Health effects of air pollution
Short-term health effects of air pollution
The Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) has been developed to provide advice on expected levels of air pollution. In addition, information on the short-term effects on health that might be expected to occur at the different bands of the index (Low, Moderate, High, Very High) is provided here. It is possible that very sensitive people may experience health effects even on ‘Low’ air pollution days. This advice applies to anyone experiencing symptoms.
Air pollution has a range of effects on health. Air pollution in the UK rarely rises to levels at which people need to make major changes to their habits to avoid exposure. However, different people are affected in different ways. So, anyone who has any health problem that may make them sensitive to pollution should take the advice of their doctor.
- Adults and Children with lung or heart conditions – It is known that, when levels of air pollutants rise, adults suffering from heart conditions, and adults and children with lung conditions, are at increased risk of becoming ill and needing treatment. Only a minority of those who suffer from these conditions are likely to be affected and it is not possible to predict in advance who will be affected. Some people are aware that air pollution affects their health: adults and children with asthma may notice that they need to increase their use of inhaled reliever medication on days when levels of air pollution are higher than average.
- Older people are more likely to suffer from heart and lung conditions than young people and so it makes good sense for them to be aware of current air pollution conditions.
- The general population – At ‘Very High’ levels of air pollution, some people (even healthy people) may experience a sore or dry throat, sore eyes or, in some cases, a tickly cough.
- Children (if they are well) need not normally be kept from school or prevented from taking part in games. Children with asthma may notice that they need to increase their use of reliever medication on days when levels of air pollution are higher than average.
Action that can be taken
When levels of air pollution increase it would be sensible for those who have noticed that they are affected to limit their exposure to air pollutants. This does not mean staying indoors, but reducing levels of exercise outdoors would be reasonable.
- Older people and those with heart and lung conditions might avoid exertion on ‘High’ pollution days.
- Adults and children with asthma should check that they are taking their medication as advised by their health practitioner and may notice that they need to increase their use of inhaled reliever medication.
- Adults with heart and circulatory conditions should not modify their treatment schedules on the basis of advice provided by the air quality index: such modification should only be made on a health practitioner's advice.
- Some athletes, even if they are not asthmatic, may notice that they find their performance less good than expected when levels of a certain air pollutant (ground level ozone) are High, and they may notice that they find deep breathing causes some discomfort in the chest: This might be expected in summer on days when ground level ozone levels are raised. This does not mean that they are in danger, but it would be sensible for them to limit their activities on such days.
More information and advice can be found on the nidirect web page on ‘Air Pollution and Health’ at https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/air-pollution-and-health#toc-1
You can also subscribe to Northern Ireland’s ‘Air Aware’ text messaging service, to receive high air pollution alerts free to your mobile phone to let you know when air pollution levels are high. To subscribe to the ‘Air Aware’ service, text AIR to 67300.
Alerts are free but text messages to the service cost your normal standard rate.
Long-term health effects of air pollution
Scientists believe air pollution may have many long-term effects on human health. For the latest information, please see the following web pages:
- The World Health Organisation’s fact sheet on ambient (outdoor) air quality and health, at https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ambient-(outdoor)-air-quality-and-health
- The Gov.UK web page “Health matters: air pollution” at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-air-pollution/health-matters-air-pollution (Section 2 deals with the impacts of air pollution across a person’s lifetime).