After analyzing the results, researchers found long-term exposure to the most common air pollutants, especially ozone, was linked with an increase of emphysema seen in lung scans.
In fact, in areas with increased levels of ozone, air pollution was just as bad for your lungs as smoking 20 cigarettes or a pack of them every day for 29 years.
"We were surprised to see how strong air pollution's impact was on the progression of emphysema on lung scans, in the same league as the effects of cigarette smoking, which is by far the best-known cause of emphysema," senior co-author Joel Kaufman said in a statement.
The scientists noted air pollution in some major U.S. areas is increasing because of climate change. The annual averages of ozone levels in the places they investigated were between about 10 and 25 ppb, they said.
“Rates of chronic lung disease in this country are going up and increasingly it is recognized that this disease occurs in nonsmokers,” Kaufman said. “We really need to understand what’s causing chronic lung disease, and it appears that air pollution exposures that are common and hard to avoid might be a major contributor.”
The researchers now hope to continue their investigations to better understand the effects of air pollution. They’d also like to find more ways to prevent and treat emphysema.
» RELATED: DEEPER FINDINGS: Five metro Atlanta counties earn a failing grade for air quality