Air Quality and Your Health

Invest in Halton

Air quality affects everyone’s health in different ways – in both urban and rural communities and through all seasons, even winter.

There is no safe level of air pollution; even low levels can negatively affect the health of vulnerable individuals. It is important that each of us understands how we respond to different levels of air pollution so we can take steps to protect our health.

Frequently asked questions about air quality and your health

What are the common air pollutants?

  • Ground-level ozone - O3
  • Fine particulate matter - PM2.5
  • Sulphur dioxide - SO2
  • Nitrogen dioxide - NO2
  • Carbon monoxide - CO

While 2 of these air pollutants (O3 and PM2.5) contribute to smog, all 5 contribute to health impacts. These air pollutants are released into the air whenever we use fuels such as oil, gasoline, natural gas, diesel, wood or coal.

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How does air pollution affect my health?

  • How air pollution affects your health is determined by:
    • the length of time you are exposed
    • your health status and genetic make-up
    • the concentration of pollutants
  • Peaks in air pollution can:
    • make it harder to breathe
    • irritate your respiratory system
    • aggravate symptoms associated with asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis and emphysema
    • aggravate heart conditions such as angina and heart rhythm problems
  • Negative health effects increase as air pollution worsens. Studies show that even small increases in air pollution can cause small increases in emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths.

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What kind of health impacts has air pollution been linked to?

  • Peaks in air levels of the common air pollutants have been linked to:
    • increases in non-traumatic heart and respiratory deaths
    • increases in deaths due to heart and respiratory conditions
    • increases in emergency room visits
    • increases in asthma symptoms
    • increases in respiratory infections
    • reductions in lung function
  • Long term exposure to increased levels of air pollution increases the risk of developing chronic heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer and asthma.
  • It also reduces life expectancy.
  • Researchers conclude that air pollution in some U.S. cities presents a health risk comparable to that associated with long-term exposure to second hand smoke.

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Who is at risk?

  • Everyone can be negatively affected by poor air quality.
  • Those who are most sensitive to the effects of air pollution include:
    • Newborns and young children.
    • Pregnant women.
    • The elderly (because they are more likely to have heart and lung diseases).
    • Those who work or exercise outside.
    • People with pre-existing health conditions such as:
      • Respiratory disease (e.g. asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, COPD).
      • Cardiovascular disease (e.g. angina, history of heart attack).
      • Diabetes (because of its relationship with heart disease).

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How does exercise and physical activity increase my health risk?

  • People breathe harder when exercising or doing hard physical work, which means that they can draw more air pollution deep into their lungs.
  • People also breathe mostly through their mouths when they are physically active, which means that air pollutants can by-pass the partial filtering action of the nose.
  • Health risks are even greater when it is hot and humid outdoors and air quality is poor, because the heat adds more stress to the body.
  • Parents, coaches and others supervising children should be aware of the health risks during days when air pollution levels are high.

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What can I do to protect my health?

  • Listen or watch for air quality advisories broadcast by media and weather reports.
  • If available, use the  Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) to make informed decisions.
  • Schedule activity for early in the day before air pollutants build to high levels.
  • Avoid heavy outdoor physical activity during advisories or when air quality is poor.
  • Re-schedule sports practices and jogging times if possible.
  • If jogging or cycling, avoid busy streets, especially during rush hours.
  • Plan ahead; ask for policies to reschedule sports events that occur during smog alerts
  • Protect those who are most sensitive (e.g., children, older adults, asthmatics).
  • Those with breathing and heart problems should pay special attention to their symptoms and seek medical attention if they worsen.

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What can I do to reduce my contribution to air pollution?

When advisories are issued:

  • Carpool, take public transit, or work from home.
  • Avoid the use of small engine motors and gasoline-powered equipment.
  • Turn down the air conditioner in the summer months.
  • Avoid using the fireplace in the winter months.
  • If you must drive, do not idle your vehicle.

Year-round:

  • Reduce household energy use:
    • Update appliances, furnaces, and air conditioners with low energy models.
    • Turn lights off and use low energy bulbs.
    • Set the thermostat higher in the summer and lower in the winter.
    • Ensure your home is well-insulated and that air leaks are minimized.
  • Reduce vehicle-related air pollution:
    • When purchasing a vehicle, select a fuel efficient model.
    • Try to walk, cycle or blade to work or to do your errands.
    • Use public transit or carpool to work, if possible.
    • When using a vehicle, plan several errands around one trip.
    • Keep your vehicle maintained and your tires properly inflated.
  • If you must use a woodstove or fireplace, ensure it is high-efficiency and certified as low-emission by CSA International and/or the EPA. This can reduce pollutants by up to 90% and allow you to burn a third less wood and get the same amount of heat.
  • Ask for policies at your workplace that support clean air efforts.

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What can I do to improve air quality in my community?

  • Drive less, walk and bike more, and make use of public transit.
  • Encourage development of “complete” communities that promote walking, cycling, and public transit use.
  • Get involved in tree planting and urban agriculture projects like community gardens.

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