Air pollution in San Antonio causes health problems

By Brittany Wagner

In Bexar County, there are over 1.5 million registered vehicles on the road. Each of those cars, unless it is electric, releases pollution into the air every time it hits the road.

It might be hard to connect a big concept like air pollution to our own city of San Antonio, but it is already affecting our health. As it continues to worsen, it will have a bigger impact on our air quality and overall health.

Dr. Jay Peters is the Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care at UT Health San Antonio. He studies and treats COPD, asthma and lung disease. “San Antonio is growing, and with that comes more cars and more pollution,” Dr. Peters said. “That will have an effect on people who have lung disease.”

How does air pollution affect my health?

When we fill up our cars with gasoline, this releases a gas called carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide gets trapped in the atmosphere and causes the air temperature to rise.

Trapped CO2 can also cause ozone pollution, which contributes to “smog.” The ozone in the earth’s upper atmosphere is “good ozone” and forms a protective layer against the sun.

But when ozone is on the ground level where we breathe, it can cause:

  • Airway inflammation
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Throat irritation

It may also worsen:

  • Asthma. This causes your airways to narrow, making it hard to breathe.
    • In Bexar County, 1 in 10 adults has asthma.
  • Bronchitis. This causes inflammation in the breathing tubes.
    • People who smoke are at a higher risk of developing chronic bronchitis.
  • Emphysema. This damages the air sacs in your lungs, which can cause breathlessness.
    • It is caused by smoking and exposure to air pollution.

Dr. Peters said the CDC has found that severe air pollution in cities like Los Angeles has adverse health effects on its population. “Severe air pollution can lead to emphysema in people who don’t even smoke,” Dr. Peters said. “Asthmatic patients in cities with smog sometimes develop COPD.”

One study even suggests that women living in areas with poor air quality were more likely to have a premature baby. Dr. Peters said air pollution could affect a child’s growth, too.

“Children who grow up in polluted areas are more likely to develop lung disease, and they don’t grow as tall,” Dr. Peters said.

Air pollution causes more over-100-degree days

Not only does air pollution put an extra burden on our airways, it makes our days hotter than ever. Since the 1980s, the number of over-100-degree days in San Antonio has increased by 72. A century ago, San Antonio only saw 47 days over 100 degrees. In the 2010s, that number rose to 174, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Hotter days can affect our health in a number of ways by causing:

  • Dehydration
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Heatstroke

“Hotter temperatures are happening worldwide,” Dr. Peters said. “Working toward cleaner air is necessary.”

Hotter days will have the biggest impact on people who work primarily outdoors. In Texas, about 40% of the labor force works outdoors.

Additionally, hotter days may discourage kids from playing outside, which could increase childhood obesity rates. As you can see, air pollution can be linked to many health issues.

Bexar County is at a higher risk for air pollution

Some people are at a higher risk of being affected by ozone pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

People who are more likely to be impacted by air pollution are:

  • Older people
  • Babies and children
  • People who work outdoors
  • People with asthma

Bexar County has a higher rate of asthmatic people than the rest of Texas, according to the City of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District. People in Bexar County are also more likely to be hospitalized for asthma-related conditions than the rest of Texas.

In some cases, ozone pollution has contributed to deaths in San Antonio. A 2017 study commissioned by the City of San Antonio found that 4,700 people died of respiratory conditions between 2010 and 2014.

Additionally, air quality in San Antonio has worsened in recent years. IQAir is a platform that works with Greenpeace and the United Nations to track air quality. According to IQAir, “In 2019, San Antonio was rated an ‘F’ for ozone pollution according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report.”

“When the air quality index is above 100, patients that already have health issues are at risk,” Dr. Peters said. “When it’s above 200, it’s bad for everyone.”

How to combat air pollution in San Antonio

Stay informed

  • Check the air quality index (AQI) on your phone’s weather app before heading out
  • AQI measures six major air pollutants and can tell you what side effects from air pollution you might experience in a few days

Keep these plants inside your home to improve indoor air quality

  • Areca palms
  • Chrysanthemums
  • Dracaenas
  • Golden pothos
  • Spider plants

Limit your use of gas-powered machines

  • Carpool, walk, bike or take the bus when you can
  • Combine errands to make fewer trips
  • Remember that driving your car, and even filling it up with gas, releases emissions into the air
  • Use electric appliances when possible

See your doctor

  • If you have asthma, are older or have a respiratory condition, you should see your doctor about how to manage your symptoms.
  • If you are interested in quitting smoking, learn about the smoking cessation program at University Health.

Quick facts

  • 1 in 3 deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are related to air pollution (WHO)
  • 7 million people worldwide die from conditions related to air pollution each year (WHO)
  • Polluted air particles can enter your blood stream and cause heart and respiratory diseases (WHO)
  • Air pollution is considered a human carcinogen (NIEHS)
  • Children who grow up in areas with polluted air are more likely to have reduced lung growth (American Lung Association)


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