The Effects of Pollution on COPD

Indoor and Outdoor Air Pollution Can Increase Risk of COPD

Sunset smog in Los Angeles.
Sunset smog in Los Angeles. David McNew/Getty Images

If you live in an area with poor air quality and pollution, it could be putting your lungs at risk. Long-term exposure to both indoor and outdoor air pollution can have severe consequences on lung health that are generally irreversible and research supports a correlation between air pollution and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How Indoor Air Pollution Puts You at Risk

Most of us take for granted the air inside our homes, believing it to be safe to breathe.

But, did you know that indoor air is sometimes even more polluted than outdoor air? Common air pollutants that you may be more familiar with include:

  • Biological pollutants: Includes mold, pollen, pet dander and particles from dust mites and cockroaches. These can cause allergies and trigger asthma attacks.
  • Secondhand smoke: Contains the same hazardous chemicals as cigarettes, including formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and other cancer-causing chemicals. Secondhand smoke is a known risk factor for COPD and other lung diseases.
  • Combustible pollutants: From fireplaces, furnaces, heaters and water heaters that use gas, oil, coal or wood as fuel sources. Fuels such as these emit carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that, at very high levels, can cause death.
  • Radon: A natural, radioactive gas that enters your home through cracks and other openings. Indoor radon exposure is thought to be the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., causing 21,000 deaths each year.
  • Asbestos: Found in some roofing, flooring and insulation materials. Asbestos is a mineral that produces tiny, microscopic fibers, which, when inhaled, causes scarring of the lungs, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

Nearly 50 percent of pneumonia deaths among children under five are due to particulate matter inhaled from indoor air pollution and both men and women exposed to heavy indoor smoke are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with COPD.

Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution

Because people with COPD spend much of their time indoors, it is extremely important to take steps to improve your indoor air quality. Get rid of dust mites by washing linens frequently, keeping pets off furniture and keeping your home's humidity level below 50 percent. Be conscious of harmful household chemicals and choose natural products to keep you and your family safe. Having living plants or an air filtration unit can help purify the air. 

How Outdoor Air Pollution Puts You at Risk

A whopping 160 million Americans live in areas that exceed federal health-based air pollution standards. Ozone and particulate matter air pollution are two key pollutants that most commonly exceed standards. While each can have harmful effects on just about anyone if their levels are high enough, health risks from air pollution are greatest among populations that are considered vulnerable, such as the elderly, children and those with chronic health conditions like asthma and COPD.

There is growing evidence that long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution is thought to increase the risk of developing COPD. There is also strong evidence to support that exposure to particulate matter air pollution makes COPD symptoms worse, resulting in an increased risk of death in people who have existing COPD.

To date, no specific medical treatment has been proven effective against air pollution-induced COPD exacerbation.

Reducing Exposure to Outdoor Air Pollution

While outdoor air pollution is largely beyond your control, there are some steps that you can take to lower your risk of exposure when ozone and particulate matter air pollution levels are elevated. These include:

  • Monitoring air quality alerts in your area and staying indoors when air quality is poor.
  • Avoiding exertion or exercise, both indoors and out.
  • Keeping your windows closed.
  • Running your air conditioner in recirculation mode.
  • Breathing through your nose instead of your mouth.
  • Exercising in the morning, (if you must exercise outside) when air pollution levels are lower.


American Lung Association. Indoor Air Quality. Updated 2011.

Laumbach, R.J. MD. MPH. Outdoor Air Pollutants and Patient Health. Am Fam Physician. 2010 Jan 15;81(2):175-180.

Ling SH, van Eeden SF. Particulate matter air pollution exposure: role in the development and exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2009;4:233-43. Epub 2009 Jun 11.

Mestl HE, Aunan K, Seip HM. Health benefits from reducing indoor air pollution from household solid fuel use in China--three abatement scenarios. Environ Int. 2007 Aug;33(6):831-40. Epub 2007 May 1.

World Health Organization. Indoor air pollution and health fact sheet. September 2011.

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