You care about your health. You watch what you eat, exercise regularly, get yearly doctor checkups. And yet, every day you do something that damages your health and shortens your lifespan… breathing.
That probably seems ridiculous to you. We need to breathe to live, right? Yes, of course. But, what we breathe matters. And, all around the world, people are breathing in air that is hurting their health and shortening their lives.
What’s in the air that we breathe?
Every time you take a breath, not only are you taking in life-sustaining oxygen, but you’re also pulling a lot of pollutants into your body that are doing real damage.
If you live in the United States, the six major types of air pollutants you’re breathing in are lead, carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5).
All those air pollutants come from two sources: nature and human activity
- Natural sources include: windblown dust, dirt and sand, volcanic smoke, and burning materials.
- Man-Made sources include: various forms of combustion, such as from gas-powered transportation, industrial businesses, biomass burning (the burning of plant matter or coal for heating, cooking, and energy), and farming.
Each location has its own mix of contributors depending on geography and human activity.
Which areas are the most dangerous to live in?
Obviously urban and industrial areas have the lowest air quality. Most cities have some degree of pollution, but in the United States, Los Angelos ranks as the city with the worst air quality.
But, you don’t have to live in a city to be concerned about your air. Currently, 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds the World Health Organization’s guideline limits. That means, wherever you’re living, you’re mostly likely breathing in air that is hurting your body.
And it isn’t just outdoor air that’s concerning. In fact, indoor air is typically even worse. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that “studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times — and occasionally more than 100 times — higher than outdoor levels.”
What do breathing in these pollutants do to your body?
Of all the dangerous pollutants in the air, the most hazardous to your health are PM 2.5 and ultrafine particles. PM2.5, along with the even tinier ultrafine particles, are composed of a mixture of solid and liquid particles that are suspended in the air. PM2.5 particles are easily inhaled and are able to penetrate deep into your respiratory system.
Exposure to PM2.5 has multiple short and long-term health impacts. Short-term issues include eye, nose, and throat irritation, coughing, sneezing, and shortness of breath. Long term exposure to PM2.5 can cause permanent respiratory problems such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and heart disease. PM2.5 particles also elevate the likelihood of premature birth and infant mortality.
One recent study called PM 2.5 “the largest environmental risk factor worldwide,” responsible for many more deaths than alcohol use, physical inactivity or high sodium intake. Another study showed that air pollution reduces global life expectancy by more than a year.
What complicates the problem is that air pollution is rarely the direct cause of death. Rather, air pollution is the world’s 4th leading contributing cause of early death, accounting for:
- 29% of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
- 17% of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
- 24% of all deaths from stroke
- 25% of all deaths and disease from coronary heart disease
- 43% of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
What can we do to improve air quality?
Now that we understand how dangerous dirty air is, what can we do to improve it? Unfortunately, the biggest changes need to happen at a structural level. Regulations like the Clean Air Act drastically reduced pollutants and improved health. Supporting similar measures is the most important thing we can do to make the air we breathe cleaner and our lives longer and healthier.
But, while structural changes may not be completely in our control, there are things we can do as individuals to keep our families safe.
To minimize your exposure to outdoor pollutants:
- Check your air quality before going out.
- Go outside in the mornings, when ozone levels are lower.
- Walk away from traffic.
- Stay near trees or shorelines.
To minimize your exposure to indoor pollutants:
- Ensure that gas stoves are well ventilated.
- Reduce the use of harsh cleaners and scented products.
- Keep windows and doors open as much as possible.
- Purchase a high-quality air purifier with a True HEPA filter.
Why do HEPA filters make such a big difference?
Although the standard for HEPA filters is that they need to be able to filter out 99.95% or more of all particles which are 0.3 microns in diameter, they are actually capable of filtering out particles of almost any size. A True HEPA filter can trap dust, smoke, pet allergens, PM2.5 (dangerous particles that are 2.5 microns or smaller), and even bacteria and viruses.
That means that, if you have an air purifier with a True HEPA filter, you can be assured that pollutants will be filtered out of your home, improving your health and increasing your life expectancy.