Exposure to air pollution over a long period increases your risk of developing emphysema – a debilitating respiratory disease traditionally linked to smoking. What's more, human-induced climate change could make matters worse.

While many air pollutants are declining thanks to legislation such as the Clean Energy Plan under threat, ozone levels continue to rise. And levels just over 3 parts per billion (ppb) at a different place over 10 years are enough to increase your risk of emphysema by smoking a pack of cigarettes each day for 29 years, according to a new study.

Researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) tracked air pollutants in six urban areas – Chicago, Winston-Salem (North Carolina), Baltimore, Los Angeles, St. Paul, Minnesota and New York – and their lung function in more than 7,000 people recruited as part of the study on atherosclerosis and the multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis (MESA) between 2000 and 2018 .

Longitudinal increases in the percentage of emphysema measured using more than 15,000 CT scans over the 18-year period revealed a strong positive correlation between all forms of air pollution and diagnoses of the disease. Mean pollutant levels varied by area and time, but ranged from 10 to 25 ppb.

"We were surprised at how much the impact of air pollution on the progression of emphysema on lung scanners was important, in the same category as the effects of cigarette smoking, which is by far the most well-known cause of emphysema ", Joel, co-authored Kaufman, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and epidemiology at the Faculty of Public Health of the United States. University of Washington, said in a statement.

This is problematic. Most efforts to reduce pollutants have been recorded, but ozone continues to grow – in some areas up to 3 ppb, in part due to climate change. This is because ground-level ozone is generated when ultraviolet light interacts with pollutants from fossil fuels.

"These findings are of significance as ground-level ozone levels increase and the amount of emphysema on CT scans predicts hospitalization and death from chronic lung disease." , said lead author R. Graham Barr, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University. .

Emphysema is a chronic disease that does not cure, although there are treatments to help manage the disease. Damage to lung tissue prevents the body from effectively treating oxygen, leaving patients with persistent coughing, difficulty breathing, and increased risk of death.

"As temperatures rise with climate change," continued Barr, "ground-level ozone will continue to increase unless steps are taken to reduce this pollutant. Air, if any, is safe for human health. "