Study finds air pollution to be as harmful as smoking cigarettes

Golden gate bridge smog
The presence of smog in California is shown near the Golden Gate Bridge. The brown coloration is due to the NO2 formed from photochemical smog reactions. (Credits - Wikimedia Commons)

Emphysema is a smoker’s disease but according to a study, it turns out that exposure to air pollution may create the same lung conditions which cause emphysema. A new study finds that long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution can be linked to a higher rate in the development of lung damage even for non-smokers. The study looked at the effects of breathing in different pollutants like ground-level ozone which is main content behind smog.
People with exposure to high levels of ground-level ozone developed changes in lungs which were similar to that of smokers. Joel Kaufman, physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington said that an increase of 3 parts per billion of ground-level ozone is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes daily for 29 years.
The study involved close to 7000 adults from six US cities with average annual exposure between 10 to 25 parts per billion of ground-level ozone. However this is not limited to cities, but people across the US are exposed to similar concentrations that keep on varying. Ground-level ozone is formed due to pollution released from cars and from smokestacks in the sunlight.
Kaufman was surprised to see the effects similar in magnitude to that of cigarette smoking. For correct evaluation, Each person had done 5 CT scans over a decade which gave a 3D picture of their lungs and can detect changes and developments over time. Emily Brigham, a pulmonologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University says that when airways get narrowed and damaged, it becomes harder to breathe and the air gets trapped. The symptoms are not noticeable at an early stage but get worse over time with prolonged exposure and with irreversible effects. Chronic respiratory diseases is a leading cause of death in the U.S and close to 7 million deaths annually are linked to air pollution.

A significant proportion of the US population who has COPD is actually non-smokers, but this study answers the reason behind their lung disease. Clean Air Act has however led to declining pollution in the US but ground-level ozone or smog is harder to control and that increasing hot days means the conditions are more favorable for ozone formation, we are going to see increased effects due to global warming even in healthy populations. The past concerns dealt with short term exacerbation of symptoms during smog days for people with asthma or COPD. In the past, EPA had not accepted that COPD is caused by long-term, chronic air pollution but now the study has shown the evidence that the benefits of cleaning the air because the findings suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution is damaging to lung health.


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