A new study has found that regular exposure to air pollution has similar health effects as smoking one pack of cigarettes per day. Considering that smoking is the leading cause of preventable death -- responsible for about a half-million deaths each year -- this has raised serious concern for families living in heavily populated cities.
About the Study
For the study, researchers analyzed data involving over 7,000 adults living in six major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Baltimore, St. Paul, Winston-Salem and Minnesota. Researchers discovered that residents who were exposed to most air pollution had the highest risk of developing emphysema.
Of course, emphysema is typically associated with smoking. it's a chronic lung disease that causes shortness of breath along with other respiratory symptoms. This study, however, found that living in a city with high levels of air pollution resulted in a similar risk of emphysema as smoking a full pack of cigarettes per 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," said the study's lead author Dr. R. Graham Barr of Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
The study also found a link between ground-level ozone and lung irritation. Ground-level ozone consists of invisible air pollution that's lower to the ground than visible air pollution. It's known as a secondary pollutant because it's formed when multiple pollutants in the air reach to ultraviolet (UV) sunlight. Researchers say that people who live in cities with high ground-level ozone concentrations are more likely to experience lung irritation than their counterparts who live in cities or areas with low concentrations of ground-level ozone.
How to Protect Against Air Pollution
Unfortunately, you can't control the amount of air pollution in your hometown or city. The good news, however, is that you can minimize your exposure to air pollution by following a few simple steps. First and foremost, get into the habit of checking the local air pollution forecast. You can usually see whether air pollution levels are low or high by checking the forecast from local news stations.
Another way to minimize exposure to air pollution is to choose driving routes with less traffic. Traffic is a major source of air pollution. If you commute in heavy bumper-to-bumper traffic, you'll naturally be exposed to this air pollution. But if your commute on back roads with less traffic, you can avoid such air pollution.
This study was published in the medical journal JAMA.