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The Effects of Indoor Air Pollution Exposure on the Body

Indoor air pollution exposure can affect nearly every organ system in the human body. Learn more about the connection between indoor air pollutants and health.
Last Updated on April 4, 2022

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It goes without saying that air pollution is a known health risk. However, many are only just becoming aware of the significant health consequences that indoor air pollution exposure presents, in addition to the more familiar risk of outdoor air pollution. But how exactly does indoor air pollution harm human health? What is the connection between indoor air pollutants and health? And what sort of adverse health effects are truly possible from air pollution? Let’s break down the important questions surrounding air pollutants and health. 

Air Pollution as a Known Health Risk

The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. Back then, air pollution was primarily viewed as a respiratory health risk. It logically followed that the airborne nature of air pollution affected lung health. However, research expanded in the following decades, and scientists discovered just how pervasive the effects of air pollution are to overall human health. As a public health concern, recognized health risks increased to include cardiovascular, reproductive and neurological system threats. 

Public Health: Air pollution impacts individual health, public health and environmental health. Improving indoor air quality helps improve all of these different facets of health. Learn more →

Today, we recognize that air pollution causes, contributes to and worsens health conditions. Current research is working to better understand the outcomes for short-term compared to long-term exposure. Researchers have found that air pollution can impact sensitive and more susceptible people even in low air pollution conditions. In fact, in 2013, the WHO’s cancer research agency classified outdoor air pollution as a known human carcinogen. 

How Does Indoor Air Pollution Affect Health?

What is the actual science behind air pollution as a health threat? Research has found that air pollution exposure results in oxidative stress and systemic inflammation. As a result, this damages human cells and increases the possibility of chronic diseases and cancer. As we breathe in air pollutants, the small particles travel to nearly every corner of our bodies, affecting several aspects of human health in the process. 

Overall, air pollution exposure results in increased morbidity and mortality. Air pollution exposure is also associated with higher rates of hospitalization. 

World Health Organization: How air pollution impacts your body

It should be noted that potential health effects from air pollution vary depending on exposure time, area, season, whether or not someone has pre-existing conditions and the specific pollutant or combination of pollutants one is exposed to. Even when multiple people experience the same pollution exposure, they won’t necessarily experience the same health consequences. Every body is different.

Also important to note, gene variants can affect your susceptibility to air pollution. Gene variants make certain people more likely to have lung inflammation. And finally, it should be said that some of the resulting symptoms are short-term while others are long-term or evolve into chronic lifelong conditions. 

How Do Pollutants Damage Human Health?

Current research continues to emphasize how extensive the adverse health effects of air pollution exposure are and just how much of a toll it takes on the human body, affecting nearly every major organ system. Let’s break down common symptoms, developed conditions and increased risks associated with air pollution exposure according to the major human body systems.

As a quick disclaimer, it’s near impossible to create a comprehensive symptoms list that encompasses all of the available research on indoor air pollutants and health. Nevertheless, we’re attempting to provide a helpful overview of potential symptoms and possible conditions that can result from exposure to a multitude of different pollutants. So while not an exhaustive list, think of it as a general master list of potential adverse health effects from air pollution exposure. 

Respiratory System 

The nature of air pollution means contaminants are entering your body through inhalation. This of course presents significant risks to the body’s respiratory system. How air pollution affects the respiratory system is also the most widely researched organ system when it comes to air pollutants and health. 

  • Eye, Throat and Nose Irritation
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Phlegm
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Reduced Lung Development in Children
  • Emphysema
  • Acute and Chronic Bronchitis
  • COPD
  • Bronchospasms
  • Respiratory Infections and Diseases
  • Lung Cancer

Cardiovascular System 

Air pollution exposure impairs blood vessel function. It can also speed up calcification in arteries, increasing heart attack risk. 

  • Heart Disease and Congestive Heart Failure
  • Hypertension 
  • Arrhythmias
  • Angina
  • Myocardial Infarction 
  • Stroke

Research found that exposure to traffic-related air pollution specifically lowered levels of good cholesterol among older Americans. It also increased a pregnant woman’s risk for blood pressure changes and hypertensive disorders during pregnancy.

Nervous System 

  • Headaches and Dizziness
  • Dementia and Accelerated Memory Loss in Elderly Populations
  • Cognitive Decline 
  • Parkinson’s Disease and Neurological Disorders 
  • Stroke
  • Brain Development Damage in Children 

Integumentary System

Our integumentary system encloses our internal body structure. It’s also the system that absorbs air pollutants externally, through the skin and hair. 

  • Skin Aging
  • Skin Redness
  • Acne
  • Hives
  • Eczema 
  • Skin Cancer

Skeletal System 

  • Osteoporosis 
  • Bone Fractures

Endocrine System

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity 
  • Metabolic Syndrome

Gastrointestinal System

  • Gastric Cancer
  • Colorectal Cancer
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Appendicitis 

Urinary System

  • Bladder Cancer
  • Kidney Cancer

Reproductive System

  • Premature Birth
  • Low Birth Weight 
  • Impaired Fetal Growth and Reduced Fertility Rates 
  • Miscarriage 

Not Necessarily Associated With One System

  • Autoimmune Diseases and Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Anemia
  • Mood Disorders
  • Conjunctivitis 
  • Dry Eye Disease

Vulnerable Populations

Certain populations are more vulnerable to air pollution exposure than others. This includes children, the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions as well as outdoor laborers, lower-income populations, persons of color and overweight persons. When it comes to health, children and pregnant women differ from other demographic group risks.

Children

Children specifically face greater health risks compared to adults. Smaller body to air proportions means kids breathe in a greater number of pollutants in comparison to their body mass with each breath. Their bodies are also still developing and growing, thus more susceptible to exterior influences. 

Children are more likely to develop asthma if they live near busy roads or play outdoors in high pollution areas. Similarly, children with existing asthma are more likely to develop bronchitis. Air pollution exposure also often causes lung damage and lung development issues in kids. Research even shows reduced brain development increases the risk of cognitive and emotional problems. 

Prenatal Exposure

Another notable vulnerable population group is pregnant women and prenatal exposure. Fetus exposure to air pollution is linked to low birth weight, a higher likelihood of fetus mortality and brain development issues. Later pregnancy exposure to PM2.5, in particular, increases the likelihood that a child is born with autism or high blood pressure. And among urban children, air pollution exposure is linked to ADHD and neurobehavioral problems. 

What Pollutants Cause Health Problems?

In reality, almost any air pollutant can contribute to adverse health effects. With that said, there are a handful of pollutants connected to specific health effects. 

Radon is a known carcinogen and the second leading cause of lung cancer. Particulate matter and ground-level ozone are the most pervasive air pollutants across the U.S. and significant health concerns. PM especially is damaging to the human body, especially fine and ultrafine particles which penetrate deeper into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. 

Particulate Matter: Particle pollution is a significant health threat across the United States. Understanding the health effects as well as the difference between PM10, PM2.5 and PM0.1 can help keep you and your family safer indoors. Everything you need to know about particulate matter →

Dust and dust mites, mold, pet dander and environmental tobacco smoke are considered asthma triggers. This group of indoor air pollutants can trigger asthma attacks and worsening asthma symptoms. 

Indoor Air Pollutants and Health

The resulting health symptoms and health conditions from air pollution exposure are incredibly destructive. For those experiencing it and their loved ones. As a public health issue, the consequences spread farther than you might think. Short-term health conditions results in reduced productivity, higher absenteeism rates in schools and potential acute strains on healthcare systems. And in the long-term, health effects from air pollution result in both economic and societal impacts throughout the population.

Understanding the relationship between indoor air pollutants and health is important. Not only to know what symptoms to look out for but to better understand why preventing excess air pollution exposure is important. Greater air quality awareness and indoor air quality solutions are two helpful prevention measures. 

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