Air Quality Dramatically Impacts Health Outcomes

An article published by the American Thoracic Society spotlights the health benefits of air pollution reduction. It explains dramatic evidence from around the world revealing that improved air quality drives both immediate and lasting health benefits, including reductions in asthma-related hospital stays, COPD, cardiovascular disease, and low-weight pregnancies. Excerpts from that article are as follows: 

Air pollution is a grave risk to human health that affects nearly everyone in the world and nearly every organ in the body. Fortunately, it is largely a preventable risk. Reducing pollution at its source can have a rapid and substantial impact on health.


In Southern California, air quality control policies have resulted in steady improvements in air quality from the mid-1990s to the 2000s. The Children’s Health Study evaluated yearly lung function during these two decades among more than 2,000 Southern California teenagers. The average rate of lung function growth was faster in children with and without asthma who lived in areas with a greater decline in nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The prevalence of low lung function cases declined from 7.9% in the mid-1990s to 3.6% in 2007-2011 as air quality improved. Improved lung growth and development in children also leads to lower risk for chronic lung disease in adulthood. 


In a more specific case, starting at week one of a ban on smoking in Ireland, there was a 13 percent drop in all-cause mortality, a 26 percent reduction in ischemic heart disease, a 32 percent reduction in stroke, and a 38 percent reduction in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Confirming the need to address second-hand smoke, the greatest benefits in the Irish study occurred among non-smokers.

Atlanta & Beijing

At both the Atlanta and Beijing Olympics, when local industries drastically curtailed air pollution, health officials noticed a dramatic improvement in many disease categories. In Atlanta, Georgia during the 1996 Olympic Games, parts of the city were closed to help athletes make it to their events on time, but this also greatly decreased air pollution as a result. In the following four weeks, children’s visits for asthma to clinics dropped by more than 40 percent and trips to emergency departments by 11 percent. Hospitalizations for asthma decreased by 19 percent. Similar outcomes were observed when China imposed factory and travel restrictions for the Beijing Olympics; lung function improved within two months, with fewer asthma-related physician visits and less cardiovascular mortality. 


Another example of localized air quality improvement was found in Utah where a 13-month closure of a small-town steel mill resulted in reducing hospitalizations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis, and asthma by half. School absenteeism decreased by 40 percent, and daily mortality fell in direct relation to the decrease in air pollution. Women who were pregnant during the mill closing were less likely to have premature births. 

Global Conclusions and Impact

Lead author of the report, Dean Schraufnagel, MD, ATSF commented that “we knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive. Our findings indicate almost immediate and substantial effects on health outcomes followed reduced exposure to air pollution. It’s critical that governments adopt and enforce WHO guidelines for air pollution immediately.” 

To read additional stories of how improved air quality has led to dramatic health improvement all around the world, please visit the full research study at the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.