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People inhaling higher amounts of air pollution are more apt to suffer from multiple long-term health conditions, according to a 2022 King’s College London study.

The research, involving 364,144 participants, is just the latest in decades of studies showing that air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter increase the prevalence — and severity — of lung and heart disease as well as other health problems. “Outdoor air pollution is the leading environmental cause of premature mortality globally, contributing to between 4 and 9 million deaths annually,” the authors report in Frontiers in Public Health.

Past research suggests that some people are more susceptible than others to air pollutants. “These groups include children, pregnant women, older adults, and individuals with preexisting heart and lung disease,” notes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “People in low socioeconomic neighborhoods and communities may be more vulnerable to air pollution because of many factors. Proximity to industrial sources of air pollution, underlying health problems, poor nutrition, stress, and other factors can contribute to increased health impacts in these communities.”

“Outdoor air pollution is the leading environmental cause of premature mortality globally, contributing to between 4 and 9 million deaths annually.”

Another study, published last year in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, found that neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930s tend to have higher levels of air pollution even now. Redlining was a discriminatory Depression-era appraisal practice employed by the U.S. government to spotlight risky mortgages within Black and immigrant neighborhoods.

“In the United States, communities of color are exposed to higher levels of air pollution at every income level,” the study authors write.

Breathing polluted air threatens our health in multiple ways, including via asthma attacks and other breathing problems, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, low infant birth weight, childhood developmental damage, and susceptibility to lung infections.

In addition, bad air may affect our mental health. “Breathing in polluted air changes the brain,” writes Clara Zundel, a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Detroit’s Wayne State University School of Medicine. People who breathe polluted air are more likely to develop anxiety and depression ­disorders, she notes in a 2022 systematic review in NeuroToxicology.

“Studies examining brain effects found significant physical and functional changes within the emotion-­regulation brain regions in those exposed to ­increased levels of air pollution.”

This article originally appeared as “Poor Air Quality: Bad for Physical and Mental Health” in the June 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Michael Dregni

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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