When we breathe in dirty air, we bring air pollutants deep into our lungs, so it’s no surprise that air pollution causes serious damage to the respiratory tract. Air pollution exposure can trigger new cases of asthma, exacerbate (worsen) a previously-existing respiratory illness, and provoke development or progression of chronic illnesses including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema. Air pollutants also negatively and significantly harm lung development, creating an additional risk factor for developing lung diseases later in life.
We don't often think about it but our lungs are actually exposed to the outside environment, breathing in 10,000 liters of air each and every day!
Air pollution affects children more than adults because children tend to spend more time outdoors, their lungs are still developing, they breathe through their mouths, bypassing the filtering effects of the nasal passages and allowing pollutants to travel deeper into the lungs. Also, they have a large lung surface area relative to their weight and inhale relatively more air compared to adults.
Air pollution is a mixture of natural and man-made substances in the air we breathe. It is typically separated into two categories: outdoor air pollution and indoor air pollution.
Outdoor air pollution involves exposures that take place outside of the built environment. Examples include:
- Fine particles produced by the burning of fossil fuels (i.e. the coal and petroleum used in traffic and energy production)
- Noxious gases (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, chemical vapors, etc.)
- Ground-level ozone (a reactive form of oxygen and a primary component of urban smog)
- Tobacco smoke
Indoor air pollution involves exposures to particulates, carbon oxides, and other pollutants carried by indoor air or dust. Examples include:
- Gases (carbon monoxide, radon, etc.)
- Household products and chemicals
- Building materials (asbestos, formaldehyde, lead, etc.)
- Outdoor indoor allergens (cockroach and mouse dropping, etc.)
- Tobacco smoke
- Mold and pollen
The respiratory effects of air pollution depend on the type and mix of pollutants; the concentration in the air; the amount of time you are exposed to the pollutant; how much of the pollutant you breathe in; and how much of the pollutant penetrates your lungs. Depending on their size, particles can be deposited in the upper airways (nose and throat), the large conducting airways and/or the small peripheral airways and air sacs or alveoli. At all of these locations, particles may produce irritation and inflammation.
Research over the past 10 years has shown that long-term exposure to even low to moderate levels of pollution is a risk factor for heart disease, asthma, and other lung diseases.
Asthma, a chronic disease of the lungs characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, causes a sensation of tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. If untreated, asthma episodes can be near fatal or even fatal. Asthma is not currently curable, and damage that is done to lung tissue during asthma attacks may lead to permanent damage.
Tips to Reduce Exposure:
- Avoiding outdoor activities near busy roads especially during rush hour. When walking or jogging or other sport consider alternative routes with lower levels of pollution.
- When pollution levels are high, for example in summer because of ozone, avoid energetic outdoor activities or doing them in the morning or late in the evening and keep windows closed.
- Use HEPA air filters; usually these filters or electronic air cleaners trap a large amount of circulating dirty particles.
- Stay well nourished; there's evidence that fish oil and vitamin C can help damage caused by pollutants.
- Changing your air filters as often as recommended, vacuuming often, and reducing if not eliminating the best friend of indoor air pollution, carpeting.