Air Pollution and Health Research

The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards on air pollutants such as ozone and PM 2.5 because air pollutants serve as a major environmental risk to human health. The research sited below shows cases of human health impacted negatively by PM 2.5, ozone, and other air pollutants, since 2000.


DEFINITION: < 2.5 um (fine particles [PM 2.5]) come primarily from the burning of fossil fuels in traffic, by industry and in power generation. They are a complex and varying mixture of substances that includes carbon-based particles, dust, and airborne acid droplets. PM 2.5 is associated with increased premature deaths and is especially harmful to people with lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, as well as people with heart disease. Exposure to particulate air pollution can trigger asthma attacks and cause wheezing, coughing, and respiratory irritation in individuals with sensitive airways.

Here is a sampling of research on PM 2.5’s impact on health (most recent studies first):

  • The University of Southern California Children’s Health Study measured lung development between the ages of 11 and 15 and found large gains for children studied from 2007 to 2011, compared to children of the same age in the same communities from 1994-98 and 1997-2001.
  • MIT researchers from the University’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment completed a study that tracked the ground-level emissions from industrial practices, transportation, marine and rail operations, and heating derived from residential and commercial use throughout the United States. The study showed that fine particle pollution, from these emissions, causes approximately 200,000 premature deaths a year. These deaths are caused by long-term exposure to high PM 2.5 concentrations. The most significant contributor to these deaths were transportation emissions, causing approximately 53,000 early deaths a year. The second highest contributor was power generation, causing nearly 52,000 deaths per year. – Atmospheric Environment, 2013
  • Researchers from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis and Air Pollution (MESA) say that long-term exposure to PM 2.5 pollution may be associated with the hardening of the arteries. They found that carotid artery intima-media thickness (CIMT) increased from 3.9 percent to 4.3 percent for every 10 ug/m3 increase in the pollutant. They found an even greater association between air pollution and CIMT among females, individuals over the age of 60, and patients taking cholesterol lowering medication. – PLOS Medicine, 2013
  • 34 studies were completed to show the link between air pollutants and myocardial infarctions (also known as heart attacks). These studies were analyzed by researchers to show significant correlation between all of the criteria air pollutants, including PM 2.5, PM 10, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, with the exception of ozone, with an increase in the risk of heart attack. – JAMA, 2012
  • A 26-year prospective study of a large group of lifelong non-smokers provided evidence that with each 10 μg/m3 increase in PM 2.5 concentrations, the group’s chance of lung cancer mortality would increase by 15-27 percent. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2011
  • The American Heart Association released a scientific statement that expressed the link between exposure to PM 2.5 or particle matter larger than 2.5 micron in diameter, for over a few hours to weeks, to cardiovascular related mortality and nonfatal events. Long term exposure, such as a few years, to the same matter was linked to an increased risk in cardiovascular mortality, larger than the increase in risk expressed by a few hours to weeks. In addition, decreases in PM levels are associated with decreases in cardiovascular mortality –American Heart Association, 2010
  • Researchers from Brigham Young and Harvard calculated that cleaner air lengthened urban resident’s life spans significantly, based on data accrued between 1980 and 2000 in 51 urban developments. Data showed that reductions in PM 2.5 extended the average life expectancy of urban dwellers by five months. This was the first research that documented the effects of improved air quality on longevity. – The New England Journal of Medicine, 2009
  • A University of Washington (UW) study in 2007 provided further evidence that an increase in exposure to air pollution raises the risk of heart complications such as heart attacks and heart disease, as well as stroke. The study focused on PM 2.5 produced by coal-fired power plants, transportation exhaust, and other various sources. The UW scientists discovered that by increasing PM 2.5 levels by 10 points, a woman’s risk of a heart attack or other cardiovascular complication increased by 24 percent and her risk of death by heart disease, by 76 percent. – The New England Journal of Medicine, 2007
  • Researchers from Harvard found that when particle pollution in an urban area declines, the area benefits by a direct proportional decrease in death rates. It was concluded that for every decrease of 1 microgram of soot per cubic meter of air, death rates associated with cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and lung cancer decreased by 3 percent. This decrease alone, extends the lives of 75,000 people a year in the United States. – American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2006
  • Researchers from the UCLA School of Public Health showed that people living or working in close proximity to major freeways are exposed to 30 times the concentration of dangerous PM 2.5 particles from vehicle emissions. – Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association, 2002
  • Brigham Young University and New York University researchers discovered that for every 10 microgram increase in fine particulate pollution, lung cancer increases by 8 percent while heart and lung related disease increases by 6 percent. The study concluded that long-term exposure to PM 2.5 pollution significantly increases the risk of lung cancer mortality. – American Medical Association, 2002
  • A group of 1,678 children in Southern California were followed for 4 years, beginning in 1996 to show how air pollutants effected their overall health. The study showed that cleaner air improves children’s lung function and air pollutant offenders such as PM 2.5, nitrogen dioxide, and acid vapors slow children’s lung development over time. – American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2002

Ozone (O3)

DEFINITION: A highly reactive gas that is a form of oxygen, which results primarily from the action of sunlight on hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted in fuel combustion. Exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone sears the lungs. It can produce significant decreases in lung function, inflammation of the lung lining and pain when breathing, and is associated with hospital admissions and emergency room visits for respiratory problems.

Here is a sampling of research on ground-level ozone’s impact on health (most recent studies first):

  • An Integrated Science Assessment for Ozone and Related Photochemical Oxidants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that ozone pollution poses serious health threats. It causes respiratory harm (e.g. worsened asthma, worsened COPD, inflammation); is likely to cause early death (both short-term and long-term exposure) and cause cardiovascular harm (e.g. heart attacks, strokes, heart disease, congestive heart failure); and it may cause harm to the central nervous system and reproductive and developmental harm. – Environmental Protection Agency, 2013
  • According to researchers at the University of Southern California, children who breathe in air that is highly concentrated with ozone are more likely to develop asthma, especially those who are playing sports in these areas. – PubMed, 2002
  • University of Southern California researchers also found that ozone pollution increases the level of school absenteeism due to associated respiratory illnesses. – PubMed, 2001
  • A study calculated that an alteration of traffic patterns that reduced congestion for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, significantly decreased the amount of asthma care events by over 41 percent.JAMA, 2001


Here is a sampling of research on the health impacts of both PM 2.5 and ozone (most recent studies first):

  • The American Lung Association published a report called “A Penny for Prevention: The Case for Cleaner Gasoline and Vehicle Standards” that states that if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can fully implement standards for cleaner gasoline and vehicles, by 2030, 2,500 premature deaths could be prevented annually due to lesser concentrations of both ozone and particle pollution. 3.3 million days of missed school or work could also be saved. These changes could result in $8.5 billion to $22 billion in annual economic and health care benefits.” – American Lung Association, 2013 
  • Using new methodology that includes estimates of childhood asthma cases directly caused by traffic pollution, University of Massachusetts researchers estimated that childhood asthma creates an economic burden of more than $18 million annually for the communities of Long Beach and Riverside in Southern California. “The fact that together these two communities account for only 2 percent of the population of California suggests that the statewide costs are truly substantial,” the researchers wrote, noting that the total cost nationwide is a significant economic burden that disproportionately falls on those living near high traffic corridors. – European Respiratory Journal, 2012
  • Researchers from UCLA and the California Air Resources Board published a study that showed that air pollutants extend further than 1.5 miles downwind. This distance is 10 times greater than daytime pollutant measures previously taken. The study also found that although traffic volumes are lower before sunrise, air pollution concentrations were higher than those during traffic congestion peaks throughout the day. This air pollution was found to be trapped near the surface, creating a zone of influence many times greater than during the daytime traffic peaks. Atmospheric Environment, 2009
  • A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that with each additional 10 parts per billion of ozone concentration, there was a correlated 4 percent increase in risk of dying from respiratory causes including pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. – New England Journal of Medicine, 2009
  • German researchers discovered that the risk of developing asthma, allergies, and eczema is nearly 50 percent times higher for children living within 50 yards of a busy road compared to those living 1,000 yards away. These children were found to be inhaling higher amounts of particles and gases caused by transportation emissions and freshly emitted and toxic aerosols. – American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2008
  • In the largest and longest study of its kind, USC researchers have found that children living near busy highways have significant impairments in the development of their lungs that can lead to respiratory problems for the rest of their lives. The 13-year study found that the damage from living within 500 yards of a freeway is about the same as that from living in communities with the highest pollution levels. – Lancet, 2007
  • Air pollution causes higher respiratory death rates in infants. According to researchers, the risk of respiratory death more than doubled in infants aged 7 months to 12 months who were exposed to “high average” levels of particulate matter. The risk of dying of SIDS went up by 15 percent to 19 percent for every 1 part per hundred million increase in average nitrogen dioxide levels at two months before death. The researchers also found that younger infants were more likely to suffer higher rates of death from respiratory illness if they were exposed to higher levels of carbon monoxide two weeks before death. – Pediatrics, 2006
  • New research shows that teenagers who grow up in heavy air pollution have reduced lung capacity, putting them at risk for illness and premature death as adults. During the eight-year study, University of Southern California researchers found about 8 percent of 18-year-olds had lung capacity less than 80 percent of normal, compared with about 1.5 percent of those in communities with the least pollution. – New England Journal of Medicine, 2004
  • Air pollution causes the blood vessels of healthy people to close up which may cause heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems, according to University of Michigan and University of Toronto researchers. – JAMA, 2002
  • Korean researchers and the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that air pollutants are significant risk factors for acute stroke death. Deaths in Seoul between 1995 and 1998 increased consistently with rising concentrations of fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide or ozone. – National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2002
  • Smog is harmful to babies and fetuses causing stillbirths, infant deaths, and low birth weight, according to UCLA researchers. – Epidemiology, 2001


  • A study of 57,053 Danish patients assessed the association between exposure to traffic-related nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) over 35 years and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), concluding that long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution may contribute to the development of COPD with possibly enhanced susceptibility in people with diabetes and asthma. – American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2011
  • Researchers at St. Mary’s Hospital in Portsmouth, England found that while most asthma attacks suffered by children are related to viral infections, they are more serious if the child has been exposed to nitrogen dioxide from ordinary traffic pollution. – British Medical Bulletin, 2003
  • Canadian scientists published information indicating that air pollution is most likely the reason behind gene mutations of herring gulls near steel mills in Hamilton, Ontario. The scientists were able to duplicate the mutations in mice based on air quality. The researchers expressed concern that these mutations may also occur in humans. The chemicals thought to be responsible for the mutations are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, a group of about 100 different chemicals that are created largely when fossil fuels are burned, – PNAS, 2002
  • Children who live near heavily traveled roads and highways are at greater risk of developing cancer, including leukemia, according to a study conducted by the University of Colorado. Benzene and other auto emissions are suspected as causes. – Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association, 2000

2 Responses to Air Pollution and Health Research

  1. Pingback: Children’s Lung Health Seriously Affected by Traffic Pollution | Breathe Roanoke

  2. Pingback: Yellow Air Quality for Particulates Today | Breathe Roanoke

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