What Are The Biggest Health Risks From Air Pollution?

For decades, scientists have been warning us about the serious impacts of air pollution. A recent report by Lancet Planetary Health showed that air pollution is responsible for one out of every 6 deaths, or 9 million deaths a year. Philip Landrigan, co-author of the study confirmed that  “Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health and jeopardizes the sustainability of modern societies.”  

Who needs to worry about air quality?

While people in developing countries are typically at the highest risk for high pollution, most places in the world have air quality concerns. The World Wide Health Organization estimates that 99% of people around the world are living in areas that exceed their guideline limits. 

What if I live in a place with clean air?

What about if you’re one of the very few fortunate ones who live in an area where air quality is not a major concern? Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that you’re breathing clean air. Indoor air tends to be 2 to 5 times worse than outdoor air and is not subject to regulation.

Why is indoor air quality so poor?

All of the modern conveniences that make our lives easier also tend to lower air quality. Every time you cook, burn wood, candles, or incense, particles are released into the air. Particles also can form indoors from complex reactions of gases emitted from things like household cleaning products and air fresheners.

The combination of human activity and products, along with a lack of ventilation, produces and retains large concentrations of particulate matter in indoor living spaces. 

To make matters worse, outdoor pollution is constantly seeping into your home through doors, windows, and “leakiness” in building structures.

Are there other health concerns caused by air pollution?

While premature death is the most extreme effect of low quality air, it’s far from the only one. The American Lung Association lists the following issues as the top 10 health risks from air pollution:

Premature death: Science shows that both short-term and long-term exposure to unhealthy air can shorten your life and lead to premature death. 

Asthma attacks: Breathing ozone and particle pollution can lead to increased asthma attacks, which can result in visits to the emergency room and hospital admissions, not to mention missed work and school.

Cardiovascular disease: Air pollution can increase the risk of both heart attacks and stroke.

Lung cancer: In 2013, the World Health Organization determined that particle pollution can cause lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S.

Developmental damage: Exposure to air pollution can slow and stunt lung development in growing children, harming their health now and reducing their lung function as adults.

Susceptibility to infections: Air pollution increases the risk of lung infections, especially in children.

Worsened COPD symptoms: Exposure to air pollution can make it even harder for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to breathe. Severe symptoms can lead to hospitalization and even death.

Lung tissue swelling and irritation: Even people with healthy lungs are susceptible to irritation and swelling. For those living with chronic lung diseases, such as asthma and COPD, these effects can be especially harmful.

Low infant birth weight: Some studies show exposure to air pollution may increase the risk of low infant birth weight and infant mortality.

Wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath: Like many of the other conditions in this list, these can be caused by both long-term exposure and short-term exposure to high levels of air pollutants.

What is the most dangerous component of air pollution?

Particulate matter is generally considered the most dangerous component of the air we breathe. Particulate matter is made up of miniscule liquid droplets and solid particles that float in the air. Those with a diameter of 10 microns or less (PM10) are inhalable into the lungs and can induce adverse health effects. 

Fine particles (PM2.5), or ultrafine particles(UFP) are the most dangerous because their tiny size allows them to travel far distances and penetrate deeply into our bodies. 

How can we keep our family safe?

Live somewhere with better air quality whenever possible

While air pollution is an issue almost everywhere, there are areas that tend towards cleaner air. This can be especially important if you or a family member suffers from health issues or a weakened immune system. There are online resources to help you choose the best areas. 

Buy an electric stove. 

Because cooking is one of the biggest sources of indoor pollution, the kind of stove you chose is important. Electric stoves are always best, but if you already have a gas stove, there are some things you can do to make it safer to use such as making sure that it’s properly installed and opening windows or using fans when cooking. 

Make sure your home is properly sealed.

Improve your home’s insulation, weatherstripping, caulking, and ductwork so that less outdoor pollution is able to enter your home.

Replace your old furnace with a more efficient furnace.

Older furnaces are much more likely to emit unsafe levels of pollution.

Replace your wood-burning appliance

A vented gas fireplace or gas heater is a much better choice than a wood or coal burning stove.

Use an air purifier with a combination of HEPA and activated carbon filter. 

A high quality air purifier that uses a combination of True HEPA and activated carbon filters will remove both dangerous particles and chemicals from your indoor air. Since most of us spend around 90% of our time indoors, ensuring clean indoor air will go along way towards improving overall health.

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