Health Effects of Air Pollution

Exposure to air pollution poses significant public health risks

A variety of air pollutants have known or suspected harmful effects on human health and the environment. In most areas, these pollutants are mainly the products of combustion from heating and power generation, and motor vehicles. Pollutants may cause problems in the immediate vicinity of these sources, but also can travel long distances and affect more people and places. 

The health effects associated with the main pollutants of concern are: 

  • Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide, Ozone - Irritate the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases.
  • Particles (PM10, PM2.5) - Can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of heart and lung diseases.
  • Carbon Monoxide - Prevents the uptake of oxygen by the blood and poses a greater risk to those suffering from heart disease. 

The Air Quality Index for Health (AQIH) has been developed by Specialists in Public Health Medicine and the EPA to provide health advice to the general population and to at-risk groups on the different bands of air quality in the index (Good, Fair, Poor, Very Poor). 

Protecting ourselves from poor air quality is very important as in Ireland, every year, around 1,300 deaths are attributed to exposure to PM2.5 and 50 deaths are attributed to exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Its impacts cost society around €2 billion every year.

 The pollutants of primary public health concern are particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2): 




Particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5)


  • Incomplete combustion of solid fuel heating
  • vehicle engine emissions
  • tyre and brake wear
  • industry and other non-exhaust emissions
  • quarrying
  • construction

Secondary (formed by chemical reactions in the air:

  • emissions of ammonia
  • sulphur dioxide
  • oxides of organic compounds from both combustion sources and vegetation 

Short term exposures can increase:

  • asthma
  • eye, noise and throat irritation
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • bronchitis
  • pneumonia

Chronic exposure increases morbidity and mortality through:

  • cardiovascular effects
  • respiratory impacts
  • lung cancer

Particle exposure has also been linked with:

  • atherosclerosis
  • childhood respiratory disease
  • endocrine (diabetes)
  • nervous (cognitive function)
  • adverse birth outcomes
  • liver and kidney damage 

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)

  • road transport
  • electricity supply
  • industry
  • other industrial and commercial sectors 
  • short term association with all-cause and cause specific mortality
  • airway inflammation
  • impaired lung function
  • increased hospital admissions