Air Pollutants - Health Hazards - Climate Change

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Air Pollutants - Health Hazards - Climate Change
Air Pollutants - Health Hazards - Climate Change
Video: Air Pollutants - Health Hazards - Climate Change
Video: Air Pollution 101 | National Geographic 2023, February

Air pollutants and health hazards

Air pollutants are mainly released (emitted) by traffic, industry, power generation and house fires. In order to contain health hazards, measures to reduce pollutant emissions have been introduced and limit values ​​have been set in many countries. This made it possible to achieve reductions in air concentrations, especially in the case of sulfur dioxide (SO 2) and carbon monoxide (CO), and in some cases also in the case of benzene and fine dust. Nevertheless, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NO and NO 2) in particular continue to pose a considerable health risk for the population.


  • Continue reading
  • more on the subject
  • Advice, downloads & tools
  • What damage to health can occur?
  • Susceptibility varies from person to person
  • Air pollutants and climate change
  • Air pollutants: how can I protect myself?
  • particulate matter
  • ozone
  • Nitrogen oxides
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Heavy metals
  • PAH
  • benzene

What damage to health can occur?

Air pollutants can cause various - partly temporary, partly chronic - damage to health and weaken the natural defense system of the respiratory tract. The health problems include impairment of lung function as well as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Certain air pollutants increase the risk of cancer. Experts also suspect an effect on inflammatory diseases, e.g. chronic rheumatic diseases or arteriosclerosis.

The level and duration of the pollution play an important role. For example, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases occur more frequently in areas with frequent high levels of air pollution, which leads to more hospital stays and a shorter life expectancy for those affected. Child mortality is also higher in heavily polluted areas. Older people, unborn babies and small children as well as people with an existing respiratory disease (e.g. asthma, chronic bronchitis) or with chronic metabolic diseases (e.g. diabetes or obesity) are particularly at risk from air pollutants.

Susceptibility varies from person to person

Not all people react in the same way to air pollutants. Various personal factors influence the health effects of the pollutants. These include:

  • Health and physical status: People with a pre-existing illness, e.g. asthma, COPD or heart disease, are more susceptible to acute illnesses caused by air pollutants.
  • Age: In general, children and adolescents are more severely affected due to their relatively higher respiratory rate and narrower airways.
  • Breathing pattern: With deep breathing and mouth breathing the pollution is higher than with shallow breathing and nasal breathing.
  • Degree of exertion of physical activity (intensity): The increase in the respiratory rate causes a higher absorption of pollutants through breathing.
  • Genetic factors: They too influence a person's sensitivity to air pollutants.

Air pollutants and climate change

A report by the “Austrian Panel on Climate Change” (APCC) describes the problematic consequences of climate change in Austria and their effects on health. The consequences of climate change are expected to result in the preparation of allergenic plants and an increase in pollen loads (especially from ragweed, a trigger of pollen allergy). These consequences are intensified by the “fertilizing effect” of CO2 and nitrogen oxides. In addition, air pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen oxides, fine dust etc. can lead to an increased allergenic aggressiveness of the pollen. The result is an increase in respiratory diseases (e.g. asthma, COPD) and pollen allergies.

Climate change will also affect the distribution and conversion of air pollutants in the atmosphere. It is still uncertain how this will affect the direct health impact from air pollutants. The formation of ozone and secondary particles increases under hot summer conditions. On the other hand, winter inner-Alpine inversion weather conditions prevent air exchange and thus increase the concentration of locally formed pollutants. In any case, climate protection measures can also have locally beneficial effects by reducing the emission of air pollutants.

Air pollutants: how can I protect myself?

Damage to health can generally be avoided by inhaling as little polluted air as possible. Particularly when pollutant limit values ​​are exceeded, precautionary measures help to keep the health impact as low as possible.

  • When exposed to high levels of air pollutants, particularly ozone and fine dust, strenuous outdoor activities should be avoided.
  • Pedestrians and cyclists should avoid busy roads and use less traveled back roads.
  • Living spaces should be ventilated at times of low traffic. You can find more information on indoor air pollutants here.

Current information about the current air quality in your area can be found under Weather & Health.

The daily air quality report of the Federal Environment Agency provides information about the current pollution.

In general, a healthy lifestyle (balanced diet, regular exercise, not smoking, at most low alcohol consumption, etc.) increases the body's resistance to oxidative stress and inflammation. This helps to prevent damage to health from negative environmental influences.

particulate matter

Fine dust (PM) is one of the most dangerous pollutants for health, as it penetrates into sensitive areas of the respiratory system. Long-term exposure to fine dust is harmful to health and shortens life.

You can find detailed information under Fine dust: Air pollutant number 1.


A high level of ozone (O 3) pollution in the air can cause respiratory problems, trigger asthma, impair lung function and cause lung disease. In the environment, a high concentration of ozone causes vegetation damage.

Nitrogen oxides

Nitrogen oxides (NO x) are created at high combustion temperatures from the nitrogen (NO 2) and oxygen (O 2) in the air. Hence, transport and industry are the most important sources. Nitrogen dioxide in particular causes various health problems in higher concentrations. For example, short-term exposure to sensitive people can impair lung function.

Long-term exposure increases the susceptibility to respiratory infections. NO x also contributes to the formation of fine dust and ozone. In the environment, sensitive ecosystems are polluted by an oversupply of nitrogen.

Sulfur dioxide

Sulfur dioxide (SO 2) is released when fuels containing sulfur are burned. In higher concentrations, it can impair the respiratory system and lung function as well as trigger serious respiratory infections and eye problems. Sulfur dioxide is a precursor of fine dust.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) results from the incomplete combustion of fossil and biogenic fuels. It is absorbed into the blood through the lungs and can reduce the ability of the red blood cells to carry oxygen, which leads to a reduced oxygen supply to the organs. People with an existing cardiovascular disease are particularly at risk from carbon monoxide.

Heavy metals

Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and nickel are released in various combustion processes or industrial production processes as well as in mining and subsequent processing. Heavy metals can be contained in fine dust and deposited in the environment. Ingesting these substances increases the risk of cancer and can contribute to bone and kidney damage.


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when the combustion is incomplete and are an important component in soot and tar. PAH is a collective term for many different complex organic compounds. The best-known representative is benzo (a) pyrene, which has long been known to be carcinogenic. It is also one of the most dangerous components of cigarette smoke.


Benzene is a volatile chemical-organic compound (aromatic hydrocarbon) that is found in car fuels (gasoline) and is released when gasoline is incompletely burned. Other sources include domestic fuel, the refining of petroleum, and the handling, transport or storage of gasoline. Benzene is a cancer-causing substance that can lead to leukemia (cancer of the blood).

Note You can find limit and threshold values ​​for air pollutants on the website of the Federal Environment Agency.

Additional Information:

  • Federal Environment Agency
  • Federal Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism
  • Climate active
  • European Environment Agency
  • Doctors for a healthy environment
  • LUDOK Documentation Center Air Pollution and Health (Switzerland)

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