The Surprising Truth About What Youre Breathing
The dirtiest air in America isnt the smoggy haze blanketing Los Angeles. In a new report from the American Lung Association, the City of Angels was edged out by Bakersfield, California, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for that dubious distinction. Dont live there? Doesnt mean your air is A+ pure, because the scary fact is that the worst air of all just might be in your own home, car, or backyard.
The culprit you need to watch out for is particle pollution. Major sources include smokestack emissions, vehicle exhaust, and coal-fired power plants -- but smoking, household appliances, woodstoves, even candles and incense can spew them, too. These particles dont sound dangerous until you know that ultrafine ones (2 to 10 microns) -- some so small that 50,000 could fit on the period at the end of this sentence -- can lodge in your lungs and even sneak into your bloodstream. There, they can trigger asthma attacks, worsen (or even cause) serious respiratory diseases including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and increase your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and early death. They cause generalized inflammation in your body once they get into your lungs. True, the air throughout the United States is cleaner than it was 10 years ago, but 6 in 10 Americans still live in places where outdoor particle pollution (particulate matter in scientist-speak) reaches unhealthful levels, and at least 30% of Canadians live where particulate levels are too high. And what we do in our homes and cars can make things far worse -- or far better.
Avoiding particulates could save your lungs, your health, and your life. In California alone, particulates still kill an estimated 18,000 people a year, one reason environmental health advocates consider particulates one the most widespread and dangerous air-quality issues in America. (The other is ozone, produced when two chemical pollutants react in stagnant air on sunny days.) In one German study, exposure to particulates and other air pollutants from car fumes tripled heart attack risk for men and raised it fivefold for women.
Particulates are bad news for everybody; that means kids, older folks, and even healthy adults. Heres how to keep these sneaky particles under control:
- Have a Plan B for dirty-air days. Sunny, hot summer days can create the perfect conditions for ground-level ozone, a lung-damaging compound that forms when various air pollutants react in the presence of sunlight. Ozone and particulates are often high on the same days, and together they can be even more damaging to your respiratory system than either one alone. Pay attention to the day-to-day air quality where you live; often, its part of the weather report. If not, look up ozone and particulate levels at airnow.gov, which has a minute-to-minute report by zip code. When the air is unhealthy, children and people with respiratory diseases should limit time outside; when its extremely unhealthy, even adults without health problems should do that, too.
- Live in a bad-air town? Create a safe haven. If you have respiratory or cardiovascular problems, such as diagnosed heart disease, or simply like the idea of breathing cleaner air when the outdoor stuffs dirty (we do!), consider installing a HEPA air filter or an air conditioner that contains one in at least one room. This wont eliminate all pollutants and particulates, but it can help.
- Walk, run, and bike away from busy roadways. Exercise makes you breathe faster and deeper, drawing more air -- and more particulates -- deep into your lungs. Instead of dodging traffic, choose less-traveled (but still safe) places for outdoor workouts.
- Stop being the #1 air polluter in your home. Most of us spend 90% of our time indoors. Cigarette smoke is the single largest source of particulates in homes, so dont let people smoke in your home (better yet, encourage them to quit). Keep furnaces in good repair, and be sure that vents to heaters, clothes dryers, and ranges are clean and working properly. Turn on the exhaust fan while cooking, because frying and sauteing fling particulates into the air. Think twice about incense and candles, which also may produce particulates when burned.
- Leave your chariot at home. Despite vents, filters, and air conditioners, the air inside cars was 2 to 10 times dirtier than the air outside in one study conducted on the freeways of Los Angeles. If you cant walk (somewhere thats not near the highway), at least dont tailgate. Half the pollutants inside a car come from the vehicle directly ahead of you. Exhaust spewing from older, heavy-duty diesel engines increased particulate levels inside cars up to ninefold. Opt for the carpool lanes to keep overall pollution 30% to 50% lower, drive at off hours, and avoid congested areas.
- Be part of the solution. Reducing your personal emissions footprint is just the first step. Another way to make a difference is to urge people in government agencies to set tougher pollution standards. Thats what has worked in the past 10 years. One easy way to keep progress alive: Send a message through the American Lung Associations campaign for cleaner air at http://lungaction.org/campaign/SOTA2009.