SOURCE: Total Environment Centre's (TEC) web site


Investigating the effect of complex mixtures of chemicals on the human body poses major difficulties. Each person responds differently to chemicals, especially people with particular sensitivities, and chemicals themselves do not cause a response in isolation. There are often synergistic reactions - the effect of a mixture may be greater than the effect of the parts. Chemicals can also act sequentially: for example the effect of allergens (like pollen) is increased if there has previously been exposure to another pollutant (such as ozone).

Air pollution is of particular concern for those with pre-existing respiratory ailments and the major pollutants have significant effects on lung function. In Australia, one in four children are asthmatic as are one in ten adults. Australia has one of the highest death rates from asthma in the world.

Children are the most severely affected by pollution. Under three years old, they breathe in twice as much air as adults for each kilogram of body weight. Their airways are narrower and so more vulnerable to constriction.

Changes in lung function are apparently reversible. However, it appears that chronic effects from long-term, low-level exposure may occur. These include emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, chronic obstructive lung disease and mortality.

A related ailment is hayfever, which is also a response to allergens. Similar results are appearing as for asthma, with an increase in its occurrence in highly polluted areas. Other groups who may be affected are athletes and
those who do hard physical work. Their lung function suffers during high pollution days and their performance
is significantly reduced with ozone exposure.

The pollutants in air can affect every organ of the body. Substances as benzene, polyaromatic hydrocarbons
(PAHs) and lead in fuels, chemicals (chlorinated solvents) from dry-cleaning businesses, and organochlorine termiticides may promote cancer. Lead may also affect the nervous system of children.

A recent survey found that 40% of Sydney respondents felt permanently tired and a further 20% had severe headaches; air pollution could be a significant factor in these symptoms.

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Toxic Chemicals in Your Environment
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last update 24 Oct 1999

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