Many of us experience symptoms when there is a lot of street dust in the air. However, people’s sensitivity to symptoms varies, and some react more easily than others. Elderly people with respiratory and heart conditions, small children, and asthmatics of all ages are particularly sensitive to the health effects of air pollutants. Prolonged exposure lasting years or decades is more harmful than short-term exposure, as it can increase and aggravate chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and therefore shorten life expectancy. Air pollutants are the most significant environmental health risk in Finland, even though their concentrations are below international air quality guidelines and limit values. Air pollutants, especially fine particles, are estimated to cause approximately 2,000 premature deaths in Finland each year.

Air pollutants can cause coughing, rhinitis, shortness of breath, impaired functional ability, symptoms of inflammation and irritation in the respiratory system, worsening of asthma symptoms, and an increase in asthma attacks. Exposure to them may also increase respiratory sensitivity to other irritants, such as frosty air or pollen.

Typical symptoms caused by air pollutants include

  • rhinitis and cough; and
  • symptoms typically suffered by those with respiratory and heart conditions, such as shortness of breath and chest pain.

Sensitive groups include

  • asthmatics of all ages;
  • elderly people with coronary artery disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and
  • children.

The health effects of air pollutants are the result of exposure to harmful substances in the air. The higher the concentrations in the air and the longer an individual breathes in polluted air, the higher the exposure.

People living and moving about in city centres and other heavily trafficked areas are particularly exposed to air pollutants. Smoke from wood burning in detached housing areas may also significantly increase exposure to air pollutants. A large portion of the gaseous and particle-like harmful substances in outdoor air is transported into building interiors. Many of us experience symptoms in the spring when there is a lot of street dust in the air.

It is a good idea to always keep medications prescribed to relieve sudden respiratory, cardiac or allergy symptoms with you. Use them as instructed by your doctor even when symptoms are caused by exposure to air pollutants. Go somewhere with cleaner air, such as indoors, to relieve your symptoms. You can reduce the penetration of fine particles from outdoor air into interiors by using regularly replaced fibre filters in supply air valves and vents. If necessary, you can reduce your indoor exposure by having a room air purifier that effectively filters particles and gases in your bedroom and wherever you spend a lot of your time.

Fine particles in the outdoor air continue to be a significant environmental health risk in Finland as fine particles, particularly from combustion, cause health effects even at low concentrations. With long-term exposure, they cause serious harm, especially to cardiovascular and respiratory health. Fine particles in the outdoor air and some of the chemicals they commonly contain are also classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Health effects of different air pollutants

Population surveys carried out in the Helsinki metropolitan area have shown a similar range of health effects as in more polluted European cities. In terms of health, the most significant air pollutants are fine particles from traffic, wood burning and other sources of incomplete combustion. Ozone and coarse thoracic particles mainly increase the symptoms and infections of people with respiratory conditions, but doctor visits and hospitalisations can also increase. Nitrogen dioxide is a good reflection of the impact of transport and energy production on the quality of outdoor air. Carbon monoxide levels are low nowadays.