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Air pollution can accelerate lung disease

Air pollution can accelerate lung disease as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Photo by Carolina Pimenta (Unsplash)

by Natalia Dec

New research published on August 13th in JAMA has shown an association between long-term exposure to air pollutants such as ground-level ozone and an increase in emphysema on conducted lung scans. Emphysema is a lung condition wherein the destruction of lung tissue leads to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and even to an increased risk of death.


"We were surprised to see how strong air pollution's impact was on the progression of emphysema on lung scans, in the same league as the effects of cigarette smoking, which is by far the best-known cause of emphysema," says senior co-author Dr. Joel Kaufman.The research has found, in fact, that if ambient ozone levels are 3 parts per billion higher where you live than another site over ten years, then there is an association with an increase in emphysema which is approximately equal to smoking one pack of cigarettes every day for 29 years.


While the study has found that most airborne pollutants are in decline because of successful work to reduce them and increased risk awareness, ozone levels have been increasing.

"Rates of chronic lung disease in this country are going up and increasingly it is recognized that this disease occurs in non-smokers," says Kaufman, a professor of internal medicine and a physician at UW School of Medicine. "We really need to understand what's causing chronic lung disease, and it appears that air pollution exposures that are common and hard to avoid might be a major contributor."


The results have been obtained from an 18-year-long study with more than 7,000 participants and a detailed examination of the air pollution in their vicinity between the years 2000-2018 in six regions across the US.


While the study has found that most airborne pollutants are in decline because of successful work to reduce them and increased risk awareness, ozone levels have been increasing. Ground-level ozone is mostly produced when UV light reacts with pollutants from fossil fuels.


"This is a big study with state-of-the-art analysis of more than 15,000 CT scans repeated on thousands of people over as long as 18 years. These findings matter since ground-level ozone levels are rising, and the amount of emphysema on CT scans predicts hospitalization from and deaths due to chronic lung disease," says Dr. R. Graham Barr. "As temperatures rise with climate change, ground-level ozone will continue to increase unless steps are taken to reduce this pollutant. But it's not clear what level of the air pollutants, if any, is safe for human health."


The study adds to the growing evidence of a link between air pollution and emphysema. A better understanding and higher awareness of the impact which airborne pollutants such as ground-level ozone have on lungs could, therefore, lead to more ways in which emphysema could be combatted, and a healthier and safer lifestyle for all.

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