Health risks of air pollution

People at risk

Some people are at a higher risk of health problems when exposed to air pollution:

  • seniors
  • pregnant people
  • infants and young children
  • people who work outdoors
  • people involved in strenuous outdoor exercise
  • people with an existing illness or chronic health conditions, such as:
    • cancer
    • diabetes
    • mental illness
    • lung or heart conditions

Tips for organizers of outdoor sporting events

People participating in sports breathe more deeply and rapidly, which allows more air pollution to enter the lungs. This puts people who are active outdoors at greater risk when air quality is poor.

Just as an outdoor sporting event (game, practice, tournament, etc.) may be cancelled or rescheduled due to thunderstorms, extreme heat or other weather conditions, it is important to consider air quality when making decisions about an event.

The type of activity, the level of exertion required, and the age and relative health of all participants should be factors in deciding whether to hold, continue or modify an event.

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is a tool that can help organizers of outdoor sporting events make decisions based on air quality.

Organizers of outdoor activities and sporting events should consider:

  • Reducing the intensity of the activity or rescheduling the event when the health risk is moderate (between 4 and 6 on the AQHI), especially if participants start experiencing symptoms.
  • Rescheduling the event when the health risk is high (7 or more on the AQHI).

Consult the AQHI before and during an event, as AQHI levels may change quickly. For example, a shift in wind direction can bring wildfire smoke to the event site and rapidly worsen air quality.

Are you sensitive to air pollution?

Exposure to air pollutants can cause a range of symptoms. People with lung or heart disease may experience increased frequency and/or severity of symptoms, and increased medication requirements.

People who are otherwise healthy may have the following symptoms:

  • irritated eyes
  • increased mucus production in the nose or throat
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing especially during exercise

Some people may be unaware that they have lung or heart disease. Consult your doctor if you have any: chest pain or tightness, sweating, difficulty breathing without exertion, consistent cough or shortness of breath, fluttering in the chest or feeling light headed.

People with existing illnesses may have the following specific symptoms:

  • People with asthma or COPD may notice an increase in cough, wheezing, shortness of breath or phlegm. 
  • People with heart failure may experience increased shortness of breath or swelling in the ankles and feet. 
  • People with heart rhythm problems may notice increased fluttering in the chest and feeling light-headed. 
  • People with angina or coronary artery disease may have an increase in chest or arm pain.

Estimating your own sensitivity

Note: You should always consult your doctor concerning medical issues. People who have existing respiratory or cardiovascular illness should follow their doctor's usual advice on the management of their condition. Use of the following guide is an additional tool that can be used to protect your health.

Use your own experience and symptoms as a guide.

How do you usually feel when there is an increase in air pollution? If you cannot answer this question, visit this Web site regularly and take note of how you feel on days with different levels of air pollution.

  1. Take into account your age, your health status, and your level of outdoor activity. If you are in the "At Risk" group, your sensitivity to air pollution is likely to be greater.
    • Young, active children
    • Elderly individuals
    • People having existing respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses such as asthma,chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which may includechronic bronchitis and emphysema, or people with certain heart arrhythmias (rhythm problems or irregular heartbeat), congestive heart failure, angina or previous heart attack
    • People undertaking strenuous exertion outdoors, for example during sports or strenuous work.
  2. By considering these factors you can assess whether you are:
    • Very sensitive: Severe and frequent symptoms, possibly even after low exposures to pollution
    • Moderately sensitive: Between very and mildly sensitive
    • Mildly sensitive: Mild and infrequent symptoms, only after high exposures to pollution.   

Important! This is ONLY a guide. Be sure to consult your doctor if you are experiencing moderate to severe symptoms.  

Adapted from the sensitivity guide developed by the New Brunswick Lung Association

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