How does air pollution affect my lungs?

The average person who is moderately active during the daytime breathes about 20,000 liters of air every day. There are particles in the air you breathe that could be harmful.  Particles, such as dust and soot, mold, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, land on airway and alveolar surfaces. The respiratory system has defense mechanisms to clean and protect itself. 

  • The nose acts as a filter cleaning out bigger particles.
  • Tiny hairs called cilia line the airways and move gently to keep mucus and dirt out of the lungs.  The airways are covered by a liquid layer of mucus. Particles and pathogens are trapped in this mucus are coughed up or swallowed.
  • Phagocytes are cells on the lungs that move around and find particles that could be harmful. They bind to the particles, eat them and kill any that are living and digest them.

When the lungs are exposed to serious threats, more white blood cells, can be recruited to help ingest and kill pathogens (foreign particles).

Many studies have shown links between pollution and health. On high pollution days our defenses can be overwhelmed so our lungs are not well protected. The elderly, children and those with chronic conditions like asthma, are especially sensitive to the effects of air pollution.

High levels of air pollution directly affect people with asthma and other types of lung or heart disease. The particulate matter in an inversion acts as an abrasive substance that can cause damage to the lung tissues and aggravate asthma symptoms.

The level of risk from air pollution depends on several factors:

  • The amount of pollution in the air or the length of an inversion.
  • The amount of air we breathe in a given time (we breathe more deeply when we are physically active).
  • The overall health of an individual.


Other important points:

  • You may not feel the effects of pollution.
  • Indoor air is better than outdoor air during an inversion.