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.