Health

Living in Smog Can Be as Bad as Smoking a Pack of Cigarettes a Day

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People who live in areas with higher levels of ozone may develop lung damage. Getty Images
  • Ozone gas, one of the least controlled pollutants in the United States, can cause serious health effects.
  • Experts think this gas is responsible for rising rates of emphysema.
  • Ground-level ozone levels have been increasing, even as air has gotten cleaner.

It’s hard to believe, but heavily polluted air can still appear crystal clear.

Ozone is a colorless gas that is currently one of the least controlled pollutants in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ozone can severely impact respiratory health.

Research led by the University of Washington (UW), Columbia University, and the University at Buffalo now finds a strong association between long-term exposure to all major air pollutants, especially ozone, with increasing incidence of emphysema diagnosed by lung scan.

“This study provided the opportunity to analyze state-of-the-art assessment of air pollution concentrations at people’s homes with repeated chest scans — an unprecedented opportunity to understand the relationship between air pollution and lung disease,” study author Dr. Joel Kaufman, MPH, professor, UW, Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, Medicine, and Epidemiology, told Healthline.

Kaufman and team followed study participants over a median of 10 years. They found that those living in areas with ambient ozone levels that were three parts per billion (ppb) higher than other locations experienced increased rates of emphysema.

This increased rate was roughly the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for 29 years.

“Emphysema is a condition in which destruction of lung tissue leads to wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, and increases the risk of death,” Kaufman explained.

To underscore the importance of these findings, Dr. Raja Mudad, medical oncologist specializing in lung cancer with 21st Century Oncology, who is not associated with the study, noted, “Emphysema can’t be cured. We can only treat the symptoms, and try to prevent complications like respiratory failure and infections.”

The researchers also determined that in some major U.S. cities, ozone levels are increasing, partly due to climate change. The average annual ozone levels in the areas studied were about 10 to 25 ppb.

The findings are based on an 18-year study that involved over 7,000 people and a detailed analysis of the air pollution they were exposed to between 2000 and 2018 in Chicago; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Baltimore; Los Angeles; St. Paul, Minnesota; and New York City.

All participants were chosen from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) Air and Lung studies.

“To our knowledge, this is the first longitudinal study to assess the association between long-term exposure to air pollutants and progression of percent emphysema in a large, community-based, multi-ethnic cohort,” said lead author Meng Wang, assistant professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo who conducted the research as a postdoctoral researcher at the UW, in a statement.

Although levels of most airborne pollutants are declining, researchers also found that ground-level ozone levels have actually increased.

Ground-level ozone is typically produced when ultraviolet light reacts with fossil fuel exhaust.

However, some areas haven’t experienced the same reduction in air pollution.

Research presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association on August 10–13 in New York found that not all residential areas have enjoyed the same reduction in air pollution levels that the Clean Air Act mandates.

Lead study author Kerry Ard, PhD, associate professor of environmental sociology at Ohio State University, used detailed data sources to analyze both air pollution and the demographics of residents who lived in various areas throughout a six-state region over a three-year period.

“We’re seeing that these pollution hot spots are the same, year after year, and every time they are in low-income communities — often communities of color. This has implications for a wide array of health disparities — from preterm births and infant mortality to developmental delays in childhood, to heart and lung disease later in life,” said Ard in a statement.

Kaufman said, “Increasingly, it’s recognized that chronic lung diseases like emphysema occur in nonsmokers, and rates of these diseases are continuing to increase. 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.

“Ozone concentrations are increasing as a result of climate change and fossil fuel use — these are things that need to be addressed by changes at the community, national, and global scale in order to prevent health impacts like these,” he advised.

Rates of chronic lung disease are rising in the United States, affecting nonsmokers as well as smokers.

While air pollution is generally declining, recent research finds that levels of the gas ozone are actually increasing, and exposure can significantly raise the risk of emphysema.

Ozone can also worsen symptoms of people with asthma or other chronic lung conditions.

Experts say that climate change and fossil fuel use are driving the rising levels of ozone pollution. Changes at all levels of society are needed to reduce the health threat of exposure to ozone and other air pollutants.


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