Air Pollutants & Health Effects

Exposure to air pollution can affect everyone’s health. Breathing in air pollutants can cause health complications, from coughing or itchy eyes to more serious conditions such as pulmonary disorders like asthma or lung cancer. Individual adverse health effects are unique to personal health conditions, the air pollutant type and concentration, and the length of exposure.

Ground-Level Ozone Health Impacts (Smog)


Ground-level ozone is a common summer air pollutant in the Sacramento region. Also known as smog, it forms when invisible gases such as nitrogen oxides (NOx – from cars, powerplants, factories) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs – from gasoline, paint fumes) combine with the sun’s ultraviolet rays.


Short Term Effects – Smog occurs most often in our region during the summer months and typically reaches its highest level during the afternoon and early evening hours. It is a strong irritant that can cause constriction in your airways and can also lead to:


  • Increased fatigue
  • Reduced resistance to infections
  • Wheezing, chest pain, dry throat, headache, or nausea
  • Weakened athletic performance
  • Lung damage, even after symptoms disappear
  • Added stress to the heart and lungs


Long Term Effects – Long-term smog exposure can also lead to more permanent health effects, including:


  • Accelerated aging of the lungs
  • Loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function
  • Aggravated respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and possibly cancer
  • Shortened life span
Particulate Matter Health Impacts (PM2.5)


Particulate matter is a common winter air pollutant in the Sacramento region. Also known as PM2.5, it forms as mixtures of soot, smoke, metals, nitrates, sulfates, dust, water, and other emissions combine.  While the Spare The Air program focuses on levels of ground-level ozone air pollution, the campaign also provides air quality forecasts, real-time readings, and air pollution alerts on PM2.5 when wildfire smoke is present.


Short Term Effects from from wildfire ash and smoke can:


  • Irritate your eyes and airways
  • Cause coughing and scratchy throat
  • Irritate sinuses and cause runny nose
  • Cause headaches


Long-term smoke exposure can cause:


  • A decrease in lung function
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Cancer


During winter months, your air district may limit wood burning to help reduce PM2.5 pollution. Other year-round burning restrictions may also apply. Please be sure to check with your local air district before lighting a fire or burning outdoors.

At-Risk Groups


Sensitive populations that are the most susceptible to negative health impacts from air pollution are:


  • Children under age 14
  • Adults ages 65+
  • Pregnant women
  • Outdoor workers
  • Athletes who train vigorously outdoors
  • People with pulmonary or respiratory diseases, including congestive heart failure and asthma