Exposure to air pollution can cause health problems in children, the elderly, people with health conditions, and otherwise healthy people. People with asthma can have difficulty breathing if air pollution is high, and long-term exposure can lead to cancer and damage to the immune, neurological, reproductive, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. In addition, prenatal and early childhood exposure to air pollution has been linked with neurobehavioral problems.
NIEHS-funded researchers are conducting laboratory studies aimed at understanding the biological mechanisms involved in disease processes linked to air pollution exposure. Human studies are examining the role that air pollution plays in various diseases, studying the biological effects of air pollution on the body, and identifying groups who are most susceptible to this pollution. Researchers are also studying the combined effects of pollution and other factors, such as high relative humidity, in the indoor and outdoor environment.
Outdoor air pollutants come from emissions from vehicles, factory chimneys, burning of fossil fuels such as coal, chemical manufacturing, forest fires, and other sources. Air pollutants under study include particulate matter, ultrafine particles, ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone.
NIEHS research has contributed a sound scientific base for more stringent air quality standards and reduced the costs associated with respiratory disease. As research in this area advances, it will continue to in inform public health interventions to improve health and protect quality of life.
Many of the pollutants found outside can accumulate inside, especially if buildings have poor ventilation. Gas stoves and heating units can also contribute pollutants such as nitrogen oxide. Indoor mold, pollen, tobacco smoke, pet dander, and pest allergens can cause or exacerbate health problems. NIEHS funds research that is studying the health effects of indoor air pollutants found in households as well as those found in the workplace, which can include pesticides, nanoparticles, and fumes from industrial chemicals.
NIEHS also focuses on global air pollution issues including the open fires or traditional cookstoves that burn solid fuels and can produce high levels of health-damaging pollutants such as fine particles and carbon monoxide. The NIEHS funds research on cookstoves and their health effects in countries such as Ghana, Nepal, Peru, and Nicaragua. Scientists are also testing less-polluting stove designs and proper ventilation.
To better understand how people are affected by air pollution, especially as people move between indoor and outdoor environments, researchers are developing technologies to measure personal exposures and collect data on when and where exposure occurred as well as whether the person was active, which might increase inhalation of pollutants. This work also contributes to the NIEHS efforts to measure all the exposures a person experiences during a lifetime, a concept known as the exposome.
For additional information on what NIEHS grantees are doing, visit our Who We Fund tool.