Long-term effects of ambient air pollution on lung function: a review

Epidemiology. 2008 Sep;19(5):690-701. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e318181650f.


Lung function is an important measure of respiratory health and a predictor of cardiorespiratory morbidity and mortality. Over the past 2 decades, more than 50 publications have investigated long-term effects of ambient air pollution on lung function with most finding adverse effects. Several studies have also suggested effects from traffic-related air pollution. There is strong support for air pollution effects on the development of lung function in children and adolescents. It remains unclear whether subjects with slower development of lung function compensate by prolonging the growth phase, or whether they end their development at a lower plateau, thus entering the decline phase with a reduced lung function. In adults, the evidence for long-term air pollution effects is mostly based on cross-sectional comparisons. One recent longitudinal study observed that decreasing pollution attenuated the decline of lung function in adults. Earlier inconclusive cohort studies were based on limited data. There is great diversity in study designs, markers of air pollution, approaches to the measurement of exposure, and choices in lung function measures. These limit the comparability of studies and impede quantitative summaries. New studies should use individual-level exposure assessment to clarify the role of traffic and to preclude potential community-level confounding. Further research is needed on the relevance of specific pollution sources, particularly with regard to susceptible populations and relevant exposure periods throughout life.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung / drug effects*
  • Lung / growth & development
  • Lung Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Lung Diseases / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Vehicle Emissions*


  • Air Pollutants
  • Vehicle Emissions