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Air Quality and Health

National air quality has improved since the early 1990’s, but many challenges remain in protecting public health and the environment from air quality problems.

Since the 1950s, air quality has been a major public health and environmental concern. Local, state, and national programs have helped us learn more about the problems and how to solve them.

CDC works closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide air quality data on the tracking network and to better understand how air pollution affects our health. On this network you will find information and data about the possible health effects of exposure to ozone and particulate matter (PM2.5).

Ground level ozone

Your exposure to ozone depends mainly on where you live and work and how much time you spend outside. Everyone can have health problems from ozone. Symptoms might be very mild or more serious. People with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are active outdoors are at the highest risk of having problems when ozone levels are unhealthy.

Many scientific studies have linked ground-level ozone contact to varied problems, such as:

  • lung and throat irritation,
  • wheezing and breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities,
  • coughing and pain when taking a deep breath,
  • aggravation of asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema, and
  • higher chance of getting respiratory illness such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

Ozone and Health

When ozone levels are very high, everyone should be concerned about ozone exposure. But ozone bothers some people more than others, mainly when they are outside. People in these groups may feel the effects of ozone when they are outside for short periods of time, even if they are only doing light activities. Those most likely to be bothered by ozone include:

  • people with asthma or lung disease because they will feel the effects of ozone sooner and at lower ozone levels than less-sensitive people.
  • children who spend a lot of time outdoors. Children are also more likely than adults to have asthma, which may be aggravated when they breathe in ozone. Being exposed to ozone for short periods of time over many years may cause children to have more breathing problems as adults.
  • older adults because they are more likely to have heart or lung disease.
  • active people of all ages who exercise or work hard outside because they are in contact with ozone more than people who spend more time indoors.
  • infants because their lungs continue to develop after birth and can be impacted by air pollutants.

Many scientific studies have linked ground-level ozone contact to such varied problems as:

  • aggravation of asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema;
  • coughing and pain when taking a deep breath;
  • higher chance of getting respiratory illness such as pneumonia or bronchitis;
  • lung and throat irritation; and
  • wheezing and breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities.

As a result of these studies, scientists know that breathing in too much ozone can increase events such as

  • use of asthma medication,
  • absences from school,
  • visits to the emergency room and hospital admissions, and
  • premature death from heart and lung disease.

Particulate Matter

Particle pollution, or particulate matter, consists of particles that are in the air, including dust, dirt, soot and smoke, and little drops of liquid. Some particles, such as soot or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen. Other particles are so small that you cannot see them. Small particles are the most concerning because they are most likely to cause health problems. Their small size allows these particles to get into the deep part of your lungs. Being exposed to any kind of particulate matter may cause:

  • increased emergency department visits and hospital stays for breathing and heart problems,
  • breathing problems,
  • asthma symptoms to get worse,
  • adverse birth outcomes, such as low birth weight,
  • decreased lung growth in children,
  • lung cancer, and
  • early deaths.

Sensitive people, including older adults, people with diseases such as asthma or congestive heart disease, and children, are more likely to be affected by contact with PM2.5.

Particulate Matter and Health

Being exposed to any kind of particulate matter may cause:

  • increased emergency department visits and hospital stays for breathing and heart problems,
  • worsened asthma symptoms,
  • adverse birth outcomes,
  • breathing problems,
  • decreased lung growth in children,
  • lung cancer, and
  • early deaths.

People who are at the highest risk of being bothered by particulate matter include:

  • People with heart or lung diseases because they will feel the effects of particulate matter sooner and at lower ozone levels than less-sensitive people.
  • Older adults because they may not know they have lung or heart disease. When particle levels are high, older adults are more likely than young adults to have to go to the hospital or die because the exposure to particle pollution has made their heart or lung disease worse.
  • Children because they are still growing and spend more time at high activity levels. When children come in contact with particle pollution over a long period of time they may have problems as their lungs and airways are developing. This exposure may put them at risk for lowered lung fu

Data and information for this site are still being developed and added.  We welcome your comments and feedback.

This effort is supported by funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, Cooperative Agreement Number 5U38EH000619-02. The contents of this Website are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.