The Effects of Pollution on COPD

Indoor and Outdoor Air Pollution Can Increase Risk of COPD

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). In addition, both indoor and outdoor air pollution can exacerbate lung disease which is already present.

An example of how bad the smog used to be in Los Angeles

David McNew / Getty Images

Let's take a look at how both indoor and outdoor air pollution put you at risk, common substances including particular matter which are the culprits, and what you can do to reduce your exposure.

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 familiar with include:

  • Biological pollutants: This includes mold, pollen, pet dander and particles from dust mites and cockroaches. These can cause allergies and trigger asthma attacks.
  • Secondhand smoke: Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) 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: There are many sources of combustible pollutants in our homes including fireplaces (wood smoke), furnaces, heaters and water heaters that use gas, oil, coal or wood as fuel sources. Fuels such as these emit a number of hazardous chemicals including carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that, at very high levels, can cause death.
  • Radon: Radon is a natural, radioactive gas that enters your home through cracks and other openings. It doesn't matter if your home is old or new, though elevated radon levels are more common in some regions of the country than others. Indoor radon exposure is thought to be the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., causing 21,000 deaths each year.  (As a quick comparison, breast cancer is responsible for around 40,000 deaths per 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.

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 live plants in your home isn't just for beauty but is a health benefit, and studies have found that a few houseplants can significantly reduce the air pollution in your home. Air filtration units can also be used to improve the indoor air you breathe.

How Outdoor Air Pollution Puts You at Risk

Over 160 million Americans live in areas that exceed federal health-based air pollution standards. Ozone and airborne particular matter 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 exacerbations.

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 when air quality is poor.
  • 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.
  • If you're a fireworks fanatic, take a moment to learn about fireworks and air quality.

Bottom Line on Air Pollution and COPD

It's quite clear that both indoor and outdoor air pollution are linked to the development and progression of COPD. While we often hear more about outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollutants may be more of a problem overall. The positive aspect of this is that you can do much more to control the quality of the air you breathe indoors than outside.

There are many simple steps you can take to improve your indoor air quality. In addition to learning about your medications and how to manage your COPD, educate yourself about the common air pollutants and take measures to reduce your exposure when possible.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.