As global concerns over air quality increases, more and more people are beginning to see the link between air pollution and health problems. There is growing evidence that supports a relationship between air pollution exposure and respiratory conditions, heart attacks, strokes, cancer and other medical issues. In the U.S. alone, air pollution is responsible for over 100,000 deaths a year, according to the Health Effects Institute’s 2019 State of Global Air.
As individuals, it is easy to feel powerless when it comes to reducing outdoor air pollution, however there are steps you can take to avoid bad air and improve the quality of air that you breathe in each day. Awareness is the key, and when you better understand how you are exposed to air pollution, you can figure out the best ways to steer clear. We have compiled some of our top air quality tips that you can use to start breathing easier today.
What causes air pollution?
Air pollution stems from a variety of sources, both natural and man-made. To increase public awareness, news reports of the health effects of exposure to air pollution has increased in recent years—as a result, we now have a good understanding of where most air pollution comes from.
When it comes to outdoor air pollution, some of the primary sources include:
- Traffic exhaust: According to the EPA, some of the main pollutants from traffic exhaust include particulate matter, benzene, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. Plus, some of the compounds in exhaust fumes can react with chemicals in the air to form nitrogen dioxide and ozone, two additional pollutants with known health effects.
- Industrial pollution: Pollutants from industrial complexes can include carbon monoxide, ozone, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). These harmful substances can be absorbed by your skin as well as your respiratory system (Eom et al., 2018).
- Combustion: Combustion, whether from coal burning, wildfires, outdoor barbecues or indoor fires, produces a host of airborne pollutants, including carbon monoxide, gaseous chemicals and particulate matter, according to the EPA.
- Weather: The weather can also have a significant impact on the concentration of pollutants in the air. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), sunshine can react with compounds in the air to form smog, and higher air temperatures can speed up these reactions. Additionally, a phenomenon called “temperature inversion” can trap surface air near the ground and keep it from rising. When the air becomes stagnant during an inversion, pollutant concentrations can build up to dangerous levels.
Indoor air pollution can be just as harmful to your health as outdoor air pollution, this can be because of poor ventilation causing further buildup of indoor air pollutants. Common causes of indoor air pollution include:
- Smoke in the area: Outdoor smoke can come from wildfires, barbecues and firewood burning. Additionally, car exhaust fumes and smog can be a problem for those that live or work near busy roads. When outdoor air pollution is high, pollutants can easily come inside through open windows and doors, decreasing your indoor air quality.
- Cooking: You may be surprised by the many sources of pollution in the kitchen. Whether you are cooking with a natural gas stove, deep frying on an electric stove, or cleaning your oven, you could be creating harmful levels of pollution in your home. A 2001 report published by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) found that normal cooking activities can quickly cause kitchen air to exceed their Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) guidelines.
- Arts, crafts and construction projects: Whether your activities are creative, practical or both, they can create particulate matter and VOCs in your home. Air pollution sources include paints, glue, sandpaper debris and sawdust.
- Off-gassing: New furniture, electronics, flooring and even children’s toys can off-gas, or release, harmful VOCs, such as toluene, benzene, formaldehyde and styrene.
Other sources of indoor air pollution include household cleaning products and chemicals, personal care products, pollen, pet dander and fur, dust mites and mold spores.
Outdoor air pollution solutions
Sometimes, even the most health-conscious individuals can forget to take air pollution into account when planning outdoor activities. Avoiding bad air days is especially important for children, older people, those with lung or heart conditions, and pregnant women, who may be more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. To enjoy your time outdoors while minimizing your air pollution exposure, try the following tips:
- Change your outdoor commute and exercise routes. Even within your city, air pollution concentrations can vary greatly from one street to the next, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. By staying away from the busiest routes, including designated truck routes, you can decrease the amount of traffic pollution that you breathe in. Changing the time of your outdoor activities can help too. Traffic pollution usually peaks during rush hours and times of temperature inversion. Research your local weather conditions to see if inversions are an issue where you live.
- Change your car’s cabin filter regularly. Traffic pollution can quickly become concentrated inside of a sealed vehicle. To protect yourself from pollution while driving, try avoiding busy streets, switching to a HEPA cabin filter or a filter with carbon, and set your car’s air to recirculate in high-pollution areas.
- Check the Air Quality Index (AQI) in your area. By finding your city’s day-to-day air quality on AirNow, you can plan the safest times to engage in outdoor activities. On bad air quality days, consider switching your workouts to the gym and rescheduling any sports practices and picnics.
- Use a portable air quality monitor. By taking an air quality monitor with you along your commute or exercise paths, you can get an idea of the air pollution hot spots in your area. You can also monitor the differences in pollution on different routes and during different times of the day. While portable air quality monitor technology is still improving, these devices can help you make informed decisions about the time that you spend outside.
A note on pollution masks
Pollution masks, specifically masks rated N95 or higher, can help filter out airborne particles. However, these masks must remain sealed tightly around your face to remain effective, which is often hard to do when moving or talking. They should be used to supplement any other air pollution protections that you have in place, not as your only line of defense.
Indoor air pollution solutions
If you are like most people, chances are you spend much of your day indoors, breathing in any airborne pollutants that exist in your home or office. Fortunately, it is usually easier to control pollution sources in your home than it is to reduce outdoor pollution. We recommend the following solutions:
- Know when outdoor air is bad. Keeping your doors and windows closed during bad air quality days can help keep outdoor pollutants (such as pollen, smog and smoke) from entering your home.
- Do not light a fire at home. Though it may seem like a great way to cozy up with your loved ones during winter, fires produce a wide range of particulate matter and gaseous pollutants. These pollutants will not only increase the air pollution in your home, but in your entire neighborhood as well.
- Vent your natural gas stove. Even though your stove does not produce as much visible smoke as a wood-burning fire, it still creates harmful byproducts that can impact the air quality in your home. Make sure that your kitchen has an exhaust fan and adequate ventilation to keep airborne pollutant concentrations from reaching dangerous levels.
- Go through your cleaning and personal care products. Some of your favorite household products may off-gas harmful VOCs, even when they are not being used. The American Lung Association recommends switching to products labeled no- or low-VOC and avoiding products with fragrances, irritants and flammable ingredients. High-VOC products should be stored away from the home or in a storage closet when not in use.
- Increase ventilation. By increasing the transfer of indoor and outdoor air on good air quality days, you can help lower the concentration of airborne pollutants in your home. You should take special care to increase ventilation when cleaning, cooking, or opening new furniture, electronics or other products that may off-gas VOCs.
- Use an air purifier. An air purifier can help improve the quality of your indoor air. However, you should note that not all types of air purifiers can remove all pollutants. HEPA filters are only effective against particulate matter, while carbon filters can only trap VOCs. Our solution, the Molekule air purifier, uses proprietary PECO technology to trap and destroy pollutants like VOCs.
Exposure to air pollution is dangerous, no matter whether you are in your home or spending time outdoors. However, by learning about the sources of pollution in your life and taking steps to avoid or minimize exposure, you can stay active in protecting your personal health.