News, Culture & Society

Air pollution ‘ages your lungs by TWO YEARS’

Living near a busy road could trigger a life-threatening lung disease, research suggests.

A new study found air pollution is fuelling an alarming rise in cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is an incurable condition that occurs when the lungs become inflamed, damaged and narrowed.   

Living near a busy road can trigger a deadly lung disease, research suggests (stock)

The research was carried out by Leicester University. 

Study author Professor Anna Hansell, an environmental epidemiologist, said: ‘In one of the largest analyses to date we found outdoor air pollution exposure is directly linked to lower lung function and increased COPD prevalence.

‘We found people exposed to higher levels of pollutants had lower lung function equivalent to at least a year of ageing.

‘Worryingly, we found air pollution had much larger effects on people from lower income households.


CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.


COPD describes a number of lung conditions. 

These include emphysema, which affects the air sacs and chronic bronchitis, which impacts the airways. 

Around 1.2million people in the UK are diagnosed with COPD, British Lung Foundation statistics show.

This makes it the second most common lung disease after asthma.

And in the US, 16million people suffer from COPD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

‘There are surprisingly few studies that look at how air pollution affects lung health,’ Professor Hansell said.

‘To try and address this, we assessed more than 300,000 people using data from the UK Biobank study to examine whether air pollution exposure was linked to changes in lung function.

‘And whether it affected participants’ risk of developing COPD. 

‘Air pollution had approximately twice the impact on lung function decline and three times the increased COPD risk on lower-income participants compared to higher-income participants who had the same air pollution exposure.

‘We accounted for participants’ smoking status and if their occupation might affect lung health, and think this disparity could be related to poorer housing conditions or diet, worse access to healthcare or long-term effects of poverty affecting lung growth in childhood.

‘However, further research is needed to investigate the differences in effects between people from lower- and higher-income homes.’  

The study published in the European Respiratory Journal suggests the impact of air pollution is worse than previously feared – contributing to the ageing process as well as harming the lungs. 

Her team looked at a range of pollutants including nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and tiny particles called PM10s and PM2.5s from vehicle exhausts and factories.

They get into the lungs and bloodstream via the nose. It’s been suggested they cut British lives by an average of six months and limit the growth of children’s lungs.

The study showed for each annual average increase of five micrograms per cubic metre of PM2.5 in the air, the reduction in lung function was similar to the effects of two years of ageing. They are about 20 times smaller than a grain of sand.

For those living in areas above World Health Organisation (WHO) annual average guidelines of ten micrograms per cubic meter (10 *g/m3), COPD prevalence was four times higher than among people exposed to passive smoking at home.

It was also half that of those who had ever smoked. What is more, the participants were generally wealthier and healthier than the wider general public.

This could have resulted in underestimations of the strength of the links between declining lung function and air pollution exposure, say the researchers.

The current EU air quality limits for PM2.5 is 25 micrograms per cubic meter (25 *g/m3).

This is higher than the levels that the researchers noted as being linked to reduced lung function.

The researchers used a validated air pollution model to estimate the amounts participants were exposed to at their homes when they signed up to the study between 2006 and 2010.

They answered detailed health questionnaires and lung function was measured using a technique called spirometry. It measures how much air can be breathed out in one forced go.

Multiple tests then revealed how long-term exposure to higher levels of the pollutants was linked to changes.

The individuals’ age, sex, BMI (body mass index), household income, education level, smoking status and exposure to secondhand smoke were taken into account.

Further analyses also looked at whether working in occupations that increase the risk of developing COPD impacted disease prevalence.

Professor Tobias Welte, from Hannover University, Germany, who is president of the European Respiratory Society and was not involved in the study, said : ‘The findings of this large study reinforce that exposure to polluted air seriously harms human health by reducing life expectancy and making people more prone to developing chronic lung disease.

‘Access to clean air is a fundamental need and right for all citizens in Europe. Governments have a responsibility to protect this right by ensuring that maximum pollutant levels indicated by the World Health Organisation are not breached across our cities and towns.

‘Breathing is the most basic human function required to sustain life, which is why we must continue to fight for the right to breathe clean air.’

The researchers are conducting further studies to look at whether genetic factors interact with air pollution and its effects on health.

Air pollution has been linked to heart attacks, respiratory conditions like asthma – and even dementia.

In the UK, more children suffer from respiratory conditions than anywhere else in Europe.

The UN agency Unicef recently reported around one in three British children are living in areas with unsafe levels of pollution.