You are What You Breathe

You are What You Breathe

Article Highlights

  • Air pollution can contribute to a number of respiratory illnesses.
  • One of the most common types of air pollution is called particle pollution.
  • The EPA monitors fine particle and coarse particle pollution.

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Although there are many different types of air pollution, they all have one thing in common – they’re a health hazard.

“There are a variety of different toxic air contaminants,” says Dimitri Stanich, a public information officer at the California Air Resources Board. Stanich says some of these include secondhand smoke and diesel particulate matter (airborne pollutant particles).

One of the most common types of air pollution is called particle pollution. “Particle pollution refers to extremely small particles in the air,” a representative from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says.

Clear the Air Pollution

The EPA monitors two different types of particle pollution, both of which can get into the lungs and are considered to be harmful. The first type – fine particle – is smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, an EPA representative says.

“A particle this small is nearly 30 times smaller in diameter than the average human hair,” an EPA representative says.

The second type – coarse particles – is between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter, an EPA representative says.

There are many different ways that people can work to reduce the amount of pollution in the air.

“We encourage people to reduce, reuse, and recycle,” Stanich says.

Stanich also encourages people to work together to reduce the amount of fuel they use. “Combustion of any type of fuel causes pollution,” he says. “We can look at the way we live our lives and reduce pollution as much as possible.”

People can also help to reduce particle pollution when burning wood. The EPA advises that people that have a wood stove should ensure it’s a cleaner-burning EPA-certified stove, keep it well-maintained, and follow the steps to burn wisely.

The EPA has compiled a comprehensive list of things that people can do to help reduce particle pollution.

People should also minimize their exposure to traffic pollution. “People on sidewalks are less susceptible to pollution than in people in cars,” Stanich says.

Pollution is highest between the hours of 3 and 7 p.m., according to Stanich. “California has a much more serious air pollution problem than the rest of the country,” he states.

The general public is becoming more involved in reducing air pollution. Stanich says California’s air is cleaner than it has been in 50 years, but more work still needs to be done.               

The Hazard of Air Pollution

The EPA says exposure to fine particles can cause health problems both when a person is exposed for a short period of time as well as for longer periods. As a result, they have created two standards for fine particle pollution exposure, which are a 24-hour standard and an annual standard.

The health effects linked to short-term exposure to fine particle pollution include nonfatal heart attacks, increased hospital admissions, emergency room (ER) visits and doctors visits for lung diseases, increases hospital admissions and ER visits for cardiovascular diseases, increased respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, and lung function changes, an EPA representative says.

Air Pollution and Health

“For longer-term exposure, health effects include reduced lung function and premature death in people with heart or lung disease,” the EPA says.

The EPA has only a 24-hour standard in place for exposure to coarse particle pollution.

Coarse particle pollution is also associated with many different health effects.

These include premature death in people with heart or lung disease, hospital admissions for heart disease, hospital admissions and doctors’ visits for respiratory diseases, and increased respiratory symptoms in children, an EPA representative says.

Dr. Wilmar Rodriguez, a Health Sciences instructor at South University – West Palm Beach, says that some people might be more susceptible to health problems from air pollution than others.

“There may be individuals that may have a familial or genetic predisposition to asthma and certain cancers,” he says.

The EPA adds that children and older adults also tend to have heightened sensitivity to particle pollution.

Rodriguez says one way people can help to protect themselves from the harmful effects of air pollution is to make sure they have proper air conditioning filters in their homes and at their work place.

Natural disasters, such as forest fires can also create a significant amount of particle pollution. The EPA says that forest fires can create serious health problems for residents that live near them. “If a fire is burning in your community, pay close attention to information from your state or local air agency,” an EPA representative says.

If you have heart or lung disease and you live in a community where wildfires are common, the EPA encourages you to check with your doctor to see if you should purchase an air filter to use when there is a fire nearby.

People are also urged to follow the Air Quality Index, which is the EPA’s color-coded tool for communicating air quality to the public.

The EPA advises people to check their city’s daily Air Quality Index forecast for near-real-time air quality information.

Author: Laura Jerpi

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