Air pollution is everywhere – in our homes, work environments and outdoor spaces – and the quality of the air we breathe has a significant impact on our short- and long-term respiratory health. Recent data from the American Lung Association demonstrates that, in 2022, more than 40% of Americans are living in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of particle pollution or ozone. 


Both indoor and outdoor air pollution play an enormous role in the development of chronic airway disorders. Thus, health care providers must be knowledgeable about types of air pollutants and their correlation to harmful airway disorders, so they can better inform patients about mitigating pollution exposure to decrease the risk of developing a chronic airway disorder. 


Types of air pollution 


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines air pollution as “any visible or invisible particle or gas found in the air that is not part of the natural composition of air.” Some common examples of both man-made and naturally occurring air pollution include emissions from manufacturing facilities, vehicle exhaust, smoke from fires and dust particles. 


Outdoor pollutants


There are many ways in which air pollution can worsen respiratory symptoms in individuals. Ozone, one of the most common air pollutants which contributes to “smog” or haze, is particularly irritating to the lungs and airways. Studies have shown that individuals are more likely to visit the emergency room for acute asthma episodes on high-pollution summer days than on days with average pollution levels. Ozone concentration, which is directly related to asthma attacks, can reduce lung function, making it more difficult to breathe deeply. 


Small airborne particles are also known to trigger asthma and other respiratory disorders. These particles can be found in haze, smoke and airborne dust, and they present both long- and short-term health complications, such as reduced lung function and more frequent asthma attacks for asthmatics. 


Indoor pollutants


Many people think their risk of exposure to air pollution only increases when they go outside, but indoor pollutants – which are often harder to spot – can be just as harmful. Homes are often considered high priority public health risks because they harbor many allergens and irritants. 


Some sources of harmful indoor air pollution found in homes include: 

  • Household cleaners and air-freshening sprays or devices 
  • Fuel-burning heat sources
  • Smoke from cooking, candles, fireplaces or tobacco
  • Building and painting products 
  • Attached garages that store cars, motorcycles or lawnmowers
  • Humidity that allows mold to grow 
  • Cosmetics, perfumes or hairsprays 


Common airway disorders 


Asthma: One of the most common airway disorders, asthma occurs when the airways narrow and swell, sometimes producing excess mucus, making it harder for individuals to breathe. Asthma is a noncommunicable disease (NCD) that affects both children and adults, and it’s commonly triggered by exposure to air pollution and other environmental irritants, such as fumes, dust, mold and chemicals. 


The following factors put individuals at increased risk for developing asthma: 


  • Having a family history of asthma 
  • Having allergies such as hay fever 
  • Exposure to dust or chemical fumes at work 
  • Being a smoker, having smoked in the past, or been exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to air pollution, specifically ozone 


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Another airway disorder heavily impacted by air pollution, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. It is an irreversible, inflammatory lung disease that predominantly affects middle-aged and elderly individuals. 


Smog is the most widely recognized air pollutant associated with COPD and other respiratory disorders, but both outdoor and indoor air pollutants play a role in causing COPD. Since no specific medical treatment has been discovered to cure COPD, it’s important that providers instruct their patients on ways to reduce their exposure to causative pollutants as much as possible. It’s unrealistic that patients and providers will be able to control every risk factor for COPD, but there are some factors that individuals do have control over, such as not smoking, avoiding perfumes and other scented products, and staying out of extreme cold or humidity. 


Having the right airway management equipment on hand is key to smoothly and effectively addressing harmful respiratory symptoms in patients with chronic airway disorders. EMS providers and hospital emergency departments should always ensure they are stocked with a variety of suction devices and variously sized catheters to remove harmful fluids and particles that can occur in the airway during a crisis. 


To learn more about important airway management equipment for you and your team, see this blog on three types of suction catheters for saving lives.