Air pollution is a general term for a variety of substances and gases in our air that pose risks to health. Pollutants and irritants include ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic substances such as mercury, and some naturally occurring substances such as pollen. Exposure to the many pollutants in the air can have a range of adverse health effects, from shortness of breath and coughing to heart attacks and lung cancer.
While air pollution adversely affects the entire U.S. population, children, the elderly, and people suffering from chronic illness are particularly vulnerable. Compared to adults, children spend more time out of doors, breathe more rapidly, and inhale more pollutants per bound of body weight. The elderly are more susceptible to air pollution because their immune systems are weakened by age and they often suffer from one or more chronic illnesses. Poor and minority communities also are disproportionately affected by air pollution because they often are situated closer to pollution sources.
In the United States, air pollution is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under authority granted by Congress in the Clean Air Act. EPA sets health-based standards for six of the most common pollutants, known as criteria pollutants. Despite significant progress in air quality improvement, approximately 150 million people across the United States continue to live in areas with unhealthful levels of air pollution in the form of either ozone or particle pollution.
Page Updated February 16, 2017