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Overview of diseases caused by air pollution

Dr. Rashmi ByakodiJan 17, 2024

Millions of deaths are attributed to air pollution globally. Moreover, there are many other diseases caused by this type of pollution due to the chemicals and toxins breathed in by people. In this article, we'll discuss the nature and effects of air pollution and how it can cause diseases.




What causes Air Pollution?

Air pollution is caused by impurities in the air that change the climate and environment and harm people's health. The top contributors to air pollution are as follows.

  • Burning of fossil fuels

  • Forest fires

  • Demolition and construction activities

  • Smoke released from vehicles

  • Burning of garbage wastes

  • Micro-organism decaying process

  • Indoor air pollution

Major air pollutants that cause diseases in humans

Air pollution contains various air pollutants that are harmful to the human body. Some of the major air pollutants are discussed below. 

Particulate matter: Dust, dirt, and liquid droplets in the air are called particulate matter. Coarse particulate matter causes upper respiratory tract infections. Fine particulate matter enters deep into the lungs, causing diseases like asthma, emphysema, cancer, heart disease, etc. 

Nitrogen oxides: Primarily caused due to transportation, this harmful pollutant is responsible for the development of diseases like asthma and bronchitis, and sometimes heart disease.

Black carbon: It is generated due to the burning of fuels like coal, wood, kerosene, and diesel. Prolonged exposure to black carbon can lead to heart attack, and stroke.

Sulphur dioxide: This pollutant is generated due to the burning of fuels that contain sulphur, such as fuels used by ship engines and heavy diesel equipment. It can lead to eye irritation, respiratory infections, and cardiovascular diseases.

Ground ozone: Although the ozone layer provides protection from UV radiation, ozone present at ground level is a major air pollutant and can cause throat infection, chest pain, and coughing. 

Diseases caused by air pollution

All the factors of air pollution produce two major types of air pollutants such as harmful gases and particulate matters. These air pollutants enter human bodies through the airways and lungs and may get absorbed in the circulatory system. They affect several organs of the body and result in serious diseases.

The list of some major diseases caused by air pollution are described below. 

1. Asthma

It is the most common disease caused by air pollution. The particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, and ground-level ozone can cause asthma. People having asthma find it tough to breathe because their airways get inflamed and narrowed, and produce extra mucus.

The major symptoms of asthma attacks include the following.

  • Shortness of breath

  • Coughing

  • Chest pain

  • Palpitation

  • Wheezing

2. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Another major disease caused by air pollution, COPD, is a disease in which the lungs get inflamed and obstruct the airflow, thereby making it very difficult for the affected person to breathe. The damage caused to the lungs in COPD is irreversible, and further, it can lead to more serious conditions like emphysema and bronchitis.

The symptoms of COPD are listed below. 

  • Wheezing

  • Chronic cough

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Frequent respiratory infections

  • Weight loss

  • Chest tightness

  • Lack of energy

3. Cardiovascular diseases

Living in a highly polluted environment can damage blood vessels and accelerate the calcification process in your arteries, which can lead to blood vessel blockage and heart attacks. Exposure to traffic-related air pollution may lower your HDL, or good cholesterol. This condition increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Cardiovascular complications due to air pollution include stroke, arrhythmias, and heart failure.

4. Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is probably a grievous disease caused by air pollution. Apart from the particulate matter, the harmful gases contain various carcinogens which affect the lungs adversely and could lead to lung cancer.

Lung cancer is a disease in which abnormal growth of cancer cells occurs in the lungs, eventually leading to respiratory system failure. The symptoms of lung cancer include the following. 

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing

  • Voice hoarseness

  • Frequent infection in chest

  • Chest pain

  • Blood in sputum

  • Unintended weight loss

According to WHO, nearly 11% of lung cancer deaths are accountable to carcinogenic exposure from household air pollution such as the burning of fossil fuels like coal, kerosene, and solid fuel like wood for household energy needs. 

5. Leukaemia

Leukaemia, a type of blood cancer, is one of the extremely fatal diseases caused by air pollution. Studies show that leukaemia is caused due to the massive exposure to benzene and nitrogen dioxide present in the polluted air.

Leukaemia is a type of cancer characterised by an abnormal increase in white blood cells, which overtakes the red blood cells and platelets that are vital to good health. The symptoms of leukaemia include the following. 

6. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a disease caused by air pollution. Polluted air contains a variety of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi, which can cause your lungs to fill with fluid or pus. The disease generally impacts children and old people.

The common symptoms of pneumonia are as follows.

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Fever and chills

  • Phlegm in cough

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea and vomiting

7. Immunity disorder in newborn

Neonatal babies, when exposed to air pollution, tend to develop various immunity disorders. Air pollution can lead to several health issues like inborn allergies, chronic infections, cough, and cold among infants. Research shows that prenatal exposure to polluted air, especially in early and late pregnancy, may impair foetal immunity through disturbances in lymphocyte and cord blood distribution.

8. Birth defects

Prenatal exposure to air pollution may lead to various birth defects. Air pollutants can cross and affect the placenta and may interrupt the development of the baby. Some major birth defects include preterm birth, low birth weight, chronic cough and cold, several allergies, and neurological defects.

9. Premature deaths

Pollutants released into the air from factories can cause untimely deaths by asphyxiation, and they cause other extreme reactions in people's bodies.

Preventive measures to control diseases caused by air pollution

Implementing some innovative strategies can control the diseases caused by air pollution. They may include the following. 

  • Curbing the pollution at the source level, such as the usage of less polluting fuels both in factories and at home

  • Shifting to cleaner fuels for our vehicles, such as CNG and electric vehicles

  • Implementing clean technologies in industries to reduce the emission of smoke

  • Using energy-efficient equipment at home and in factories

  • Installation of air purifiers in cars and at home

  • Using face masks while going outside

  • Encouraging carpools and public transports

  • Encouraging afforestation

Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a list of common questions and answers related to diseases caused by air pollution.


Which are the most common diseases caused by air pollution?

Some common diseases caused by air pollution are asthma, bronchitis, COPD, cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, and lung cancer.

What are the causes of air pollution?

Major causes of air pollution are as follows. 

  • Burning of fossil fuels

  • Forest fires

  • Activities related to demolition and construction of property

  • Smoke released from vehicles

  • Burning of garbage wastes

  • Micro-organism decaying process

  • Indoor air pollution

What are the major air pollutants?

The major air pollutants are particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, black carbon, and ground ozone.


Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. It is based on several secondary sources on the internet. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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