Health effects of air pollution
Find out how air pollution can affect your health and who is at risk for getting sick.
On this page
- Health impacts of air pollution in Canada
- What are the health risks of air pollution?
- What are the symptoms you may experience because of air pollution?
- Who is most at risk for air pollution health effects?
- What should you do if you think you are suffering from health problems related to air quality?
- For more information
Health impacts of air pollution in Canada
Everyone is exposed to air pollution. Air pollution, even at low levels, has an impact on human health. Science has clearly shown that air pollution leads to disease, increased hospitalizations, and even premature death.
Even though air pollution levels are low in Canada compared with those in other countries, addressing air pollution remains a priority for the Government of Canada.
The Government of Canada estimates that 14,400 premature deaths per year in Canada can be linked to air pollution, as outlined in the technical report Health Impacts of Air Pollution in Canada – An Estimate of Premature Mortalities. While air pollution is a complex mixture of substances, most health effects are associated with the major components of smog and are the subject of this evaluation:
Health Canada's analysis makes use of the best available health and air quality data for Canada.
Ambient levels for the pollutants are determined from a combination of:
- satellite measurements;
- ground measurements; and
- air quality computer models.
Maps are created to show:
- air pollution levels across Canada for each pollutant; and
- the distribution of the population across Canada.
The exposure of Canadians to air pollution is then estimated by combining the air pollution and population maps.
Health Canada uses a computer model called the Air Quality Benefits Assessment Tool (AQBAT). The AQBAT model includes mathematical equations that show associations between air pollution and health effects. These equations are based on robust scientific findings. The AQBAT model produces an estimate of the number of premature deaths (and other health outcomes) in Canada.
The scientific method used is similar to those used by other health organizations, both in Canada and internationally. All conclude that air pollution has significant impacts on human health.
For a copy of the technical report Health Impacts of Air Pollution in Canada – An Estimate of Premature Mortalities or additional information on how the Government of Canada estimates air pollution health impacts, please contact AIR@hc-sc.gc.ca.
What are the health risks of air pollution?
Air pollution can affect:
- breathing and lung conditions, such as:
- heart conditions, such as:
It can also increase the risk of stroke.
Some pollutants and bacteria found mainly indoors are related to specific risks, such as:
Your reaction to air pollution depends on:
- the type and amount of contaminants you are exposed to
- your overall health
- your age
What are the symptoms you may experience because of air pollution?
If you are suffering from the health effects of air pollution, symptoms can include:
- headache or dizziness
- coughing and sneezing
- wheezing or difficulty breathing
- more mucous in the nose or throat
- dry or irritated eyes, nose, throat and skin
You may notice these symptoms after a few minutes or hours and then feel better after leaving the affected area. This may be more noticeable if you have not spent much time in affected areas. For example, you may notice a difference after a vacation.
People with lung or heart disease may experience more frequent and severe symptoms. They may also need more medication to reduce these symptoms.
People with lung problems
People with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may notice that they:
- have more mucous
- cough and wheeze more
- experience shortness of breath
People with heart problems
People with heart failure, heart rhythm problems or angina may experience:
- a chest or arm pain
- irregular heart beats
- swelling in the ankles and feet
- an increase in shortness of breath
Who is most at risk for air pollution health effects?
People who are most at risk for health effects are:
- older adults
- young children
- those who are active outdoors
- those who have existing heart conditions
- those who live near industries or busy roadways
- those who have existing breathing or lung problems and illnesses
Lung conditions that put people at risk for air pollution health effects include:
- lung cancer
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- this is sometimes called chronic bronchitis or emphysema
People who have previously suffered a heart attack are at risk. Other heart conditions that put people at risk include:
- heart failure (your heart is too weak to move blood around the body)
- angina (chest pain that happens when your heart does not get enough oxygen-rich blood)
- heart rhythm problems like arrhythmia (your heart either beats too fast, too slow or is irregular)
Those with diabetes are also at risk for air pollution health effects. This is because people with diabetes are also likely to have a heart condition.
Young children breathe in more air in relation to their body weight than people in other age groups. This means that they breathe in more contaminants, so air pollution affects them more.
The body’s defence and lung systems are also not fully developed yet. Therefore, young children cannot easily fight off sicknesses that may result from air pollution.
Older adults may have weaker lungs, heart and defence systems. They may also have an undiagnosed lung or heart condition.
Those who are active outdoors
People who play sports or do hard work outdoors breathe faster and more deeply than others. This allows more air pollution to enter the lungs.
Those who live near industries or busy roadways
People who live near industries or busy roadways are closer to major sources of air pollution. They may be exposed to more pollutants from these sources.
What should you do if you think you are suffering from health problems related to air quality?
If you think that you are suffering from health problems related to air pollution, it is important to:
- keep track of when you get symptoms and when they go away
- discuss your symptoms with your health care provider
This will help your health care provider determine if your symptoms are related to
- air quality problems, including indoor air quality issues
- another health issue
If you are suffering from poor indoor air quality at work, you should:
- discuss your concerns with your supervisor or health and safety representative
- contact your provincial or territorial government for information and advice on workplace health and safety
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