Air Pollution Linked to COPD, Decreased Lung Functioning

The chemicals and other particles that make up air pollution have been linked in recent scientific studies to a variety of adverse health outcomes including heart disease, stroke, decreased mental functioning, diabetes, unnaturally increased aging, obesity and cancer.  Now a new study has linked air pollution to decreases in lung functioning and an increased risk for COPD.

Study overview

In this longitudinal study covering the period between 2006 and 2010, researchers assessed more than 300,000 people using data from the UK Biobank study to examine whether air pollution exposure was linked to changes in lung function and whether it affected participants’ risk of developing COPD.  The researchers used a validated air pollution model to estimate the levels of pollution that people were exposed to at their homes.  Participants were then given tests to determine their actual lung functioning.

The study found that for each additional 5 micrograms per cubic meter of particle pollution a person was exposed to on average annually, the lungs showed an equivalent of two years of aging, and a significant reduction in lung function.

Health outcomes were worse for low-income people

As with so many other study findings linking chemical exposure and adverse health outcomes, the hardest hit are the working poor and poor–in the current study this was the case, even when low-income participants had the same level of pollution exposure as their higher income counterparts.  Why would this occur?  The likeliest explanation is that low-income individuals tend to have poorer diets, less access to healthcare, and more stress than middle- and high-income people.

Air pollution had approximately twice the impact on lung function decline and three times the increased COPD risk on lower-income participants compared to higher-income participants who had the same air pollution exposure.”

-Dr. Anna Hansell, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology, Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability, University of Leicester

What is ‘particle pollution’?

According tot he U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particle pollution is the mix of solid and liquid droplets in the air that stem from come dirt, dust, soot or smoke. Some of the sources include coal- and natural gas-fired industrial plants, cars, buses and trucks, agriculture, unpaved roads and construction sites.

Why we should care

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a long-term condition linked to reduced lung functioning that causes inflammation in the lungs and a narrowing of the airways, making breathing difficult.  Factors for contracting COPD can be genetically inspired or through environmental sources.  COPD is the third leading cause of death worldwide.  The number of global COPD deaths is expected to increase over the next ten years. Lung function normally declines as we age, but the new scientific study suggests that air pollution may contribute to the ageing process and adds to the evidence that breathing in polluted air harms the lungs.

Many people in the U.S. are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of air pollution on a daily basis.  Despite the data on increased air pollution and the serious health outcomes linked to it however, the current administration has reversed or proposed rollbacks to major air pollution protections, emissions standards and drilling and extraction regulations. (source)



Journal Reference: Doiron, D., et al., (2019).  Air pollution, lung function and COPD: results from the population-based UK Biobank study,