Health risks of air pollution

The most common categories of people at increased risk

At risk population

People with existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions

People who have respiratory illnesses* and those with cardiovascular conditions are more sensitive to air pollution. People with diabetes are also more sensitive because they are more likely to have cardiovascular conditions. Air pollution can worsen any of these chronic conditions.

Having your chronic disease under good control can help reduce the impacts of air pollution on your pre-existing condition. Talk to your medical professional to discuss the specific link between air quality and your health condition.

* Respiratory illnesses include conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, or lung cancer. Cardiovascular conditions include angina, previous heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, or heart rhythm problems (arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat).

I have asthma: should air pollution prevent me from exercising?

The benefits of regular exercise almost always outweigh the risks associated with exercise-induced asthma. It is suggested that children (5 to 18) do 60 minutes a day of vigorous activity and adults do 150 minutes a week.

Higher AQHI values make people with asthma more at risk. It is important to make sure your asthma is under control before you start exercising, especially when the AQHI is moderate to high. If you develop symptoms while you are exercising, adjust your activity level as needed. If you're unsure whether your symptoms are due to the impacts of air quality, talk to your doctor to find out more about the possible link between air quality and your health.

Young children and seniors

Young children and seniors are more sensitive to air pollution, especially if they have breathing or heart problems. As a parent or a caregiver, if you notice symptoms (trouble breathing, coughing, sore throat, etc.) suggest taking a break or reducing intensity until they feel better. Check the AQHI to find out the best time to plan outdoor activities.

Those active outdoors

People participating in sports or strenuous work outdoors breathe more deeply and rapidly allowing more air pollution to enter the lungs.

Pregnant women

Pregnant women are encouraged to continue to exercise outdoors when the air quality is good, and pay attention to AQHI in the same way as if they were not pregnant.


On days when air pollution levels are significantly elevated, even people not in the above groups may notice symptoms.

How can you tell if you may be 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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