercise or stay active outdoors in areas with bad air quality, it’s more likely that you’ll breathe in toxic substances that affect your health.

There are over 200 human-made toxic substances that are released into the air around you daily. These can include:

Ozone. Also called smog, it’s one of the least-controlled pollutants in the U.S. Ozone is invisible and can have dangerous effects on your health if you breathe it in.

Particulate matter. Also called particle pollution, it’s a mixture of very tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe. Usually, it’s so small that you can’t spot it with your naked eye. It’s dangerous if you breathe it in for a long time.

Nitrogen dioxide. It’s the gas that’s a result of burning fuels. If you live on a busy street or by a highway, you might be breathing in too much nitrogen dioxide.

Sulfur dioxide. This chemical enters outdoor air when you burn sulfur-containing fuels such as coal, oil, or diesel. If you live by a coal-burning factory or a seaside port, you’re more like to breathe in sulfur dioxide from your air.

Carbon monoxide. It’s an invisible gas with no smell that forms because of burning fuels. You can find high levels of it near busy streets and highways.

Bad outdoor air quality stems from many sources, such as:

Electric utilities that burn coal, natural gas, oil, and biomass produce air pollutants that affect your lung health.

Transportation. Vehicles like cars, motorbikes, buses, and trains used to move people, goods, and fuel from one place to another can make the air around you dirty and fill it with toxic substances.

Residential sources. Burning fuels, like coal or wood, to warm your home or mowing your lawn can produce emissions that can affect the air quality in your neighborhood and beyond.

Commercial and industrial. Burning fuels to heat, cool, and power businesses, industrial plants, or manufacturing facilities can put harmful substances into the air.

Emergencies and natural disasters. Wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and other natural events can lead to unhealthy air quality. Fine particles of pollution can get into your lungs and irritate them. Cleaning it up is a challenge, too.

Climate change. Growing toxic substance levels in outdoor air have led to climate change that affects everybody’s health on the planet. It also increases the likelihood of natural disasters. This especially affects those who have lower incomes and people of color who often tend to live in areas most affected by natural disasters.

Acid rain. Too many toxic substances in the air can also lead to “acid rain.” It happens when rain contains particles of sulfuric and nitric acids. It could also affect your skin if you come in contact with it.

Acid rain pollutes drinking water, destroys crops, and affects food quality. This then has harmful effects on your health. These particles can come down in the form of rain, snow, fog, hail, or acidic dust.

Bad air quality affects everyone in your family and community. But it’s especially bad if you or your loved ones have heart, lung, or allergy issues.

Here are some tips to protect yourself from bad-quality outdoor air:

Pay attention to local weather and air quality forecasts. The environmental protection agency (EPA) and certain weather apps on your phone send daily alerts on air quality. Make sure to check them before you leave your home.

Usually, they publish color-coded alerts to let you know if the air around you is unhealthy. For example, green means clean, breathable air, while red and maroon are used to warn you about dangerous pollutants.

Stay indoors, and shut your doors and windows. If there is a smog alert, a natural disaster like wildfires nearby, or if you live close to a factory or highways, stop bad-quality air from getting inside your home.

Avoid exercising outdoors in areas where the pollution is high. Avoid running or walking in high-traffic areas. Vehicles like buses and cars can emit toxic substances and make the air quality unhealthy. Also, try to limit how much your child plays outdoors when the air quality is bad.

Use eco-friendly utilities at home. By using less energy or eco-friendly sources like solar power or electricity, you can reduce the number of toxic substances released in and around your home and community. This will help to keep the air around your living space cleaner and healthier for your loved ones.

Pay attention to air quality-related health symptoms. If you notice signs or symptoms of health problems related to bad-quality outdoor air, tell your doctor. They’ll suggest tips to bring it under control or share tips to avoid triggers.

Don’t burn wood or trash. This puts small solid particles called soot into the air. Breathing it in may be dangerous for your lung health. In fact, it’s a big source of air pollution in the U.S.

Choose to eat or gather at tobacco-free places. Smoke from cigarettes or smoking tools like vapes or hookah pipes can pollute the air around you with toxic substances. It’s especially harmful if you or your loved one has a heart or lung condition. To avoid it, choose tobacco-free restaurants and other smoke-free places.