This is part one in a two-part series about the health implications of pollution.
According to World Health Organization, 92 percent of the world population breathes polluted air.
Protect yourself from the health hazards of air pollution by knowing your risks and reducing your exposure to harmful chemicals in the air.
The most common types of air pollutants are:
Ozone (O3) is a molecule that can cause respiratory problems such as chest pain, airway irritation, reduced lung function and damage to lung tissue. It can exacerbate preexisting lung conditions, such as bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.
If you’ve ever noticed a haze over the city, you’ve seen particulate matter. It contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets, typically released from construction sites, smokestacks or fires. Inhaling these particles can cause decreased lung function and respiratory distress.
You’ll likely never encounter dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide (CO) outdoors, but indoors, CO can be deadly. Outdoor CO sources include vehicles and machinery that burn fossil fuels. Indoor sources include anything that uses natural gas for energy, like furnaces and gas stoves. Breathing CO inhibits oxygen transportation in your blood stream, causing dizziness, headaches, unconsciousness and death.
Lead is a metal that is toxic to humans and animals. Even low levels of lead exposure can harm every system in your body. Lead can be released into the air from factories, industrial areas and vehicles. Children ages six and younger are most at risk for the harmful effects of lead. Children who have been exposed to lead may have developmental delay, anemia and hearing problems. Adults exposed to lead may experience increased blood pressure, kidney failure and reproductive problems.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is an air component of greatest concern, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels predominately at factories and industrial facilities. SO2 can cause respiratory complications, especially for children, the elderly and people with asthma.
The exhaust from your car is nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Inhaling too much NO2 can cause respiratory diseases, such as asthma, and respiratory distress.
How to Protect Yourself From Air Pollution
Check air quality. The EPA reports air quality daily. Check the quality of the air near you. If it’s unhealthy, limit your time outside if you have preexisting pulmonary conditions.
Recycle your air. When you use the recirculation button in your car, you’ll recycle the air inside of the car instead of pulling in air from outside. This has been shown to cut air pollution exposure by 20 percent, and it’s particularly helpful in heavy traffic, when NO2 and CO levels can be high.
Monitor for CO. CO monitors are a must in any place of residence. They should be dispersed throughout your home and connected to each other so they sound simultaneously. Test your CO monitors once a month. If the alarm sounds, immediately call the fire department, move to fresh air (outside) until emergency personnel arrives and don’t return indoors until you have received an all-clear sign.
Other best practices for preventing CO poisoning:
- Never leave your car running with your garage door closed.
- Check your dryer regularly to make sure your vent is clear.
- Use grills — gas or charcoal — outside only.
Seek green space. Looking for a breath of fresh air? Head to the woods. Trees help you breathe easy by helping to rid the air of pollutants. Their leaves also help catch particulate matter, keeping it out of your lungs. Going for a run? Choose quiet streets or forested paths to avoid extended exposure to CO and NO2. Learn about the health benefits of nature.
Reduce your carbon footprint. Help improve the health of your community and the world by reducing the amount of fossil fuels you burn:
- Walk, bike or take public transportation.
- Turn down your thermostat.
- Turn the lights off when you leave a room.
Read about the health hazards of water pollutants in Protection From Pollution: Part Two.