Exposure to low levels of air pollution is equivalent to smoking a pack a day

“The increase in emphysema we observed was relatively large, similar to the lung damage caused by 29 pack-years of smoking and 3 years of aging.”


Long-term exposure to even low levels of air pollution increases risk of emphysema at a rate equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, says a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week.

The first of its kind long-term study utilized data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). With a large sample size – more than 15,000 heart and lung CT scans and lung function tests from over 7,000 adults ages 45 to 84 in six communities throughout the U.S. – the results give an excellent representation of the health effects of pollution on a national level.

Overall the study found average annual levels of ozone between 10-25 parts per billion, well below what the Environmental Protection Agency deems safe. According to the EPA levels lower than 100 parts per billion don’t raise any health alarms. However, according to the study even exposure to these low levels can cause significant health problems.

The most shocking result of the study? Individuals that were exposed to just 3 parts per billion of ozone over 10 years have the same risk for emphysema as that of a person who smokes a pack of cigarettes day. Emphysema is a chronic disease that impairs and ages lung function and can accelerate death. The disease is incurable and is usually associated with cigarette smoking.

“The increase in emphysema we observed was relatively large, similar to the lung damage caused by 29 pack-years of smoking and 3 years of aging,” said Dr. R. Graham Barr,  a senior author of the paper. One pack-year is defined as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for a year.

Unfortunately, levels of ground-level ozone are likely to increase with global warming. “Ground-level ozone is produced when UV light reacts with pollutants from fossil fuels,” added Barr. “This process is accelerated by heatwaves, so ground-level ozone will likely continue to increase unless additional steps are taken to reduce fossil fuel emissions and curb climate change. ”

Participants started off healthy at the beginning of the study. Over the course of the study, scientists studied lung function with a spirometry test, measuring how much air participants can breathe out in one breath, while researchers controlled for other factors that could affect lung health, including whether the individual was a smoker or not.

Exposure to ozone was the only pollutant that was a connection to lung function, as it irritates and inflames the lining of a person’s lungs as they breathe it in.

“These findings may offer one explanation for why emphysema is found in some people who never smoked,” said James Kiley, Ph.D., NHLBI’s director of the Division of Lung Diseases. “The study’s results, duration, and timing offer insight into the long-term effects of air pollution on the U.S. population.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is less interested in air quality and more interested in supporting industries that contribute to air pollution. The administration has diligently worked to roll back clean air regulations, including implementing a new methodology to determine air pollution which “would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner.”


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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.