However, concern over air quality has been around for ages. In the 13th century, King Edward I of England took measures to stop people from burning sea coal, which produced a heavy smoke that combined with London’s famous fog, creating a thick haze over the surrounding area.
In 1952 there was a serious air pollution event in London that created so much unhealthy air that tens of thousands of people died in a couple weeks. This was chronicled well the Netflix series The Crown.
Air pollution may not be a new concern, but modern technology and new information have allowed us to understand the issue better and make smart, intentional decisions to reduce pollutants and limit harmful exposure.
Air pollution can affect anyone in any area, but people in certain regions and cities are more at-risk than others. If you want to protect yourself, you need to understand what air pollution is, how it’s measured, and what you can do to avoid it.
Poor Air Quality and the Effect on Your Health
There are many health issues that can come with poor air quality, ranging from minor irritations to an increased chance of death. On the surface of our bodies, poor air quality and pollutants can lead to irritated eyes and skin. Eventually, pollutants can work their way into the body, first causing inflammation and irritation to areas such as the lungs and airways. This is particularly severe in people who suffer from asthma, as the airways can become restricted and the victim can have significant breathing problems, to a point when it becomes life-threatening.
Over the years, exposure to poor air quality will bring reduced lung function and breathing problems, even in those who would otherwise be healthy. (For example, people who do not have asthma or allergy concerns.)
According to the American Lung Association, there is “overwhelming evidence” that air pollution leads to increased rates of lung cancer. Particle pollution, as they call it, also leads to heart disease, COPD, asthma attacks, and can interfere with the growth and function of lungs, especially in small children.
It seems obvious that air pollution and poor air quality would affect the lungs, but did you know if can affect the heart as well? The American Heart Association says that in most cases, heart issues will strike those who are either elderly or already dealing with heart conditions, such as atherosclerosis or heart valve issues. In many cases, pollutants can cause plaque buildups to rupture, which can trigger a heart attack. In addition, poor air quality increases the risk of stroke.
The connection between air pollution and heart disease may, in fact, be more significant than lung disease. A comprehensive review of research, which was gathered by Korean scientists, found numerous studies linking air pollution and cardiovascular disease. One study even found that air pollution doubled the risk of obesity and high blood pressure in older people. Another found that with air pollution, deaths from cardiovascular (heart) disease increased at a faster rate than deaths from respiratory (lung) issues.
They concluded that “air pollution concentrations have a marked and close association with adverse health effect, such as heart disease, stroke, blood pressure, and cardiovascular diseases”. They also noted that air pollution appears to have stronger effects on the elderly, children, and people with pre-existing conditions.
Common Causes of Poor Air Quality
Or we imagine large industrial stacks spewing toxic fumes into the air. While these are certainly two major factors, there are other sources of air pollution that you should be aware of as well.
The Environmental Protection Agency separates the most common air pollutions into six categories:
- Ozone: This is probably the type of pollutant that most people associate with smoggy cities. Bad ozone comes from industrial facilities and motor vehicles, but can also be emitted by chemicals, electric utilities, and gasoline vapors.
- Particulate Matter: When solid particles and liquid droplets mix in the air, it creates a pollution called particle matter or particle pollution, often abbreviated as “PM.” Dust, dirt, soot, and smoke combine with water in the air through a complex reaction, creating both visible and invisible air pollution.
- Nitrogen Dioxide: Formed when fossil fuels are burned at high temperatures, nitrogen dioxide is a gaseous air pollutant that contributes to both particle pollution and ozone. This can form indoors as well from burning wood and natural gas.
- Carbon Monoxide: This is another form of gas that is produced when fuels are burned. CO is odorless and colorless, making it particularly dangerous. It reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and can cause many symptoms, including headaches, weakness, confusion, and dizziness.
- Sulfur Dioxide: Many of our fuels, including coal, oil, and diesel, contain sulfur. When burned, they release sulfur-dioxide, which can cause wheezing, respiratory issues, rapid breathing, and can even trigger asthma attacks. If you live near a coal plant or shipping port, you may be exposed to higher amounts of this air pollutant.
- Lead: Lead is a heavy metal, so you probably don’t think of it in the atmosphere, but the EPA monitors lead air pollution. Lead, which is toxic, can be released into the air through metal and ore processing, as well as aircrafts that still use leaded fuels.
How is Air Quality MeasuredThe EPA has established a system of monitoring air quality that they call the AQI, or Air Quality Index. Every day, at over a thousand stations across the country (and the world, for that matter), monitoring systems measure the air for specific pollutants. Using highly-sensitive equipment, monitoring stations provide data on the air we breathe every day.
The AQI takes into account five major sources of pollution (ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide) and creates a numbered system ranging from zero to 500.
- 0 to 50: Good
- 51 to 100: Moderate
- 101 to 150: Unhealthy for sensitive groups
- 151 to 200: Unhealthy
- 201 to 300: Very Unhealthy
- 301 to 500: Hazardous
Worst Areas for Air Pollution in the U.S.The AQI can vary from day to day and even change by the hour. However, there are some areas that are more likely to experience sustained or frequent poor air quality. There are a few measurements you can look at, but the most reliable probably comes from the American Lung Association, which releases a “State of the Air” report every year.
According to their 2016 numbers, the town of Bakersfield, CA, which sits about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is the top city for year-round particle air pollution. It’s believed that Bakersfield has such massive air pollution because of the agricultural industry, which creates air pollution, and the surrounding mountains, which hold the smog like a bowl holds water. California cities, including Los Angeles, San Jose, and Modesto, take up all the top seven spots for the most polluted areas for year-round particle pollution.
For ozone pollution, Los Angeles is #1, followed by Bakersfield. In this case, California hold six of the top seven spots, with Phoenix holding the #5 spot.
How To Avoid Health Problems in Poor Air QualityWhether you live in a highly-polluted city or an area with fresh, clean air, you need to be aware of ways to protect yourself and your family from air pollution. Through knowledge, smart decisions, and appropriate actions, you can maintain the long-term health of both yourself and your family.
The first step is knowledge. Check for daily forecasts on the quality of air and understand how clean or polluted the air will be on any given day. Oransi has a up to date tool to look up the air quality and pollen count in your area.
If the air is particularly bad, try keeping outdoor activities to a minimum or exercise in areas where air pollution is minimal. (Take a look at AQI numbers for nearby areas and you may be surprised by the differences of just a few dozen miles.)
Air pollution can be significantly harmful to children, so if the air is bad, limit the amount of time a child can spend outdoors. No matter what the local AQI, it’s best to avoid exercising in areas with high amounts of vehicle traffic, such as sidewalks next to crowded roadways. Even when the air forecast is good, traffic can create concentrations of airborne toxins.
If you live and work in an area with high amounts of air pollution on a regular basis, consider keeping a face covering on you that you can use to cover your mouth and nose. This will help filter harmful gases and particles and keep them from entering your body.
Remember that indoor air pollution is an issue as well. While you may not be able to directly change the quality of the air outside, you can control, by a significant level, the quality of the air inside. Don’t smoke inside and avoid second-hand smoke. Keep chemical-filled candles and air fresheners to a minimum, and change the filters in your air conditioning system on a regular basis. With these three steps alone, you will significantly improve your indoor air quality.
If you are traveling see our guide on air purifiers for hotels. Here you will learn practical steps to breathe clean, fresh air in your hotel room.
You should also consider using air purifiers in your home. Oransi air filters can eliminate indoor pollution, helping to make your home a clean haven from outdoor air pollution.
While none of these measures will guarantee that outdoor air pollution won’t affect you or a loved one, if you use them together you will likely feel better and have healthier bodies, hearts, and lungs for many years!