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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