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Long-term air pollution exposure could explain emphysema in non-smokers

Long-term exposure to air pollutants is associated with emphysema and worsening lung functioning, offering an explanation for emphysema in non-smokers, according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The increase in emphysema among those exposed to polluted air was similar to increased lung damage caused by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years, R. Graham Barr, senior author of the study told CNN.

Emphysema — typically associated with cigarette smoking — is a chronic disease in which lung tissue is damaged and cannot "effectively transfer oxygen in the body," says the National Institutes of Health, sub-groups of which funded the study. It is not curable, but can be managed.

Ozone, created by a chemical reaction when pollutants are emitted by sources like cars and industrial plants, was the worst pollutant offender, which is concerning as ground-level ozone levels are rising, Barr told Science Daily. These levels will continue to increase "unless steps are taken to reduce this pollutant," Barr says. "But it's not clear what level of the air pollutants, if any, is safe for human health."

Stephen Holgate, a special adviser on air quality at the Royal College of Physicians in the U.K., told CNN that one of the study's limitations was that it didn't measure air pollution where people tend to spend the most time: indoors.

The study analyzed more than 7,000 people aged 45 to 84 between 2000 and 2018. Researchers sampled populations from six U.S. cities, including New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Read more at NIH.