Air pollution isn’t just affecting the health of our environment; it also poses a significant health risk to humans. You might be familiar with the way polluted air can cause respiratory problems like wheezing and asthma, but did you know that it also may be a major risk factor for stroke, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and more? Learn the facts about air pollution and how to stay safe.
- Respiratory problems. The link between air pollution and respiratory problems like asthma is well established. The respiratory health of children is particularly affected by pollution exposure. One study found that children living near a major rail yard were 41% more likely to have markers of compromised lung function and 44% more likely to have airway inflammation. Kids going to a school near the rail yard were also more likely to have chronic coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.Fortunately, measures taken to reduce pollutants and clean up the air can help ameliorate these kinds of problems. A study in California found that improvements in air quality (particularly reductions in nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter) were associated with improvements in several markers of lung function in children. According to another study in Washington, the adoption of clean technologies and fuels in school buses was associated with significant improvements in lung functions and respiratory health. The authors estimated that these changes could reduce the number of absences in school by more than 14 million each year.
- Lung cancer. Lung cancer rates are higher in people who have been exposed to high levels of air pollution.[5,6] Researchers of one study found that living in areas with high particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone were more likely to develop lung cancer. What’s more, people who lived within 100 meters of highways were also at an increased risk.
- Brain health and stroke. Air pollution can harm your brain and might even make it smaller, research shows. People exposed to air pollution are much more likely to have strokes, which can cause significant brain damage. Long-term exposure is also associated with specific changes in the brain. In one study, increased exposure to particulate matter was associated with smaller total cerebral brain volume and higher odds of having covert brain infarcts (silent strokes). These types of structural changes in the brain may lead to cognitive impairment and other problems.
- Diabetes. One of the lesser-known facts about air pollution is that it can increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Air pollution may cause problems with insulin functioning, predispose individuals to weight gain, and promote inflammation, all factors which may contribute to diabetes prevalence.[9,10] Diabetics taking insulin may be particularly susceptible to air pollution: One study found that the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein was significantly increased in people taking insulin who lived near major roads.
- Cardiovascular health. Air pollution is a well-established factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. Several studies have found that air pollution raises the risk for the disease, as well as the risk for mortality from heart problems, like heart attacks. Pollution contributes to hypertension, atherosclerosis, blood clotting, arrhythmias, and vasoconstriction, which are all factors associated with poor heart health and susceptibility to cardiovascular disease.
How to reduce your risk
These facts about air pollution are a good reminder to be more aware of the air your breathe each day. Take these precautionary measures to help lower your exposure to harmful pollution:
- Monitor the air quality in your area. Use Airnow.gov to check the current air quality, as well as forecasts for the upcoming days.
- Stay indoors during days (or times of day) that the air quality is bad.
- Run, walk, and bike in low-traffic areas. Avoid busy roads, where air quality is the worst.
- People who have chronic diseases, are elderly, are pregnant, or who have pulmonary disease should limit outdoor activity when air pollution is high.[12,13]
- Use an air filter to clean the air in your home if you live in a heavily polluted area. This can make a huge difference especially if you have family members who suffer from allergies or asthma. One of our own NHAI staff members uses and really likes the Honeywell 50250-S 99.97% Pure HEPA Round Air Purifier. It is quiet and perfect for a large bedroom. We also recommend the less expensive Honeywell Compact Air Purifier with Permanent HEPA Filter, HHT-011 for desktop or small area use. If you have to be outside on a poor air quality day, don’t overexert yourself. The more you exert yourself, the more pollutants you will inhale. Lower intensity exercise will help limit your exposure.
- Turn on the recycled air setting in your car when sitting in traffic to decrease the amount of fumes entering your car and your lungs.
- If you are already at risk for the numerous health conditions associated with air pollution, use natural health tools to help reduce your risk. Antioxidants, omega 3s, a healthy diet, regular exercise, and more can help boost your body’s protective defenses against a myriad of health problems.
Finally, do your part to reduce pollution. We can all make lifestyle changes to help lower air pollution. Carpool to work, reduce fireplace and wood-burning stove use, use environmentally safe home and yard products, conserve electricity, and take other appropriate measures to reduce your environmental impact. Doing so will help to keep yourself, your family, and the natural world around you in better shape.
Share your experience
Do you live in a heavily polluted area? What do you do to reduce your exposure? Share your tips in the comments section below.
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Originally published in 2015.