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Outdoor Air Quality

About Outdoor Air Quality

Poor air quality outside can harm health. Air pollution has been linked to many health problems, including asthma and heart disease. Two types of air pollution are ozone and particle pollution. Ozone is the main ingredient in smog or haze. People with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are active outdoors can be affected when ozone levels are unhealthy. Tiny bits of dust, dirt, ash, and other materials can float in the air, where people may breathe them in. These are called "particulate matter" or PM. Breathing in these tiny materials can cause heart and lung problems.

Why is Outdoor Air Quality Important?

Poor air quality can cause breathing problems

Breathing in unhealthy air can cause:

  • Airway irritation, coughing, and pain when taking a deep breath.
  • Wheezing and breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities.
  • Airway inflammation.
  • Asthma to be worse and make it more likely to get lung illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis.

Air pollution can lead to premature death; more hospitalizations for lung and heart conditions; adverse birth outcomes (including premature birth and low birth weight); and lung cancer1. Further, illnesses caused by air pollution cost the United States approximately $100 billion dollars (in 1988 dollars) every year(Cannon 1990). More than half of the U.S. population, or approximately 159 million Americans, live in counties with unhealthy air, either from ozone or PM2.52.

What is Known?


Ozone is a gas that you cannot see or smell. "Good" ozone occurs naturally in the sky about 10 to 30 miles above the Earth's surface. It forms a layer that protects life on Earth from the sun's harmful rays. Ground-level ozone, or "bad" ozone, is harmful to our health when we breathe it in. Many big cities have higher levels of bad ozone. Rural areas have bad ozone, too, because the wind blows ozone hundreds of miles away from their starting place. Bad ozone can:

  • Cause coughing or pain when you take a deep breath.
  • Make asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis worse.
  • Cause lung inflammation.
  • Temporarily decrease the lung capacity of healthy adults.
  • Permanently scar lung tissue when it is breathed in at high levels over long periods of time.

Particle Pollution or Particulate Matter

Particle pollution, or particulate matter (PM), is made up of small bits in the air, such as dust, dirt, soot and smoke, and little droplets of liquid. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen, like soot, smoke, and dust, while other particles are too small to be seen. Breathing in a lot of PM for more than a year can cause heart and lung problems such as:

  • Breathing problems.
  • Reduced lung function.
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Heart and other cardiovascular diseases.
These problems may lead to more hospital stays, more emergency department visits, and even premature death. Sensitive people such as adults over 65 years, people with diseases like asthma or congestive heart disease, and children are more likely to get sick from breathing in the smaller bits of particles, or PM2.5 . Breathing in a lot of these small bits floating in the air for even a short period of time, like hours or a few days, can:
  • Make lung disease worse.
  • Trigger asthma attacks.
  • Lead to bronchitis or respiratory infections.

Nitrogen Dioxide or NO2

Nitrogen dioxide or NO2 is a gas, and in the air comes from vehicles and machines. It contributes to acid rain, as well as the dense haze sometimes seen in urban areas. When exposed to light and heat, such as on a summer day in New Mexico, nitrogen dioxide will react with other particles in the air to create ozone. Breathing in NO2 for a short time can make asthma worse or cause respiratory distress even in people without asthma, increasing emergency department visits. Breathing it in over long periods of time is associated with an increased risk of asthma and lung infections.

Haze over Albuquerque July, 2020

Who is at Risk?

When ozone, PM, or NO2 levels are high, people with lung disease, children, adults ?65 years, and people who are active outdoors can experience harmful health effects. In people with heart diseases, breathing in PM2.5 and PM10 for a short time has been linked to heart attacks and irregular heartbeats. Short-term exposure has also been linked with premature deaths, usually in people who already have a serious long-term health problem such as lung or heart disease. Healthy children and adults usually do not develop serious problems from breathing in high levels of particle pollution for a short time. They may have minor problems, like a scratchy throat or scratchy eyes, when particle levels are high.

Health Tips

If you have asthma, long-term lung disease, or heart disease, breathing in smoke or other air pollutants can aggravate these conditions. People with heart or lung disease should follow their health management plan. People with asthma should follow a prescribed asthma management plan. Follow your doctor's advice about medicines if you have asthma or another lung disease. If you develop symptoms which do not respond to your usual medication, see your doctor immediately. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen. Breathing in smoky or dusty air is unsafe for people of all ages.