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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    How can exposure to air pollution affect my risk of developing COPD?

    I live in an area with heavy air pollution (near the factories). Can I develop COPD/emphysema from this?
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    Prof. Michael Abramson

    Public Health Physician, Respiratory & Sleep Medicine Physician

    Michael is Deputy Head of the Department of Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne. He graduated in Medicine from Monash University in … View Profile

    The major known risk factor for COPD is cigarette smoking.  However air pollution does also play a role.  Just like tobacco smoke, polluted air usually contains tiny particles.  The fine particles (<2.5 thousandths of a mm in diameter) penetrate deep into the lung.  They can trigger inflammation and attract white cells.  When the white cells die, they release an enzyme (elastase) which dissolves the substance holding the tiny air sacs together.  This process eventually leads to the development of emphysema in susceptible people.

    There are now hundreds of research studies showing a consistent association between particulate air pollution and deaths from heart and lung disease.  There also studies that have found associations between air pollution and hospital admissions for “flare ups” of COPD, symptoms and medication requirements.  Air pollution is harmful for people who already have COPD and should be avoided if possible.  This might include avoiding heavy exercise outdoors on high pollution days.

    Industrial emissions are now pretty well regulated in Australia.  The main sources of air pollution are now motor vehicles (especially heavy diesel vehicles) and wood smoke in some areas.  If you notice reduced visibility or odour associated with a particular factory, this should be reported to your local Environment Protection Agency.

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    Dr Peter Solin

    Respiratory & Sleep Medicine Physician

    Dr Peter Solin is a highly trained authority in sleep disorders medicine and respiratory medicine, having graduated from Melbourne University in 1987 and undertaken specialist … View Profile

    Another way of answering this question would be to look at people who burn wood or organic matter such as dung, in their own home, as would be typical in villages in developing countries. These people have a rate of developing COPD many times greater than people in the same country who live in cities where heat and electricity are generated through powerplants.

    Also people born and raised in the United Kingdom or other countries with high levels of pollution due to coal burning have higher rates of COPD than those born elsewhere.

    It is not unusual for those to have grown up and lived through the great smogs of the 1950s in the UK to have COPD even though they weren't smokers!

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