Science: Section 4

Air Pollution and Health

Air pollution is harmful to us all, as it can affect our bodies, the food we eat, the places we live and world we live in.

Our bodies need oxygen to survive.  We breathe in thousands of litres of oxygen a day but the air we breathe is not pure.  It can contain various substances called pollutants and many of these arise from burning fuels. This pollution can affect our health. 

There are many sources of both manmade and natural air pollution. Natural air pollution can come from volcanoes and wildfires. Manmade air pollution can come from transport, industry and energy generation.

In urban areas, such as towns and cities, motor engines are the main contributor to poor air quality.

Impacts of air pollution on human health

The quality of the air around us is very important as it directly affects our health and the environment we live in. Air pollution is estimated to reduce the average life expectancy of every person in the UK by six months.

Air pollution has become one of the biggest environmental risks to human health. Unlike the dense smog and smoking chimneys of the past, today’s air pollution is largely considered invisible; caused mainly by very fine particles from car exhausts that can descend into the lungs and aggravate existing health problems such as asthma and heart and respiratory disease.

For the majority of people, the health effects of air pollution are relatively minor and go unnoticed; however, sometimes we can experience very mild symptoms following short periods of exposure. This can include irritation to the nose and throat after walking down a heavily congested city centre street.

For those people who have pre-existing health problems such as asthma, or who are exposed on a long-term basis, or to high levels of air pollutants, the effects increase in severity. This can include the worsening of existing medical conditions and increased visits to the doctor, to admission to hospital and, in extreme cases, premature death.

The diagram below shows the impact that air pollution can have on different parts of our body.

There is also a Homework Sheet you can download that supports and develops further the ideas from this section.