September 16, 2015

Air Pollution, Disease, and Mortality

Particulate matter as a global health threat
The World Health Organization has stated that air pollution accounts for 1.3 million deaths worldwide every year. This article reviews the association of air pollutants with all major causes of death. Those associations understood, it becomes clear that outdoor air pollution is likely to be an even greater cause of mortality across the globe than is currently recognized.

The World Health Organization has stated that air pollution accounts for 1.3 million deaths worldwide every year. This article reviews the association of air pollutants with all major causes of death. Those associations understood, it becomes clear that outdoor air pollution is likely to be an even greater cause of mortality across the globe than is currently recognized.

This paper is part of our Environmental Medicine Special Issue. Read the entire issue below.


The World Health Organization has stated that air pollution accounts for 1.3 million deaths worldwide every year. This article reviews the association of air pollutants with all major causes of death. With those associations understood, it becomes clear that outdoor air pollution is likely to be an even greater cause of mortality across the globe than is currently recognized.


The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that air pollution accounts for 1.3 million deaths worldwide every year.1 Upon a review of the WHO listing of the leading causes of death (Table 1), one will see that deaths from outdoor air pollutants come in just between tuberculosis and diabetes mellitus.2 This article will review the association of air pollutants with all the major causes of death listed below except diarrheal diseases, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and traffic accidents. Once those associations are understood, outdoor air pollution appears likely to be an even greater cause of mortality across the globe than is currently recognized.

Air Pollutants

Outdoor air is contaminated with a host of vapors, gases, and particulates from combustion (vehicular, industrial, stationary, and natural sources), evaporation, industry, agriculture, and other daily activities during which these substances become airborne. Indoor air has all the same pollutants, to which are added additional toxicants from building materials, furnishings, cooking, cleaning chemicals, and air fresheners, to name a few, making indoor air pollution potentially worse than outdoor. 
 Deaths in Millions% of Deaths
Ischemic heart disease7.2512.8
Lower respiratory infection3.466.1
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease3.285.8
Diarrheal diseases2.464.3
Respiratory-tract cancers1.392.4
Diabetes mellitus1.262.2
Traffic accidents1.212.1
Table 1. Major Causes of Death Compiled From World Health Organization Statistics1

Urban Air Pollution Levels

The major population centers have the greatest amount of air pollutants, mostly due to stationary energy sources and industry, as well as the huge amount of fuel burned to provide transportation. Because of the multiple health problems posed by such pollution, the United States Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, which allowed the federal government to set limits for emissions from stationary and mobile sources of pollution. In May 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established to implement the mandates of the Clean Air Act. Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has been amended twice (in 1977 and in 1990).3 Part of the original 1970 mandate allowed the newly formed EPA to set national ambient air quality standards for various pollutants. The EPA chose the 6 most common and most damaging pollutants, which are also referred to as “criteria pollutants.” These are particle pollution (often referred to as particulate matter [PM]), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. Of the 6 pollutants, particle pollution and ground-level ozone pose the most widespread health threats. These 6 are called criteria air pollutants because their permissible levels are derived from either human health-based and/or environmentally based criteria (science-based guidelines). These criteria are referred to as “primary” when they are based on human health outcomes and “secondary” when they are associated with environmental or property damage.4
While all of these 6 criteria pollutants deserve attention, this article will focus PM, the aromatic hydrocarbons it carries, and the illnesses associated with it.

Particulate Matter 

PM (also referred to as particulate pollution) is a combination of liquid droplets (aerosols) and solid particles like dust, soot, smoke, and dirt. Particulates are found in smoke, diesel exhaust, and haze that either come directly from combustion or are products of a reaction between gases and sunlight or air. From a health perspective, PM is differentiated according to particle size.5 The largest of the PM, called coarse particles, are between 10 µm and 2.5 µm and are given the designation of PM10. These are often encountered near dusty roadways and industry. They are known to lodge in the trachea or bronchi. Fine particles are those that are between 2.5 µm and 0.1 µm in diameter and are designated as PM2.5. Fine particles can lodge in the alveoli of the lungs. Ultrafine particles (UFPs), also called nanoparticles, are less than 0.1 µm (100 nm) in size (PM<0.1). Concentrations of atmospheric UFPs are tens of thousands of times higher in urban air than in rural air and are considered the most detrimental of all PM fractions.6
UFPs can be either exhaled or absorbed systemically. Absorption of UFPs can pose serious health risks. For example, traffic exhaust UFPs are associated with adverse effects in the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, in addition to stimulating oxidative damage and inflammation.7 The 2 major sources of UFPs are cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust; biodiesel puts out even higher UFP levels than regular diesel.8
A recent study in Australia sought to find out where children encountered their highest exposures to UFPs. The researchers were initially quite concerned about diesel-powered school buses that often idle outside the school at the end of the school day.6 They discovered that the greatest exposure to UFPs was actually encountered at home (55% of the total daily exposure), with school exposure being the second highest source (35% of the total). Interestingly, it was not the idling buses that provided the greatest exposure to UFPs but rather the urban background levels. The activities that were associated with the greatest exposure to UFPs were outdoor activities (exposure to ambient urban air), cooking and eating in the home, and commuting. 
UFPs are small enough to enter the bloodstream and settle in more distant organs than the lungs. For example, UFP levels in the livers of rats 18 to 24 hours after UFP exposure were found to be 5 times higher than the PM levels in their lungs.9 These UFPs can also travel from the nose into the brain via the olfactory nerve.10 UFPs of iron oxide, India ink, and titanium dioxide that were initially identified in alveolar macrophages were found a day later in the lung (in the highest concentration), liver, kidney, heart, tracheobronchial and mediastinal lymph nodes, anterior and posterior nasal cavity, the brain, and the blood. At 4 days postexposure, particles were found in all of the above except for the nasal cavity and brain. At 7 days postexposure, they were still found in the lungs, liver, and blood.11 A group of rats that were exposed only once to UFPs and then sacrificed after either 3 weeks, 2 months, or 6 months showed that the UFP concentrations in the brain, heart, spleen, liver, and lungs from the single exposure slowly reduced over time, with the lungs retaining the most UFP.12 Of course, urban-dwelling humans are exposed daily and are not allowed time to clear the UFP from their organs. 
UFPs cause significant oxidative damage in the tissues and organs to which they are distributed.13-15 PM in general has been associated with increased mortality primarily from cardiovascular,16,17 respiratory,18 and neoplastic diseases.19 PM of all sizes act as carriers for a number of other potent air pollutant chemicals, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which may account for some of their toxic health effects.20

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons  

PAHs are highly lipophilic (fat soluble) and therefore are found naturally in oil, coal, and tar deposits. They are also found in the consumer products coal tars, crude oils, creosote, and roofing tar. More than 100 PAHs are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, and gas for fuels; the incineration of garbage; smoking tobacco; or the charbroiling of meat. In short, the burning of anything that is carbon-based may produce PAHs. 
Table 2 lists the 17 most common PAHs as well as their carcinogenic rating by the EPA and whether each is present in diesel exhaust. The EPA has determined that benz[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, chrysene, dibenz[a,h]anthracene, and indeno[1,2,3-c,d]pyrene are probable human carcinogens.21 Benzo[a]pyrene is a known human carcinogen and is the main lung carcinogen in cigarette smoke22 and vehicular exhaust.23 Both PM and PAHs are known to damage mitochondria and suppress their proper functioning.24,25
Polycyclic Aromatic HydrocarbonsProbable Carcinogens per US Environmental Protection AgencyPresent in Diesel Exhaust
Acenapthylene  X
Anthracene X
Benzo[e]pyrene X
Benzo[j]flouranthene X
Benzo[g,h,i]perylene X
Flouranthene  X
Flourene X
Phenanthrene X
Pyrene X
Table 2. The 17 Most Common Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Outdoor Air
The table shows that diesel exhaust is a major source of the most common PAHs, including those that are known (benzo[a]pyrene) or probable carcinogens. Benzo[a]pyrene is metabolized by cytochrome P450 1A2 and transformed into a far more toxic metabolite: benzo[a]pyrene epoxide, highly carcinogenic.26

Industrial- and Vehicle-generated Volatile Organic Compounds 

VOCs, also referred to as solvents, are typically short-chain hydrocarbons that evaporate rapidly at ambient temperatures and have a variety of industrial uses.27 VOCs are used in paints, glues, inks, fragrances, and building materials and are found in cigarette smoke, gasoline, and vehicular exhaust. The 4 most common VOCs are benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene; they are often referred to simply as BTEX and can account for up to 27% of each gallon of gas dispensed at the pump for every vehicle.28 For the United States as a whole, vehicular emissions are the greatest source of these compounds found in urban and rural air, but in areas of the country where refineries and chemical plants are located, these nonmobile sources far surpass emissions put out by transport vehicles. The EPA website provides information on the total VOC emissions for the entire United States or by state or county. 

Data from the 1990 US EPA Cumulative Exposure Project looked at 148 toxic air contaminants for each of the 30,803 census tracts in the contiguous United States.29 Concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, and 1,3-butadiene were greater than levels known to cause cancer (cancer benchmark levels) in over 90% of the census tracts. Approximately 10% of the census tracts had 1 or more carcinogenic hazardous air pollutant in concentrations above 1-in-10,000 risk levels. As an example, these data revealed that of 25 sites in Minnesota, 10 pollutants were found that exceeded the benchmarks in 1 or more sites (acrolein; arsenic; benzene; 1,3-butadiene; carbon tetrachloride; chromium; chloroform; ethylene dibromide; formaldehyde; and nickel).30

The Brookhaven Medical Unit in Atlanta, Georgia, an environmentally controlled clinic, has filters of activated charcoal and aluminum oxide impregnated with potassium permanganate to rapidly eliminate fumes and provide less-polluted air for those in the clinic. Yet even in such a tightly controlled unit, at times of peak traffic flow, levels of hydrocarbons, and other exhaust components (carbon monoxide, chlorine dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone) were detected in the unit.31
A study of cyclists in an urban area showed elevated serum benzene and toluene and elevated toluene and xylenes in the urine after a 2-hour ride. Those riding in urban areas had consistently higher post-ride levels of these compounds than those riding in rural areas (details summarized in Table 3).32
 Rural Rides (blood ng/L)Urban Rides (blood ng/L)
Toluene 310.1320.2310.3436.3
 Rural Rides (urine ng/L)Urban rides (urine ng/L)
Toluene 282.0280.1295.1338.3
Xylenes 210.4219.0220.3251.1
Table 3. Data From Bergamaschi et al: Bicyclist Biomarkers of Internal Dose in Pre-ride and Post-ride Blood and Urine Samples32
Health problems associated with vehicular exhaust include increased mortality, cardiovascular illness, respiratory illness, neurological problems, and endocrine disorders including obesity, diabetes, and infertility.


PM, with its attached load of PAH and VOCs, has long been associated with a number of adverse health outcomes, including increased mortality. In studies done in major cities across the globe, within 2 days of increased PM levels, the mortality rates increase.33,34 Recent estimates show that aggressive reductions in global PM production could reduce global annual mortality rates attributed to PM2.5 by 23%.35

Cardiovascular Disease

Many of the deaths associated with higher levels of PM are directly due to acute myocardial infarctions (MI), to which PM is strongly linked. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 reported that an association was found between exposure to traffic and the onset of a MI within 1 hour of beginning their morning commute (odds ratio: 2.92).36 The authors attribute at least some of this increase to vehicular exhaust exposure. Six years later, Circulation, the official journal of the American Heart Association, published a statement saying that there is an established causal relationship between exposure to PM2.5 and cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.37 This group also noted that reductions in PM exposure were associated with reduced rates of cardiovascular mortality within just a few years’ timeframe: 
Exposure to PM<2.5µm (PM2.5) over a few hours to weeks can trigger cardiovascular disease-related mortality and nonfatal events; longer-term exposure increases the risk for cardiovascular mortality to an even greater extent than exposures over a few days and reduces life expectancy within the more highly exposed segments of the population by several months to a few years.37
Yet even with this clear statement by the American Heart Association, the use of measures to reduce PM exposure to prevent the number 1 killer of Americans today has received little or no public exposure. 
Carotid intima-media thickness (CIMT) is used as an easily assessed surrogate marker for atherosclerosis and is a strong predictor of future cardiovascular events.38 Each standard deviation increase in CIMT is associated with a 32% increased risk of stroke and a 26% increased risk of MI. In a large study of almost 6,000 adults from 6 different US communities, it was noted that people living with higher home air PM2.5 (from both outdoor and indoor sources) had far greater CIMT progression than those with lower PM2.5 exposure.39 These data corroborated a prior study of adults living in the Los Angeles, California, basin that showed air pollution is associated with progression of atherosclerosis via CIMT testing.40
Air is vital for human life, with the average adult breathing in over 17,000 times every day. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, each of those daily breaths may come with a substantial number of toxicants with severe health consequences.
CIMT has been directly linked with PAH levels as well. A study of Brazilian cab drivers and non‒cab driving controls measured 1-hydroxypyrene (1-OHP), a common metabolite of traffic-related PAH compounds and a validated marker for PAH exposure, along with other indices of cardiovascular inflammation and disease.41 The taxi drivers had significantly higher levels of 1-OHP along with higher levels of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL), homocysteine, high-sensitivity c-reactive protein, and other proinflammatory cytokine markers. The researchers also reported that the taxi drivers had significantly lower levels of glutathione peroxidase and glutathione transferase function, as well as lower levels of ascorbic acid. This group of researchers then took the study 1 step further and looked at the level of atherosclerosis that was present in the drivers and controls to see how that related to all of these other markers.42 This was the study in which 1-OHP was directly linked with not only serum homocysteine levels, but also greater CIMT. Interestingly, the CIMT was not associated with total cholesterol, triglycerides, or LDL levels.
Hypertension is a major risk factor for both stroke and heart attack, as well as increased morbidity to other organs in the body; it is also clearly associated with air pollution levels.43 Long-term exposure to elevated levels of all PM sizes leads to an elevation in diastolic blood pressure in both adults and children.44,45 Interestingly, this effect is heightened in people who are obese46 and who are psychologically stressed,47 while the effect is reduced in those children who were breastfed.48 Not only can vehicular exhaust particulate matter levels increase diastolic blood pressure, but biological PM49 (commonly found in indoor air) and the use of biomass fuel can do the same.50

Respiratory Illness

It has long been established that children have far higher rates of asthma, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, pneumonia, phlegm production, and wheezing when exposed to vehicular exhaust.51 Several studies have looked at the rates of respiratory disease in those living close to busy roadways vs those who live farther from main thoroughfares. All such studies have confirmed that the closer one is to a higher level of vehicular exhaust (especially diesel truck exhaust), the greater the risk of asthma.52,53 One of the largest studies to date to explore the association between air pollution and respiratory disease is the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects project, which encompasses 10 European birth cohorts in 6 countries with a total of 16,059 children.54 The authors found that exposure to air pollution clearly increased the risk of pneumonia in the children they followed.
While respiratory and cardiovascular effects of air pollution have long been associated with mortality, recent studies are linking it to a number of other issues, including neurological and endocrine issues. 

Neurological Effects

Exposure to vehicular exhaust has been clearly linked to reduced cognitive functioning in both children and adults. In adults, it has been associated with depression, and in children, it may influence the risk and severity of autistic spectrum disorder. Prenatal exposure to PAH compounds from vehicular exhaust leads to reduced intelligence quotient (IQ) levels in children. An ongoing study in New York City has been following a birth cohort of 249 children whose mothers were assessed for PAH exposure with personal air monitors during their third trimester. By the age of 3, the children whose mothers had median or higher levels of PAH exposure showed developmental delay.55 By the age of 5, these same children showed full scale IQ and verbal IQ levels that were significantly lower than children with lower prenatal PAH exposure (P= 0.009).56 A similarly designed study in Krakow, Poland, also measured mothers' PAH exposure and found similar IQ point loss in the 5-year-old children who had greater prenatal PAH exposure.57 The researchers who followed the cohort in New York later published their estimate of the economic effects on these 249 children based on their lifetime earning if a modest reduction in PAH could be achieved. Their published finding proposed that a mere 0.25 ng/m3 reduction of PAHs, achievable by good indoor air purification, would boost the lifetime earnings of the cohort by $215 million.58
A number of convincing studies have also been published revealing the association between vehicular exhaust and both rates and severity of autism. Children who were gestationally exposed to high levels of vehicular exhaust were twice as likely to be autistic as those who had lower exposures, while those with higher exposure during the first year of life had triple the risk.59 The closer the mothers-to-be lived to a freeway, the higher the risk for having an autistic child.60 Subsequent studies have found that exposure to vehicular exhaust during the first and second trimesters do not increase the risk, but exposure during the third trimester does.61,62 Diesel exhaust turned out to be the greatest exhaust-source risk for the development of autism in the Children of Nurses’ Health Study II.63
The effect of PM on cognition in adults was the focus of a study that involved the 19,409 women in the Nurses’ Health Study Cognitive Cohort. These women ranged in age from 70 to 81 years, and their cognitive measurements were correlated with PM (both PM10 and PM2.5) levels.64 They found that women who were exposed to higher levels of both PM10 and PM2.5 for 7 to 14 years had significantly faster cognitive decline as they aged. The researchers were actually able to quantify the cognitive decline in relation to the levels of PM, showing that an increase of 10 µg/m3 of long-term PM 2.5 exposure resulted in the same reduction in cognition as would occur from 2 years of aging in those between the ages of 70 and 81 years. A similar result was reported by a group of researchers who used data from the US Department of Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study.65 This group of males with an average age of 71 years had been administered cognitive testing 7 times during an 11-year period while levels of black carbon were used as a marker for vehicular exhaust. The researchers reported that for every doubling of the ambient levels of black carbon, the participants experienced a cognitive decline that was equivalent to 1.9 years of aging. In addition to cognitive decline, 2 studies have now clearly linked urban air pollution to increased risk of depression.66,67

Endocrine Effects

Urban air pollution has been linked to increased risk of infertility, obesity, and diabetes, all common problems in the modern population. Italian traffic policemen who were exposed daily to vehicular exhaust throughout their shifts had significantly lower levels of free testosterone than police assigned to other duties.68 Exposure to vehicular exhaust and cigarette smoke are also strongly associated with multiple sperm abnormalities associated with male infertility.69-71 Similarly, exposure to vehicular exhaust is also associated with increased female infertility rates.72 In infertile couples who have chosen to undergo in vitro fertilization, PM exposure during the preconception period also greatly increases risk of pregnancy loss.73
Children exposed to higher levels of vehicular air pollutants were up to 3 times more likely to develop type 1 diabetes than children breathing air with lower levels of vehicular exhaust compounds.74 In this study, the highest diabetes risk came from exposure to high levels of ozone derived from traffic sources. In a group of almost 400 German 10-year-olds, exposure to vehicular exhaust increased their incidence of insulin resistance, one of the first steps to developing type 2 diabetes.75 Long-term exposure to vehicular PM has also been directly associated with higher risk in adults for developing both metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.76,77 Exposure to high levels of PM2.5 during the second trimester of pregnancy gave women a far higher risk of developing impaired glucose tolerance during pregnancy.78 Women with the highest PM2.5 exposure levels and with the closest proximity of heavy traffic were 2.6 times more likely to have problems with their blood sugar levels, although no direct link was found between vehicular exhaust and the risk of overt gestational diabetes mellitus. 
As mentioned above, PM from vehicular exhaust is known to lead to increased risk of the development of metabolic syndrome, one of whose manifestations is increased body weight. PAHs from urban air and from environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) are both associated with hugely increased risk levels for childhood obesity. Using data from the 2003-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers found that children in the second, third, and fourth quintiles of urinary PAH metabolites had risk factors for obesity that were 4.51, 2.57, and 8.09 times greater, respectively, than those in the lowest quintile.79 For the children exposed to both the higher PAH levels and ETS, the levels went up even higher, showing a clear synergistic effect leading to far greater body mass index in these children. 


Air is vital for human life, with the average adult inhaling more than 17,000 times every day. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, each of those daily breaths may come with a substantial number of toxicants with severe health consequences. In fact, adverse health effects of air pollutants include cardiovascular disease, which is the most common cause of death in North America. These same air pollutants are associated with a variety of adverse respiratory, neurological, hormonal, and cognitive effects; they also increase a woman’s risk of having an autistic child. Much more focus needs to be placed on recognizing the important role that common air pollutants hold in health, with commensurate actions being taken to reduce the levels of common air pollutants in the home—the one environment most people are in control of. It is quite possible that one of the most effective preventive medicine modalities would be the installation of a high-quality air purifier in the home. 

Categorized Under


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