Misunderstanding Air Pollution

The air we breathe day in and day out can be very polluted. But the consequences of being exposed to air pollution are often misunderstood and/or underestimated. The reason for this seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what air pollution actually is.

Most parents agree, for example, that their child should not live in a fully sterile environment, sheltered from ‘natural’ pollution, i.e. by pollution that has been around for million of years, such as bacteria, viruses, pollen, and pet dander. Being exposed to natural pollution is part of growing up and is believed to help build a healthy immune system. 'Urban' air pollution, i.e. pollution from cars, industry, as well as cleaning products, building material, etc. is a different story.

Inhaling urban air pollution is as damaging to our health as is smoking. Urban air pollution consists out of chemicals and toxins that our body is not used to. It is not the same pollution that humans have been exposed to for thousands of years. The fine dust in air pollution has gotten smaller. It penetrates deep into our lungs and there is no natural defence for it. The pollution finds its way into our bloodstream, cells and every part of our body. Studies show how urban air pollution leads to complications during pregnancy, problems with cognitive development as well as premature death. When there is a high fine dust concentration in the air, more people are admitted to the hospital and more people die due to respiratory and heart complications.

Urban air pollution attacks and challenges our immune system in such a way that our immune system loses its ability to cope with natural air pollution, such as pollen, dust mite allergens, pet dander, dust and mould. Urban air pollution chips away a piece at a time of our natural defences, until they are so weakened that they start overreacting when we are exposed to natural everyday pollution.


  • Public Health Statement for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Environ Health Perspect. 2003 February; 111(2): 201-205.; Effects of transplacental exposure to environmental pollutants on birth outcomes in a multiethnic population; Frederica P Perera, Virginia Rauh, Wei-Yann Tsai, Patrick Kinney, David Camann, Dana Barr, Tom Bernert, Robin Garfinkel, Yi-Hsuan Tu, Diurka Diaz, Jessica Dietrich, and Robin M Whyatt
  • Effect of Prenatal Exposure to Airborne Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons on Neurodevelopment in the First 3 Years of Life among Inner-City Children; Frederica P. Perera,1 Virginia Rauh,1 Robin M. Whyatt,1 Wei-Yann Tsai,1,2 Deliang Tang,1 Diurka Diaz,1 Lori Hoepner,1 Dana Barr,3 Yi-Hsuan Tu,1 David Camann,4 and Patrick Kinney1; www.cumc.columbia.edu