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Effects of air pollution 

A variety of air pollutants have known or suspected harmful effects on human health and the environment. In most areas of Europe, these pollutants are principally the products of combustion from space heating, power generation or from motor vehicle traffic. Pollutants from these sources may not only prove a problem in the immediate vicinity of these sources but can travel long distances.

Health effects

Generally if you are young and in a good state of health, moderate air pollution levels are unlikely to have any serious short term effects. However, elevated levels and/or long term exposure to air pollution can lead to more serious symptoms and conditions affecting human health. This mainly affects the respiratory and inflammatory systems, but can also lead to more serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer. People with lung or heart conditions may be more susceptible to the effects of air pollution.

The table below shows the types of health effects experienced by the most common pollutants at elevated levels:

PollutantHealth effects at very high levels
Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide, Ozone These gases irritate the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases
Particles Fine particles can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of heart and lung diseases
Carbon Monoxide This gas prevents the uptake of oxygen by the blood. This can lead to a significant reduction in the supply of oxygen to the heart, particularly in people suffering from heart disease

Long-term health effects

The following links provide information about long-term effects of air pollution.

Effects on the environment

Air pollution causes damage to plants and animals, affecting biodiversity and crop yields. Defra has a number of research projects investigating the effects of air pollution on vegetetation and ecosystems.

Page last modified: 10 June 2013