How Air Pollution Can Really Harm Your Health + What To Do About It
Air pollution is a term we’ve heard hundreds of times in our lives. We learned about it in our classrooms as children, we think about it every time we pass a factory, and we know that it’s typically worse in cities than in rural areas. We also know that it’s bad for our health and the health of the planet.
But what is air pollution, really? And is there anything we can do to mitigate its effects on our health? Keep reading for everything you need to know.
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What is air pollution?
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Air pollution is a mixture of solid particles and gases in the air.” (1) These solid particles and gases can be the product of chemicals from factories or car emissions but they can also be the product of natural factors like mold spores, dust, and pollen.
Air pollution is often thought of as something that occurs outdoors, but air pollution can also occur indoors. In fact, some studies have shown that indoor air is actually MORE polluted than outdoor air. For example, one investigation from the EPA's Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) found that levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants were 2 to 5 times higher (2) inside homes than outside in the fresh air. And that was regardless of whether the homes were in rural areas or industrial areas!
According to the EPA, this is because when people use products containing chemicals indoors, the concentrations of these chemicals can persist in the air for much longer than if they were used outdoors due to the fact there is less ventilation.
How can air pollution harm your health?
Air pollutants aren’t something that we as humans are meant to inhale. And it’s not just respiratory health that we should be concerned about, either. Because while people with asthma and other respiratory disorders are at higher risk for being harmed by air pollution, as we have learned more about air pollution over the years we have linked it not just to respiratory health but also cardiovascular disease; diabetes mellitus; obesity; and reproductive, neurological, and immune system disorders. (2)
Research has shown that extended exposure to some pollutants can be even more damaging to your respiratory health than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. (3) Studies have even shown that air pollution can impact mental health (especially in children!), productivity at work, and strangely, even stock market performance. (4) In other words, air pollution is no laughing matter and something we should all be determined to address.
What air pollutants are the most dangerous?
There are dozens of different types of pollutants, each with their own health risks, but they can be roughly divided into a few key categories, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (5).
Traffic-related air pollution is the result of motor vehicle emissions. This type of pollution contains ozone, carbon, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, volatile organic compounds, and fine particulate matter.
Also known as smog, ozone is a type of gas in the atmosphere. It is typically a result of cars, power plants, refineries, and other sources.
3. Noxious gases
Noxious gases include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides that are typically the result of industrial emissions and vehicles.
4. Particulate matter
Particulate matter includes sulfates, nitrates, carbon, and mineral dusts that are produced by fossil fuels, cigarette smoke, and the burning of natural sources, like in the case of wildfires. (Fun fact: When you see face-masks with PM2.5 on the side, PM stands for particulate matter and 2.5 stands for the size of the particle the mask is able to filter.)
How can you protect yourself from outdoor air pollution?
The bad news is that pollutants are everywhere and you can’t avoid them entirely. The good news is that you can take steps to drastically reduce your exposure to outdoor air pollution and support your body’s ability to fend off pollution-related illness. Here’s where to start:
1. Familiarize yourself with the air quality in your area
The first step in protecting yourself from air pollution is knowing how to check the air quality index in your area. And luckily, this is super easy! Just go to AirNow.gov, enter your zip code, and you’ll be able to see a report of the air quality data in your area. Outdoor air pollution is a big enough risk factor that I would consider factoring it in if and when you move.
2. Avoid exposure when air quality is poor
I recommend getting in the habit of checking air quality regularly. This can help you make smarter decisions about exposure. For example, if air quality is low one day due to wildfires, maybe do an indoor workout instead of a jog outside and move that picnic plan to another weekend.
3. Avoid areas with idling vehicles
As a general rule, avoid walking and exercising near highways, bus routes, or other high-traffic areas. In addition, avoid standing or walking near idling cars or buses and if you’re in traffic, keep the windows closed.
These simple things can go a long way to make sure that you’re avoiding the worst of outdoor air pollution.
How can you protect yourself from indoor air pollution?
When it comes to indoor air pollution, you have even more control over your health. Here are some tips for avoiding indoor air pollutants.
1. Use green cleaning products
It’s estimated that the average American home contains dozens of synthetic chemicals that contribute to indoor air pollution. This includes anything from cleaners, aerosols, and paints, to air fresheners, and even candles. Three ingredients to look out for specifically are ethylene-based glycol ethers and terpenes, which have been linked to asthma and allergies. (6) To choose healthier household products, check out the Environmental Working Group’s database of over 2,500 cleaning products.
2. Buy an air filter
To filter indoor air, invest in a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. HEPA filters are the gold standard and are pretty efficient at reducing indoor air issues. For example, one study showed that a HEPA filter reduced fine particulate matter by 55 percent in homes in Salt Lake City, which has some of the worst air quality in the country at certain times of the year. (7) If you're not sure which type of machine to buy, check out this air filter guide from Consumer Reports.
3. Make sure your kitchen is well-ventilated
Cooking can also release gases and particles in the air that can be bad for your health. To avoid this, make sure that your kitchen is well ventilated. You can open the windows and doors when you’re cooking, place an air filter in that area, and avoid using oils at temperatures above their smoking point.
Air pollution is one of the biggest threats to our health that we face today. And depending on how we approach the climate crisis, it may get better or worse in the coming years. The good news is that there are steps you can take to better control your exposure and support your long-term health.
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- Air Pollution. https://medlineplus.gov/airpollution.html#:~:text=Air%20pollution%20is%20a%20mixture,of%20air%20pollution%20in%20cities.&text=Some%20air%20pollutants%20are%20poisonous. Accessed November 2, 2020
- The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality. US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/inside-story-guide-indoor-air-quality. Published August 28, 2014. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- Wang M, Aaron CP, Madrigano J, et al. Association Between Long-term Exposure to Ambient Air Pollution and Change in Quantitatively Assessed Emphysema and Lung Function. JAMA. 2019;322(6):546–556. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.10255
- Health impacts of air pollution. Environmental Defense Fund. https://www.edf.org/health/health-impacts-air-pollution. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- Air Pollution and Your Health. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/air-pollution/index.cfm. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- Choi H, Schmidbauer N, Spengler J, Bornehag CG. Sources of propylene glycol and glycol ethers in air at home. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010;7(12):4213-4237. doi:10.3390/ijerph7124213
- Intermountain Medical Center. (2018, September 25). Indoor HEPA filters significantly reduce pollution indoors when outside air unhealthy, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 2, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180925110030.htm
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.