Increasing Air Pollution Causes Lung Disease Equivalent to Smoking Pack of Cigarettes a Day for 29 Years

The rise in global air pollution, in part due to warming average temperatures, can increase the risk of lung disease as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for nearly three decades, a new study from researchers at the University of Washington, Columbia University and the University at Buffalo has found.

Researchers concluded that air pollution, and especially pollution from ozone, accelerates the incidence of emphysema, a condition where the fine air sacs embedded in the lungs start to deteriorate, preventing oxygen from properly entering the bloodstream.

Over a 10-year time span, if ozone levels in a city are just three parts per billion higher than a comparable city with no ozone increase, that increases a person's risk of emphysema as much as if they had smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, every day, for 29 years, according to the study.

"We were surprised to see how strong air pollution's impact was on the progression of emphysema on lung scans, in the same league as the effects of cigarette smoking, which is by far the best-known cause of emphysema," Dr. Joel Kaufman, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and epidemiology at the University of Washington, said in a statement. "Rates of chronic lung disease in this country are going up and increasingly it is recognized that this disease occurs in nonsmokers. We really need to understand what's causing chronic lung disease, and it appears that air pollution exposures that are common and hard to avoid might be a major contributor."

Climate change is, in fact, helping cause ozone levels in some major U.S. cities to rise past the three-parts-per-billion threshold. The researchers' conclusions are based on an 18-year study which involved over 7,000 subjects across six metropolitan areas in the United States.

People wear protective masks to reduce the effects of air pollution in Beijing on March 27, 2019. NICOLAS ASFOURI/Getty

Other studies have shown a correlation between some pollutants and heart and lung disease, and this new research adds to that body of work by outlining an association between long-term exposure to all major pollutants and emphysema.

According to the federal government's National Climate Assessment—a major, multi-agency work product released every four years analyzing trends in the global environment—chief among the dangers posed by climate change is the effect of warming temperatures on public health.

"Climate change will affect human health by increasing ground-level ozone and/or particulate matter air pollution in some locations," the Centers for Disease Control wrote in an analysis of the assessment's findings. "Ground-level ozone (a key component of smog) is associated with many health problems, including diminished lung function, increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for asthma, and increases in premature deaths."

President Donald Trump, whose administration is reported to have buried the release of the latest National Climate Assessment, has baselessly labeled climate change a "hoax" invented by China.