(CN) – Health researchers report air pollution is causing lung diseases – particularly emphysema – to occur on a massive scale, an acceleration made worse by climate change.
The study, published Tuesday in JAMA, examined data collected over nearly two decades on the effects of air pollution in several key areas, including Chicago; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Baltimore; Los Angeles; St. Paul, Minnesota; and New York.. The research involved roughly 7,000 people of widely varying ethnic and health makeups.
The study found that in areas where air pollution is the worst, its effect on the health of residents is readily apparent. The researchers focused on air pollution’s relationship with emphysema, a lung condition that damages the inner lung tissue to a point that it causes severe respiratory challenges and increases the risk of death. Symptoms of emphysema include wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
They found a direct link between poor air quality and emphysema, and in the study suggest exposure to ozone levels of just 3 parts per billion higher than another location increases the risk of emphysema about as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years.
“Rates of chronic lung disease in this country are going up and increasingly it is recognized that this disease occurs in nonsmokers,” said study leader Joel Kaufman, a professor of internal medicine and a physician at University of Washington School of Medicine. “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.”
Kaufman, who is also a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and epidemiology at the University of Washington, believe that while the link has been well documented in the past, a study with this specific focus and methodology has never been reported on before.
“To our knowledge, this is the first longitudinal study to assess the association between long-term exposure to air pollutants and progression of percent emphysema on CT in a large, community-based multiethnic cohort,” said first author Meng Wang, an assistant professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo who conducted the research as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, in a statement.
The team also noted rising temperatures from climate change will exacerbate the problem, particularly ground-level ozone, and said it’s unclear what level of the pollutant – if any – is safe for human health.
Kaufman could not be reached for immediate comment by press time.