Skip to content
Air Quality

Air Pollutant Information

Health Effects of Air Pollution

People exposed to air pollutants at sufficient concentrations and durations may have an increased chance of experiencing serious health effects. These health effects can include damage to the immune system, as well as neurological, reproductive (e.g., reduced fertility), developmental, respiratory (including asthma) and other health problems.

In addition to exposure from breathing them, some air pollutants such as mercury can deposit onto soils or surface waters, where they are taken up by plants and ingested by animals and are eventually magnified up through the food chain. Like humans, animals may experience health problems if exposed to sufficient quantities of air pollutants over time.

Please select one of the air pollutants below for health effect information and additional resources. Documents linked below are in pdf format.

Ozone is formed when oxides of Nitrogen (NOX) along with other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) react in the presence of sunlight to create ozone. These conditions can occur both near the ground or in the atmosphere. Just remember that ozone is "Good Up High, Bad Nearby".

Children and elderly people, especially those with respiratory conditions such as asthma, can react poorly to high concentrations of ground-level ozone, even causing damage to their lungs. Healthy persons who work and/or exercise outdoors during days that are having high ground-level ozone concentrations can incur unhealthy effects to this pollutant.

Particle pollution (also called particulate matter or PM) is the name for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small that they can only be detected using an electron microscope.

Scientific studies have linked particle pollution, especially fine particles, with significant health problems, including:

  • Increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing
  • Decreased lung function
  • Aggravated asthma
  • Development of chronic bronchitis
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nonfatal heart attacks
  • Premature death in people with heart or lung disease

Particle pollution settles on soil and water and harms the environment by changing the nutrient and chemical balance.

Lead is a solid metal that can become suspended in the air we breathe as particulate matter or deposit into the soil we grow our food in, and water we drink. It can also be found:

  • Leaded gas (which is no longer sold in the U.S.)
  • Paint found in old houses and on some cars
  • Smelters which are used in metal refineries
  • The manufacturing process of lead storage batteries
  • Contaminated soil and dust

The accumulation of Lead in our bodies can cause serious health problems like neurological effects in children and cardiovascular effects (e.g., high blood pressure and heart disease) in adults.

Ecosystems that have higher than normal concentrations of Lead can show losses in biodiversity, changes in community composition, decreased growth and reproductive rates in plants and animals, and neurological effects in vertebrates.

Carbon Monoxide, or CO, is a colorless, odorless gas that is formed when carbon in fuel is not burned completely. It is a component of motor vehicle exhaust, so higher levels of CO generally occur in areas with heavy traffic congestion. In cities, 85 to 95 percent of all CO emissions may come from motor vehicle exhaust.

Other sources of CO emissions include industrial processes (such as metals processing and chemical manufacturing), residential wood burning, and natural sources such as forest fires.

Carbon Monoxide can reduce the ability of our bodies to transport oxygen to vital organs. This can lead to cardiovascular (your heart and blood) effects and problems with the central nervous system. At extremely high levels, CO is poisonous and can cause death.

CO can also lead to the formation of ground-level ozone (which can trigger serious respiratory problems) and is a component of smog.

Sulfur dioxide is one of a group of highly reactive gases known as "oxides of sulfur." SO2 is linked with a number of adverse effects on the respiratory system.

The largest sources of SO2 emissions are from fossil fuel combustion at power plants (66%) and other industrial facilities (29%). Smaller sources of SO2 emissions include industrial processes such as extracting metal from ore, and the burning of high sulfur containing fuels by locomotives, large ships, and non-road equipment.

Nitrogen Oxides can be produced from emissions from personal vehicles (both on and off-road), trucks, buses, power plants, and other industrial processes. These chemicals are usually associated with the combustion, or burning of something.

In addition to contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone, and fine particle pollution, NOX chemicals can be linked to a number of adverse effects on the respiratory system.

Asbestos is a general name given to some types of naturally occurring minerals that can be found throughout the world in certain types of rocks. The asbestos found in these rocks can be separated into very fine and extremely durable fibers. It is known for its resistance to heat and unfortunately also for its potential health effects.

Mercury is a naturally occuring element that is found in air, water and soil. Exposure to mercury even small amounts may cause serious health problems. Mercury in the air eventually settles into water or onto land where it can be washed into water. Once deposited, certain microorganisms can change it into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish.

There are many other compounds, chemicals, and elements in the air we breathe. Some of them are categorized as Air Toxics by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and our South Carolina Air Pollution Control Regulations and Standards.

Air Toxics are also referred to as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) or Toxic Air Pollutants. These pollutants have been shown to cause the greatest level of adverse effects to human health and our environment.

In our state, safe levels of air toxics in the air we breathe are maintained through permits (required by sources that work with, store, or produce them), inspections by DHEC staff, or sampled and tracked through our Ambient Air Monitoring Network.

For more information on health and environmental effects of a specific HAP, please visit the EPA website.

Radon is a naturally occuring, radioactive gas. It forms when uranium breaks down in soil, rock and water. You cannot see, smell, or taste radon. It can get into the air you breathe indoors, primarily from soil and water under your home and other buildings.

Freon, also known as R-12 or CFC-12, is a refrigerant used in automobile air conditioners. Commonly released into the air when air conditioners are serviced, freon rises in the stratosphere where it destroys ozone molecules. Ozone in the upper atmosphere is able to absorb lethal levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun before those rays can reach the earth's surface. Overexposure to UV radiation has been determined to cause an increase in skin cancer, cataracts and suppression of the human immune system.

Smoke is particulate matter that has become suspended in the air. The particles can range in size, depending on what is being burned. Smoke inhalation from open burning, wildfires, or structural fires can expose people, especially children and those with lung problems, to a number of environmental hazards. This can include the byproducts of burning wood, plastics, and chemicals released from burning structures and furnishings.

Wildfires are a growing natural hazard in most regions of the United States. They pose a threat to life and property, particularly where native ecosystems meet populated areas.

The effects of smoking tobacco are also harmful to your health and those around you (through secondhand smoke). Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of disease and premature death in South Carolina.

Mobile Sources include vehicles (such as cars, trucks and buses) and offroad equipment (such as boats, airplanes, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other agricultural and construction equipment). Bus and car lines around schools, gas-operated equipment used to maintain your yard, and gasoline and oil spills on the roads can all contribute significant pollution to the air.

Mobile Source emissions contain carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and air toxics. They also greatly contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone.

For information on indoor air issues, including mold, please visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Indoor Air Quality webpage.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control recognizes that indoor air pollution is a concern for some citizens. The Bureau of Air Quality does not have any state or federal authority to address indoor air quality (except for the control of asbestos) nor does the Bureau perform any testing or inspections. In addition to contacting EPA, concerned individuals may also consult the yellow pages of the telephone book under Mold/Mildew Services and/or Environmental Consultants for professional advice and further assistance with indoor air matters such as mold.


For more information please contact the Bureau of Air Quality at (803) 898-4123 or by email.