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5 Facts About Air Pollution's Impact on Health

Laura Joszt
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston is expected to face a host of health challenges, including air pollution. Here are 5 facts about how air pollution affects people’s health.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston is expected to face a host of health challenges, including contaminated water, diseases from mosquitoes, lack of access to medications, and spread of infectious disease.

However, another health concern is becoming known: air pollution. The Houston area has a number of industrial sites that have become damaged due to flooding or lack of power.

Here are 5 facts about how air pollution affects people’s health.

1. It’s not just a danger in cities or developing nations

Air pollution is increasingly becoming an issue in developing nations, but the developed world has had air pollution for a lot longer. Even with regulations in place, there are still areas in the United States—mostly urban or areas with high industrial development—that surpass the national standards, explained Jeanette Stingone, PhD, of Mount Sinai.

2. Air pollution and health

In the early 1990s, a landmark air pollution study was released that found an association between air pollution and mortality in 6 US cities: Watertown, Massachusetts; Harriman, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; Steubenville, Ohio; Portage, Wisconsin; and Topeka, Kansas.

Research since then have seen associations between exposure to air pollution and cardiovascular and respiratory health. These health issues cause others, such as increasing the likelihood that someone will be overweight, partly because they have trouble breathing when exercising. The air pollution also affects how metabolism works, which also increases the chances of being overweight or obese.

3. Cardiovascular health impact

A lot of recommendations to improve heart health are things individuals can control: eat better, exercise more, and quit smoking. However, air pollution also contributes to cardiovascular disease. Research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency began in 2004 and found that exposure to air pollution can prematurely age blood vessels and contribute to a more rapid buildup of calcium in the coronary artery.

Stingone added that research has also shown associations between air pollution and heart rate, thrombus formation, atherosclerosis, and other health issues that contribute to cardiovascular outcomes.

4. Air pollution in the womb

What mom does affects the baby she is carrying, and something similar is true with air pollution: what mom breathes, the baby breathes. Exposure to air pollution in the womb has associated with birth defects, such as structural changes in the heart. While doctors are good at treating those birth defects with surgery, they have lingering effects.

“Now those children are growing up, and we're seeing that they're more vulnerable to health outcomes in adulthood,” Stingone said.

5. The new threat to Houston

Air quality was already a problem in Houston, but the air emissions from industrial sites during the storm and in the weeks after were so heavy that there was an actual smell in the air. What’s more, many refineries in the area aren’t even operating at full capacity, NPR reported. As these facilities are restarted, they’ll release even more pollution into the air.

The poor air quality in the Houston area can exacerbate respiratory symptoms, which can be dangerous for people outside who are helping with rebuilding efforts and for elderly people going outside.

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