The theme of this year’s Air Quality Awareness Week is Better Air, Better Health! It coincides with World Asthma Day. Asthma is a disease that affects 5 to 10 percent of the population, or 24 million Americans, and is characterized by swollen or inflamed air passages in the lungs. Read on to learn what air pollution is, how it affects the health of asthma sufferers and others, and what you can do to protect your health from poor air quality.
What Is Air Pollution?
Air pollution consists of harmful particles in the air in the form of gases, solids, and liquid droplets that typically are created by humans. Emissions from factories, automobiles, airplanes, and aerosol cans, as well as cigarette smoke, are major sources of man-made pollution, known as anthropogenic sources. Air pollution also can result from natural sources such as radon, smog, soot, smoke from wildfires, and ash from volcanoes.
Air pollution is mainly concentrated in large cities, where mountains and tall buildings trap dirty air, not allowing particles to disperse over a wider area. The atmospheric pollutants form a cloud of murky air called smog, a combination of the words “smoke” and “fog.”
Air quality is poorest in large cities of developing nations. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists Karachi, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; Beijing, China; Lima, Peru; and Cairo, Egypt, as some of the most polluted cities. The United States and other developed nations also have their share of polluted cities, such as Los Angeles.
Indoor Air Pollution
Air quality can be as bad indoors as out. The ash and smoke emitted from burning indoor sources of heat, including wood, kerosene, and coal, can cause difficulty breathing. Radon gas, which is released through the ground, can build up in homes and is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Construction materials, such as insulation and asbestos, can also cause pollution. And mold that often exists in damp and cool areas of the house can spread throughout the home and sicken people when they breathe in the spores.
Pollution’s Effects on People
Short-term exposure to air pollution can result in pneumonia, bronchitis, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. But long-term exposure can lead to serious illnesses, such as asthma, heart and lung diseases, emphysema, birth defects, and damage to brains, nerves, and internal organs. WHO estimates that 4.2 million people die annually from air pollution.
How Outdoor Air Pollution Affects Asthma Sufferers
Ozone (03) is a gas composed of three atoms of oxygen that is present in two layers of the atmosphere. The higher-up layer shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. The ground level of ozone, however, is considered a major pollutant by contributing to smog. Ozone can trigger asthma by irritating the lungs and airways, causing diminished lung function. Ozone and particle pollution, found in haze, smoke, and dust, make asthma sufferers wheeze, cough, and experience chest discomfort and a burning sensation in the lungs. Ozone is most harmful in the warmer months, while particle pollution can occur anytime, but especially when the air is still. San Diego has the sixth worst ozone pollution in the United States.
Not only can air pollution aggravate asthma, it can cause it. Prenatal exposure to air pollution increases the risk of a child developing asthma, and exposure in early life can contribute to the development of asthma in children and adolescents.
What Can Be Done to Improve Air Pollution?
On a societal level, there are ways we can help reduce air pollution, such as:
- Walking, biking, or using public transportation instead of driving cars
- Choosing to own and drive vehicles that are less polluting, such as those with low emissions, fully electric cars, or hybrids
- Buying food locally to reduce fossil fuel use when food is trucked in from elsewhere
- Supporting leaders who advocate for clean air and water standards
Protecting Your Health
On a personal level, you can reduce exposure to existing air pollution by doing the following:
- Keep car windows up when driving, especially in heavy traffic
- Exercise outdoors away from heavily trafficked roads
- Wear sunscreen to protect from ultraviolet radiation from a weakened ozone layer
- Avoid traveling during rush hour and drive on surface streets rather than freeways
- Check local air quality forecasts at http://airquality.sdapcd.org/air/forecasts/otoday.html, and limit time spent outdoors when air quality is poor
- Reside as far from a major, well-traveled road as possible
- Avoid outdoor activity when air quality is poor
- Have homes tested for radon levels and mold growth
- Consider adding solar power to your home
Sources: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma &n Immunology, “Your Questions Answered on Air Pollution and Asthma,” https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/asthma-library/air-pollution-asthma; National Geographic Resource Library, “Air Pollution,” https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/air-pollution/; Natural Resources Defense Council, “Air Pollution: Everything You Need to Know,” https://www.nrdc.org/stories/air-pollution-everything-you-need-know#sec1; San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, “Air Quality Forecast, http://airquality.sdapcd.org/air/forecasts/otoday.html; ScienceDaily, “Air Pollution,” https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/air_pollution.htm; WHO, “Air Pollution, Ambient Air Pollution: Health Impacts,” https://www.who.int/airpollution/ambient/health-impacts/en/.
Graphics: EPA, https://www.epa.gov/transportation-air-pollution-and-climate-change and https://www.epa.gov/ground-level-ozone-pollution/ground-level-ozone-basics
Photo: National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/air-pollution/