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How Air Quality Effects Health

Most people are familiar with air pollution and its linkages to respiratory disease that can manifest as cough, phlegm, chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Air pollution can cause premature aging of the lungs. It also causes increased sickness and premature death from asthma, bronchitis (acute or chronic), emphysema, and pneumonia.

What many people don't realize is that the cardiovascular effects of common air pollutants give rise to more sickness and premature death than the respiratory effects. Symptoms include chest tightness, chest pain (angina), palpitations, shortness of breath, and unusual fatigue. The increased sickness and premature death in this category is from coronary artery disease, abnormal heart rhythms, and congestive heart failure.

One of the main culprits in both cases is the inflammatory response that air pollutants invoke.

The effects on lung function include the narrowing of airways (bronchoconstriction) and decreased air flow. Inflamed airways are characterized by an influx of white blood cells, abnormal mucus production, fluid accumulation, swelling, and the death and shedding of cells that line the airways. Further complications can set in as a result of the increased susceptibility to respiratory infection.

The effects on cardiovascular function include low oxygenation of red blood cells, abnormal heart rhythms, and altered autonomic nervous system control of the heart. Although research on the cardiovascular effects of air pollution is still in its infancy, it appears that vascular inflammation increases the risk of blood clot formation, narrows the vessels, and increases the risk of atherosclerotic rupture and vulnerability to plaque formation.

The mechanism of physical damage from air pollutants is astounding, but even more shocking is the numbers of people effected and the medical costs associated with caring for them. Every year in BC there are a few million minor illnesses caused by air pollution, thousands of emergency department visits, over one thousand hospital admissions, and hundreds of premature deaths.

It is estimated that about 21,000 Canadians die annually from the effects of air pollution. Most of those deaths are due to chronic exposure over a period of years but about 3,000 are due to acute, short term exposures. The numbers will only get worse. The Canadian Medical Association estimated that in 2008, the economic costs of air pollution were over $8 billion. By 2031, they expect that those costs will be more like $250 billion.