Knowing what’s in the air you breathe and minimizing the levels of pollution you are exposed to is critical to ensuring your long term health.
Having even a basic knowledge of what air pollution is and how it affects your health is very important as it will allow you to limit harmful exposure.
Air pollution is defined as the “contamination of air by smoke and harmful gases, mainly oxides of carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen.”
As with many things related to health, the effects of pollution are cumulative. Sadly, we deal with more than one contaminant at any given time.
You don’t have to live in a big city or right next to a paper mill to be affected. And you don’t have to be able to see smog for it to be a “bad air” day.
According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report,
“Nearly five in ten people—150 million Americans or approximately 45.8 percent of the population—live in counties with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution.”
So let’s dive in and talk about these five important things you need to know about air pollution: types of pollution, negative health effects, who’s at risk, the Air Quality Index (AQI), and the steps you can take to protect yourself and your family.
1. Types of Air Pollution
Air pollution is a heterogeneous and complex mixture of dust, fumes, gases, carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide(NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and ozone (O3).
There are two main categories - ambient, or outdoor air pollution, and indoor air pollution.
In the US, ambient pollution falls into two main types: ozone and particle pollution.
Ozone, commonly referred to as smog, is a gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms. It’s created when its primary elements, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, react to sunlight.
Ozone occurs in two levels of our atmosphere, at ground level and in the stratosphere.
At ground-level ozone is considered to be a pollutant. It’s dangerous to breathe because it aggressively attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it, like a sunburn in your lungs.
But this bad-actor has a good side. The earth is protected from the sun’s ultraviolet rays by the ozone layer which is constantly turning over in the stratosphere.
Particle pollution, also called Particulate Matter [PM], is a composite mixture of very small particles and liquid droplets made up of chemicals, acids, metals, and soil or dust.
The particles are so small that some are one-tenth the diameter of a strand of hair! Despite being so tiny you can’t see individual particles, when millions of them suspend in the air they blur the sunlight and you can see a haze.
Particle pollution is especially dangerous because our body’s defense mechanisms, coughing and sneezing, aren’t triggered by them, allowing them to stay trapped in our lungs.
Even short-term exposure to particle pollution can cause early death and heart attacks for people with asthma and cardiovascular disease.
2. Negative Health Effects of Air Pollution
Both ozone and particle pollution can have major impacts on your health, particularly if you have an underlying health condition like asthma, chronic lung disease, or cardiovascular disease. These are some of the negative effects lined to air pollution:
Developmental harm in children
Reproductive harm in adults
Other endocrine harm, such as increased risk of diabetes
Impaired physical and cognitive ability
Susceptibility to infections
Lung tissue redness and swelling
3. Who Is At High Risk?
It’s common sense to know that poor air quality isn’t good for ANYONE, but not everyone reacts the same to breathing air pollution.
Some members of your family will be more vulnerable to the effects:
People with lung disease (like asthma or COPD) may experience shortness of breath, chest pains, wheezing, coughing, asthma attacks, and increased visits to the doctor or emergency room to deal with the symptoms.
Children and teenagers have lungs that are not fully developed, so younger members of your family are at greater risk of lung infection, coughing, and bronchitis.
Elderly adults are vulnerable to respiratory and cardiac issues after breathing air pollution.
Low-income families often live closer to the source of pollution, including major highways and factories. This increases their exposure.
People who work or exercise outdoors, especially near busy highways.
4. Understand Air Quality Index [AQI]
What harmful substances are in the outdoor air we breathe?
It would be difficult for the average citizen to try to track ALL of those pollutants individually, so in the United States we have the Air Quality Index (AQI) to help.
Knowing your local AQI can help you protect yourself and your loved ones from unhealthy levels of air pollution. Here’s a graphic from the American Lung Association that explains, in simple terms, what each level means.
If you have underlying health conditions, particularly those related to your lungs or heart, it’s important that you know your AQI every day. It can be found by following local news and weather, or by visiting Airnow.gov.
If you or a loved one are particularly sensitive to pollutants you may get sick even at levels below current standards. Harmful effects have been documented well before exposure levels deemed actionable by the EPA.
5. Steps to Protect Yourself from Air Pollution
Here are some simple tips you can follow to protect you and your family from the dangers of air pollution:
Monitor air pollution forecasts for your area daily.
Avoid being outdoors for long periods of time when pollution levels are elevated.
Avoid exercising near areas with high levels of emissions. Stay away from highways, factories, and other sources of pollution.
Don’t burn wood or trash. The soot is a major source of particle pollution in the air.
Use electric or hand-powered lawn equipment when possible.
Don’t allow anyone to smoke indoors or near your home's entrance.
Use an air purifier to clean the indoor air inside your home. This allows your entire immune system to have a break and heal from the impurities you breathe outside.
You may not be able to control the air you breathe outside, but with education and planning, you can minimize the detrimental health effects of air pollution on you and your family.
I know you want to live your healthiest life, and breathing clean air is a top priority for you. In addition to monitoring your outdoor exposure to air pollution, you can breathe cleaner air at your home and office by using an air purifier.
If you have questions about how air pollution affects your health, or how an air purifier can help your indoor air quality, just send me a note or call me at the office to schedule an appointment.
A bit of light reading:
-Bishop KC, Ketcham JD, Kuminoff NV. Hazed and Confused: The Effect of Air Pollution on Dementia. NBER Bulletin on Aging and Health. NBER Working Paper No . 24970, August 2018. DOI: 10.3386/w24970
-Benjamin Bowe, MPH, Ziyad Al Aly , MD et al. The Lancet Volume 2, No. 7, e301 e312, July 2018 The 2016 global and national burden of diabetes mellitus attributable to PM2·5 air pollution
warn that common air pollutant is driver dementia even levels below current epa standards/?utm_term=.ae86a177fb73. September 5, 2018.
-Wolf, K, Popp, A, Schneider, A et al. Diabetes. 2016; 65: 3314 3326
-Sun, Q, Yue, P, Deiuliis, JA et al. Circulation. 2009; 119: 538 546
-Brook, RD, Xu, X, Bard, RL et al. Sci Total Environ. 2013; 448: 66 71
-Alderete, TL, Habre, R, Toledo Corral, CM et al. Diabetes. 2017; 66: 1789 1796
-Rajagopalan, S and Brook, RD. Diabetes. 2012; 61: 3037 3045
-YWei, Y, Zhang, JJ, Li, Z et al. FASEB J. 2016; 30: 2115 2122.
-Chen, Z, Salam, MT, Toledo Corral, C et al. Diabetes Care. 2016; 39: 547