It's long been known that for people with asthma, pollutants in the air can trigger episodes of wheezing, coughing, and chest discomfort. Fine particulate from dust, soot, smoke, and more also appear to have a variety of negative effects on our well-being.

more on air quality

In 2013, the World Health Organization classified air pollution as a potential cause of lung cancer, and there’s abundant evidence, according to the American Heart Association, that it can also increase the risks of heart disease and stroke. Other studies have connected long-term air pollution exposure to cognitive decline in women, and psychological distress.

Now, a study published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health earlier this month suggests that regularly inhaling tiny particles of pollutants might even be linked to poor bone health and fractures.

“When I started to study air pollution 10 years ago, all we knew was that it affected the lungs and the cardiovascular system. Now we are realizing there is much more to it,” says Andrea Baccarelli, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the environmental health sciences department at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and one of the authors of the new research.  

One important fact: The quality of the air in the U.S. has improved significantly since the 1963 passage of the Clean Air Act, and is, overall, much cleaner than the air in many other parts of the world. Still, as Robert Brook, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan who studies air pollution and health, points out, we’re still exposed to pollution here in the U.S.

Here's what you need to know about the health effects of air pollution and how to protect yourself.

Pollution and Bone Health

Baccarelli and his team investigated the possible health effects of outdoor air pollution on bones in two ways. First, they reviewed data on more than 9 million older adults admitted to the hospital for osteoporosis-related bone fractures between 2003 and 2010, and the probable pollution levels in the patients’ areas.

They found that the more polluted the air was in a particular ZIP code, the greater the number of hospital admissions for broken bones.

The researchers also analyzed the results of bone density tests given six years apart to men ages 30 to 79 in the Boston area. They found that those who lived in the seemingly most-polluted areas lost the most bone density over the six years.

The new study doesn't prove that air pollution can cause bone fractures or poorer bone density—further study is needed on different types of air pollution to hone in on this possible risk factor for brittle bones, scientists say. But it’s one more potential downside of breathing in pollutants.

Cut Your Exposure to Air Pollution

For a healthy individual in the U.S. the risks of pollution are typically low, notes Brook. Still, he says, “We don't see much of a threshold where any level is deemed safe.”

And reducing exposure to air pollution may be important for those who seem to be more vulnerable to its effects: children; older adults; and people who have asthma, heart or lung disease, and those at high risk for these conditions. Where you live could increase your risk of negative health consequences as well: Air pollution levels are higher in urban areas and near highly trafficked roads.

The following steps will help reduce your exposure to dirty air:

Filter your air at home. Evidence for the effectiveness of air purifiers in reducing the health effects of air pollution is mixed. But they may be helpful for people with allergies, and a small study published earlier this year in the journal Circulation found that a small group of college students in Shanghai who ran an air purifier in their dorm had lower levels of stress hormones, blood pressure, and insulin resistance after nine days than those who used a sham purifier. Consumer Reports tests how well portable air purifiers remove dust, pollen, and smoke from the air. Check our air purifier ratings.

Ban smoking and reduce fireplace use. The smoking of tobacco is a key source of air pollution indoors, and that cozy fire in your fireplace also releases plenty of fine particles. Get the Environmental Protection Agency's advice on burning wood at home.

And be aware of other sources of indoor pollution, such as gas cookstoves. Read more about how to reduce your exposure to indoor air pollution.

Avoid particle pollution. Combustion, from car and truck engines as well as from power plants, is the most common source of harmful particles in the air in the U.S. More than half of all air pollution comes from mobile sources, primarily automobiles, according to the EPA.

So if you exercise outside—and especially if you have a heart or lung problem—try to avoid heavily trafficked roads where automobile-generated pollution could be significant. You can also check this EPA website for air-quality alerts and, depending on your personal health, consider limiting outdoor activity when the air quality index is 101 or higher.

If you live near a busy road, you may want to keep your windows closed during the day or times of more traffic, such as rush hour; instead open them at night, when traffic may be lighter.

Make yourself less vulnerable. Because the health effects of air pollution may weigh more heavily on those already at risk for heart disease, take smart lifestyle steps: Talk with your doctor about getting your blood pressure and cholesterol under control if you need to. Improve your diet by including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. And try to exercise every day.

While we wait for more information on the association between air pollution and bone health, take actions to keep your bones strong. Adults should consume 1,000 mgs of calcium per day up to age 50, and 1,200 mg/day at 51 and older. Up to age 70, adults should get 600 International Units of vitamin D per day, and 800 after age 70. Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking or lifting weights, can also help keep bones strong.

Reduce your pollution footprint. Because so much of air pollution is created by traffic, Baccarelli suggests considering alternate ways of getting around. “Walk, bike, take public transportation,” he says. “If you drive and need a new car, consider an electric or hybrid car.” (Check our electric and hybrid vehicle ratings.)

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, senior policy counsel for energy and environment at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, notes that improving your home’s efficiency or adding rooftop solar can also help.

She notes that there’s a role for policymakers to play as well. “Improving emission standards for power plants and cars and trucks, especially heavy-duty trucks, will help continue the progress made under the Clean Air Act.”