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Jaime Rosenberg
Study findings indicate that air pollution speeds up aging of the lungs and increases the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The effects of air pollution on respiratory function are well documented, and now a new study is adding more evidence to the mix, finding that air pollution speeds up aging of the lungs and increases the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

According to data from more than 300,000 people aged between 40 and 69 years from the United Kingdom, for each annual increase of 5 mcg/m3 of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that people were exposed to, there was an associated reduction in lung function similar to the effects of 2 years of aging. Lung function was measured using spirometry tests between 2006 and 2010.

The researchers relied on a validated air pollution model to estimate the levels of pollution that people were exposed to while at their homes. The researchers focused on particulate matter, PM2.5, and nitrogen dioxide, which are produced by burning fossil fuels. They also adjusted for sex, age, obesity, smoking status, household income, asthma status, and occupations linked to COPD.

Among people living in areas with PM2.5 concentrations that were above World Health Organization standards of 10 mcg/m3, the COPD prevalence was 4 times higher than that among people who were exposed to passive smoking at home. The prevalence was half that seen among people who had ever been a smoker.

“We found that air pollution had much larger effects on people from lower income households,” noted Anna Hansell, PhD, professor of environmental epidemiology in the Centre for Environmental Health at Sustainability at the University of Leicester, and a researcher of the study, in a statement. “Air pollution had approximately twice the impact on lung function decline and 3 times the increased COPD risk on lower-income participants compared to higher-income participants who had the same air pollution exposure.”

According to Hansell, this disparity could be related to poorer housing conditions or diet, worse access to healthcare, or long-term effects of poverty affecting lung growth during childhood. She added that further research is needed to examine the differences in impact between people from lower- and higher-income homes.

The lung functions of men and those with at-risk occupations were more impacted by air pollution, and higher COPD risk was associated more closely with those who were obese and those who did not have asthma.

The researchers indicated that they are conducting further studies to assess whether genetic factors play a role in the impact of air pollution on health.


Doiron D, de Hoogh K, Probst-Hensch N, et al. Air pollution, lung function and COPD: results from the population-based UK Biobank study [published online July 8, 2019]. Eur Respir J. doi: 10.1183/13993003.02140-2018.

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