As you plan your summer vacation, one of your first thoughts is likely: how can I stay safe? Researching how to stay safe during travel will yield information on things like car emergency kits, vaccinations, and travel insurance — but typically not air quality. Being aware of potential pollutants you and your family may be exposed to during each leg of your journey, from the airplane flight to your final destination, can go a long way in helping you stay healthy so you can have a great vacation.
Why should I be concerned about air quality?
Though not discussed as often as other types of safety information, it’s important to be aware of the air pollutants you and your family could be exposed to. According to a 2016 study done by the World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), “air pollution is the fourth-largest threat to human health, behind high blood pressure, dietary risks, and smoking.”
Even if you’re normally healthy, poor air quality can cause problems like eye, nose, and throat irritation, as well as wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing. For people with asthma or other existing lung conditions, even short-term exposure to air pollution can make their symptoms worse. Though air pollution can affect anyone (and it does), there are two situations that should put you on high alert:
- If you’re traveling with children or elderly people — their immune systems are typically more sensitive, increasing their risk of developing air quality-related illnesses.
- If you’re traveling to developing countries — the World Bank and IHME study found that “about 90 percent of the population in low- and middle-income countries are exposed to dangerous levels of ambient air pollution.” This is largely due to less stringent air pollution laws.
Potential pollutants in an airplane
If you want to get out of town and head for a more exotic location, chances are you’ll be boarding an airplane. While flying is safer than driving in many aspects, there are air quality concerns that exist simply due to the design and operation of aircraft. Though most air quality issues on an airplane won’t make you sick, it’s important to be aware of those that can.
Oil/hydraulic fuel fumes
Airplane cabins are pressurized because the air pressure at flying altitudes is much lower than normal. The pressurization allows passengers to breathe more easily but there are hidden risks involved. The air supply system used to pressurize the cabin is redirected from the engine and can be a source of toxic fumes when contaminated. This contamination can come from one or many different sources including:
- engine oil or exhaust
- hydraulic fluid,
- ground service vehicles
These fumes are said to smell musty or moldy (or, more recognizably, like dirty socks) and can contain carbon monoxide. When in-flight, the air in the cabin contains less oxygen than it does on the ground which can cause exposure to carbon monoxide and other toxins to cause severe symptoms like headache, fainting, and slowed thought processes.
You may not think of pesticides as being problematic on an airplane. The reality is that some countries require that flights coming in are treated with pesticides. The intentions are good: to prevent the spread of insects and diseases carried by them, like the Zika virus. However, the symptoms — including headaches, nausea, respiratory illness, and skin and eye irritation — are not.
Though typically this process, called disinsection, is done before or after passengers are on the plane, there is still the potential for coming into contact with these harmful pesticides because you may touch surfaces on the plane treated with them.
Bacteria or viruses that can cause disease are known as pathogens. Some exposure to pathogens is obvious — like if you’re sitting next to someone who has the flu or symptoms of another contagious illness. Other times, you may be completely unaware of the airborne viruses and bacteria you’re breathing in. Due to the enclosed space in an airplane and the recirculated air, the potential for becoming sick increases dramatically.
How to protect yourself from pollutants in an airplane
Most aircraft have hospital-grade HEPA filters, but they unfortunately may not always work as intended, leaving you potentially exposed to fumes, pesticides, and pathogens. There are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself during airplane travel:
- Be aware of smells and alert a flight attendant if you notice foul odors
- Wash your hands frequently
- Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose with unwashed hands
- Wear a face mask if you’re sick, or if you’re worried about becoming sick from airborne pathogens
Potential pollutants in hotels
Hotels, much like airplanes, are host to plenty of pollutants that can negatively impact your health. These, however, are usually easier to identify and prevent — sometimes even before you arrive.
Exposure to mold can ruin even the most thoughtfully planned summer vacation. For healthy people, it can cause coughing, wheezing, and respiratory irritation. For people with asthma or another lung disease, it can be even more dangerous. While you may think that because hotel rooms are cleaned daily the risk is minimal, it’s more likely that you just won’t see the mold in obvious places like the shower or mini-fridge. That being said, there are places you should always check for mold in a hotel room:
- Windows and window sills
- The mattress
- Air conditioning and heating vents
- Couches, curtains, and bedspreads
Even if you don’t see mold growing, pay attention to how your hotel room smells. A musty odor could indicate that mold is growing in places you wouldn’t expect like behind wallpaper or in the walls and floor.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Formaldehyde, benzene, acetone, and ethylene glycol are just some examples of the potential VOCs lurking in hotel rooms. Since they can be found in almost anything (from cleaning products to the very materials used to build the hotel) and are released into the air as invisible gases, it can be hard to avoid them completely. Toxins from cleaning products and particles of airborne viruses and bacteria can linger in the air of your hotel room. Proper ventilation can help with this.
Even if you’re not a smoker, secondhand cigarette smoke and even the residue of it leftover from past occupants can impact your health, causing irritation and respiratory issues. Be sure to ask for a non-smoking room in a non-smoking section of the hotel. It’s also wise to avoid smoking areas of any kind.
Pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and mold are four of the most common allergens. When you’re looking for a hotel room for summer vacation, check around to see if there are any hotels that offer hypo-allergenic rooms, or rooms with air purifiers. If these aren’t options, look for a pet-free hotel to eliminate pet dander.
How to protect yourself from pollutants at a hotel
- Check for mold before and, if you find some or suspect that it’s present, ask for a different room
- Look for hotels that consider air quality
- Open windows
- Get a non-smoking room
- Ask for a room with an air purifier, if possible
- Bring your own in-room air purifier
- Ask if the hotel uses green cleaning products
- Look for hotels with hypo-allergenic rooms
Potential pollutants at your destination
Where you go for summer vacation will impact the amount and types of pollutants you have to deal with. If you’re in a rural area, you may find that pollen from the trees and grass are more of a problem. In large cities, smog is more likely to be a concern. And if you’re going to spend time in another country, you’ll have to be on the lookout for food and water contaminants. Let’s take a look at all three.
When you think of air pollutants, you probably think of toxic chemicals, not naturally occurring allergens. While people have differing views on whether pollen is or is not a pollutant, there’s no denying that it can affect air quality. Be sure to check pollen counts at your destination. If possible, plan outdoor activities on days when pollen counts are low.
If you’re spending time in a city with a lot of traffic, smog is one pollutant you want to watch out for. Created when different pollutants combine with high temperatures and sunshine, smog is especially harmful if you have existing allergies or asthma. Even if you don’t, smog can cause respiratory illness — not exactly the souvenir you want to go home with.
Food and water contaminants
Undeniably, enjoying delicious meals is one of the best parts of summer vacation. If you’re traveling in the United States, this isn’t likely something you need to worry about. For international trips, you’ll want to be aware — the contaminants in food and water can cause health problems that range from unpleasant to serious. Raw foods including meat, fruits, and vegetables should be avoided. Street food, while risky, isn’t always unsafe but it’s important to use your best judgment and make sure that the vendor operates in a clean space and cooks all food right before you eat it. Bottled water, canned soda, and hot drinks are fine most of the time but you’ll want to avoid drinking tap water or ice that’s made from it.
How to protect yourself from pollutants at your destination
- Check air quality reports for where you’re traveling
- Avoid raw foods
- Drink bottled water
- Limit strenuous outdoor activities when pollution levels are high
- If you have asthma, take your inhalers and medications
- Try to find access to cool, indoor places
- Check for travel advisories or travel health warnings before you plan a trip
Thinking about pollutants while traveling is no one’s idea of a good time. But to ensure you can actually enjoy your summer vacation, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on the types of pollutants you may encounter and decide on effective strategies for lowering your health risk. A little forethought can eliminate all kinds of health problems and ensure you have a safe, healthy, and happy vacation.