A Breath of Fresh Air
Linda Gardner Phillips
Ready to rejuvenate? Step outside and fill your lungs with fresh air. It’s free! Each inhale invigorates your brain cells and each exhale cleanses your body of carbon dioxide and other wastes.
Day and night, the rhythm of breath keeps you company. You might take this lifelong relationship for granted unless you are congested or coughing. Air always surrounds us, and most people hardly think about what it might hide. Outdoor breezes and indoor air deliver life-giving oxygen, but sadly, they may also carry unseen substances and risks.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines air pollution as “gas and particle contaminants” in the atmosphere. These risky substances can cause health issues even if they are invisible—especially for sensitive groups like young children and asthma patients. In fact, over 90% of the world’s population breathes air laced with harmful airborne toxins and micro-particles.
Dirty air is nothing new. Throughout history, fires have caused people to cough and pollen has caused people to sneeze. The jet stream carries smoke from forest fires and volcanoes to distant regions, thus impacting people far from the original site. These days most air pollution is the result of industrial manufacturing and fossil fuel combustion. The industrial revolution sparked skyrocketing air pollution rates, and vast amounts of risky substances keep spewing from smokestacks and tailpipes all over the world.
Smog is a noticeable indication of polluted air. It appears locally when industrial pollutants rise into the sky, stick to water and dust, then sink back to the earth in a heavy, hazy cloud. Smog obscures the sunlight and creates dangerous breathing conditions.
Acid rain travels far from its source to damage entire ecosystems. Atmospheric water joins with pollutants, then drops across wide regions in the form of rain, snow, fog, or hail. This acidic precipitation damages trees and plants, attacks the chemical balance of soil and water, and kills aquatic creatures.
Air quality measurements depend on a number of factors, including the number and combination of air pollutants present and how long they persist. The World Air Quality Index Project provides a way to check the air quality for your area at any time. In general, it indicates the poorest air quality is in regions of India, China, and Thailand while the best air quality is in parts of New Zealand, Australia, and Scandinavia.
Even if your community or house seems clean, its air may harbor invisible risks. Microclimate pollution levels can vary widely between cities, across regions, or between neighborhoods and streets.
You don’t need to feel sick to be harmed by air pollution. Even low levels of toxins and tiny particles can cause many illnesses, from acute respiratory infections and lung cancer to strokes and heart disease. Long-term exposure may slow childhood development and can restructure the brain like Alzheimer’s disease. Every year, seven million people die prematurely from the effects of repeatedly inhaling tainted air.
Your body does fight back. If you have ever sneezed, coughed, or even had a pimple, you have seen firsthand how it naturally expels toxins and illnesses. Inflammation is how the body clears foreign irritants (anything from splinters to viruses and poisons) from your tissues. Usually, this swollen state disappears once the irritant is gone, but long-term air pollution interferes with this process. The body struggles to keep up when every breath introduces a new lungful of contaminated air. Swollen tissues and irritated nerves trigger more inflammation. This vicious cycle of the body turning against itself can be difficult to escape. Many experts believe that chronic inflammation links airborne toxins to diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. (National Institutes of Health)
Nearly all airborne pollutants can cause breathing difficulties, but different toxins and particles pose additional health risks.
Pollen sparks hay fever. It also irritates mucous membranes in the eyes and nose and intensifies asthma. These issues get worse when industrial pollution joins the mix. Smog traps pollen and changes its protein structure to be even more irritating to sensitive tissues.*
Smoke from campfires, grills, and cigarettes tightens the chest and causes coughs. In the long term, it can damage the lungs and worsen asthma and heart disease.
Heavy metals cross cell walls and lodge in body tissues to contribute to asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and increased mortality.
S02 makes it hard to breathe, especially for children and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions and interferes with oxygen production by plants.
NO2 aggravates mucus membranes in the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs and increases respiratory infections. Areas with high concentrations of NO2 usually have higher asthma rates.
VOCs irritate eye, nose, and throat tissues, causing headaches, nausea, liver and central nervous system damage, and disrupt coordination.
Ozone interferes with oxygen intake and can hasten death in older adults.
Benzene causes cellular mutation and harms reproductive organs.
Carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in your blood to make you sleepy, spark a headache, or cause sudden illness and death.
Formaldehyde causes chest pain and coughing, damages the nervous system, and increases asthma and allergies in children.
Naphthalene used in moth repellant destroys blood cells to block the oxygen pathway, causes diarrhea, fever, and respiratory tract lesions. Baby blankets that were stored with naphthalene-laden mothballs can inflict infants with acute hemolytic anemia.
If you can’t see, smell, or control unhealthy air, how can you detect it? Check the numbers. You can learn about your home’s air quality by testing it with an indoor air monitor. For outdoor air conditions, pay attention to the Air Quality Index and Action Day Alerts in your local weather report.
The EPA monitors air conditions across the country every day and translates this raw data into simplified guidelines on AirNow.gov, a helpful free website. The color-coded ratings range from green (good) to red (hazardous). You’ll find related information on popular websites like Weather.com and Wunderground.com. Code Orange indicates unhealthy air days that are especially dangerous for sensitive groups, who should remain indoors. Others should reduce time spent outdoors and avoid strenuous activities like biking and running.
No one person can solve the air quality problem, but your choices do contribute to better air conditions for yourself and the planet. Here are some actions you can take:
For more information on air pollution and what you can do, check the EPA or American Lung Association websites.
Linda Gardner Phillips is a creative strategy consultant and writer focused on healthy green living, storytelling and transformative design thinking. She can be reached at email@example.com.