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The Impact of Air Quality on Health

Family and Sports Medicine physician, Dr. Liz Joy, MD, MPH, shares air quality health insights on our blog this month. She practices at Intermountain Healthcare where she is the Medical Director Community Health and Nutrition and also currently serves as Co-Chair of the Air Quality and Health Workgroup and UCAIR’s Board of Directors Chair.

As winter approaches in Utah, we will inevitably experience temperature inversions that lead to higher levels of air pollution in our atmosphere. Referred to as “inversions” this phenomenon is a result of our topography with mountain ranges to the East and West that turn the Wasatch Front into a big bowl. Warm air settles into the top of the bowl, trapping pollution beneath it. It’s that pollution that we can see, smell and taste in the wintertime.

The greatest contributor to air pollution comes from our cars. If we can all make an effort to follow some relatively painless recommendations, we can reduce air pollution and its impact on our health and the health of our loved ones.

  • Try car pooling
  • Work from home when air quality starts to decline
  • Chain car trips together to avoid repeated cold starts which can increase tail pipe emissions
  • Consider public transportation
  • When it comes time to purchase a new vehicle, consider a hybrid, or electric

Getting back to air quality and health, air pollution affects everyone. Taking a life span approach, women exposed to air pollution during their pregnancies are at higher risk of miscarriage and premature birth; and babies are more likely to develop asthma later in life. Kids are also more likely to suffer from air pollution. They breathe faster, and spend more time outside, therefore are exposed to more air pollutants. Additionally, air pollution can increase the likelihood of a child needing to be hospitalized for a respiratory illness.

As people age, and accumulate chronic disease, air pollution can have an even more severe impact on health outcomes. Air pollution may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, especially in people with a previous history of stroke. It worsens asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is associated with worse outcomes in people with diabetes, and there is an increasing body of evidence linking exposure to poor air quality with depression.

Recently, there has been considerable concern about air pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic.  A study that examined over a million COVID-19 cases and nearly 60,000 deaths, concluded that higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and to a lesser extent PM2.5 enhanced susceptibility to more severe COVID-19 outcomes. The authors went on to suggest that in areas where air quality is poor, people should taken even greater caution to follow public health guidelines to avoid exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

A key take home point is there is no safe level of air pollution. We should all do our part to reduce air pollution and when our air quality is poor, we should avoid exposure by being active indoors, being active above the winter inversion layer, or exercising earlier in the day before pollution levels build with our morning commutes. Take care to protect our air!