How Air Pollution Affects Our Lungs

The importance of physical health is no secret. Incorporating a regimented exercise routine, staying away from smoking and secondhand smoke, taking a daily vitamin, and bundling up when cold are all common ways to maintain our health. We can control many aspects of our health, but the effects of air pollution are harder to combat, or even detect at first. In 2016, it was estimated that air pollution contributed to nearly 6.5 million deaths around the world. Air pollution is linked to a number of lungs-related illnesses, even when these pollutants are naturally occurring.

Disturbed Asbestos

Asbestos refers to a group of 6 organic minerals formed naturally in fibrous bundles and found in different types of soils and rocks in the earth’s crust. Today, Brazil is the leading exporter of asbestos controlling 90% of the world’s total asbestos production.

Asbestos usage hit peak popularity in the late 1970s in the United States, and still poses a serious health threat today, even after it felt out of favor over the last thirty years. Many homes lived in today were constructed with asbestos containing materials (ACMs), and renovations can accidentally disturb this mineral, putting the entire family at risk for exposure.

For factory workers, firefighters, and construction workers, facing asbestos exposure is a daily risk. During the asbestos peak in the last century, these workers would come home with asbestos still clinging to their clothes and bodies, which then exposed their families to the dangerous fiber. Broken asbestos can also linger in the air anywhere from 48-72 hours, prolonging the risk of exposure.

Asbestos enters the body through respiratory pathways, and then settles in the lungs, stomach or heart. These sensitive and vital organs can become irritated by the microscopic fibers, causing tumors to develop in the lungs, and later turn into mesothelioma cancer. The symptoms can manifest 20 to 50 years after inhalation, which makes this toxin important to be weary of, even years later.

This past summer New York City experienced a pipe explosion in the Flatiron District that left trace amounts of asbestos in the air, and caused a revitalization of asbestos worry and conversation. No level of asbestos exposure is safe, and 49 buildings and all of Fifth Avenue between 19th and 22nd street were closed for safety reasons for a number of days while the area was tested for air quality standards.

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter refers to a wide range of airborne materials, ranging from simple soils and sea salt to materials as complex as volcanic eruptions. Particulate matter (PM) can differ in size, and smaller particles can travel deep into airways and cause serious damage to internal organs.

The different sizes of PM is the most important factor for our safety. Human bodies have a built in defense mechanism allowing us to sneeze and cough out bigger particles, but the smaller particles can become trapped in the lungs and disrupt normal breathing patterns.

Anyone living around particle pollution, whether levels are high or low, faces some amount of risk. Of course, certain people face more risk than others with particle pollution. Infants who haven’t fully developed their lungs yet, seniors, and people who already have chronic lung diseases like COPD, asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema are most at risk.

Researchers are making great strides tracking issues across the world in hopes to significantly improve the quality of our air. Simple steps to take are to stop smoking, cut down on vehicle emissions by using public transportation or walking when possible, and limit your use woodstoves and fireplaces.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic silent killer that is the second most likely cause of death by poison. It is tasteless and colorless and is produced by burning fuels like natural gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal. If inhaled, carbon monoxide attacks the blood and prevents the body from using oxygen properly.

CO exposure is most common during the winter months when heat sources like space heaters are unvented at home. Carbon monoxide can leak from a number of common sources like clothing dryer machines, vehicle tailpipes, stoves and ovens, water heaters, gas log burners, and other types of heating furnaces.

Difference between healthy and unhealthy lungs

Symptoms of CO poisoning are headaches, dizziness, feelings of weakness or confusion, shortness of breath and blurry vision. To avoid being poisoned by CO you can install a carbon monoxide detector, which will warn everyone in the house when CO levels get too high. If the detector warns you of CO in the house, call 911 and have the fire department come survey the situation.

Ozone Pollution

Currently the most dangerous pollutant in the United States is ozone, a gas molecule made up of three oxygen atoms. Most commonly referred to as “smog”, it is very harmful to human health. The ozone layer protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and it’s located in the stratosphere (upper atmosphere).

Scientists discovered ozone depletion as recently as the 1970s, which has raised public health concern because its absence would be make it difficult for anything to survive in a healthy manner. The depletion of the ozone causes an increase in UV radiation levels which damages human skin correlating directly to skin cancers and other health issues.

Anyone who spends time outdoors is at risk to ozone pollution, which has very serious health effects. Due to the extra presence of ozone in sunlight, this kind of pollution is most common in the summer months. It can be particularly harmful to people with asthma. Immediate problems resulting from ozone are shortness of breath, increased asthma attacks, respiratory infections, susceptible pulmonary inflammation, and COPD.

Conclusion

October is Healthy Lung Month, an important time to know what air pollutants are natural and how they can impact the body. This month can be used to familiarize yourself with ways to protect yourself and your family from respiratory harm, and commit to this healthier lifestyle year round.

Salman Zafar

Salman Zafar is the Founder of Cleantech Solutions, and an internationally-acclaimed blogger, journalist, consultant, advisor and ecopreneur. His areas of expertise includes waste management, renewable energy, waste-to-energy, environment protection, resource conservation and sustainable development.
Salman is a prolific environmental writer, and has authored more than 300 articles in reputed journals, magazines and websites. He is proactively engaged in creating mass awareness on renewable energy, waste management, sustainability and conservation all over the world.
Salman can be reached on salman@cleantechloops.com.

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