Airborne Pollution and Your Health
Airborne pollution can affect your health, especially if you suffer from pre-existing conditions such as asthma. Airborne pollution includes natural dust and mold, but also carbon monoxide, car fumes, and more. Learn how to protect your health from airborne pollution and how to improve the air quality around you with our helpful guide below
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UPDATED: Nov 16, 2020
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Contamination of the air, typically by substances generated by man, is known as air pollution. When people think of air pollution, most often it is the outdoor kind, such as smog, that comes to mind. While that is problematic and a legitimate cause for concern, it is not the only type of air pollution.
Indoor air pollution is also a concern and is found in homes, schools, and places of employment. Both types of pollutants can cause a number of health problems for adults and children.
In fact, exposure to indoor air pollutants and the associated health risks are often greater than exposure to outdoor contaminants. This is because the time spent indoors, where there is often minimal or poor air circulation, is greater than the time spent outdoors.
Causes of Air Pollution
There are a variety of known sources of air pollution. These sources vary depending on whether it is outdoors or indoors. Cars, for example, are a leading source of outdoor pollution. The exhaust from motor vehicles releases carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, and other harmful chemicals, into the atmosphere.
Manufacturing plants, fuel production, and waste in landfills are just a few of the other causes of chemicals that pollute the atmosphere. The incomplete combustion of fuel releases carbon monoxide, a gas that has no odor or color.
This gas is a pollutant that can be found both indoors and outdoors. Carbon monoxide comes from not only cars that burn fuel, but also from lanterns, charcoal grills, generators, wood-burning fireplaces, stoves, and gas ranges.
Dust is a pollutant that is also found both in and outdoors. Indoor dust is composed of skin flakes, animal dander, parts from insects, such as dust mites or even cockroaches, mold, and saliva.
Other substances can contribute to indoor dust as well, including particles from furniture fibers and stuffing, plant materials, and substances such as body powders and detergents. Dust mites are a type of insect that is too small to be seen by the naked eye. They feed primarily on skin flakes, and when they die their parts disintegrate and contribute to the dust found in homes.
Mold is a fungus that thrives in moist, dark, and warm locations and releases spores and a toxic substance known as mycotoxins into the air. It can be found inside homes and buildings and outdoors.
In buildings, mold is found in humid areas, such as the bathroom. It can also be found outdoors in shaded areas. Asbestos is a toxic fiber that used to be popular for its heat-resistant nature. It was commonly used during the construction of older homes and buildings. It becomes a pollutant when it is disturbed either when a building is demolished, or through the course of repairs, or through deterioration.
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How Air Pollutants Affect Health
Exposure to air pollutants often has a detrimental effect on one’s health and can be worse for children and older adults. Health problems can manifest in different ways. This is often dependent on the pollutant, the degree of exposure, and the source.
Many air pollutants affect the lungs and the respiratory system. The air that a person breathes must pass through the respiratory system, which is sensitive to airborne pollutants. This creates a number of problems that include bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, emphysema, or chronic respiratory disease.
For people who already suffer from respiratory problems and allergies, pollutants can make them worse. A person exposed to high concentrations of pollutants, such as smog, may experience wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, tearing and eye irritation.
Cancer is another potential health problem that comes from exposure to airborne pollutants. A person exposed to second-hand smoke, for example, may develop lung cancer. Asbestos and fiberglass, which is a type of glass wool fiber used for baths and piping, may also cause cancer. Fiberglass may also cause respiratory, skin and eye irritation.
People that are exposed to high amounts of air pollution are also at risk for cardiovascular problems, such as stroke or coronary artery disease. Undetected carbon monoxide in the home can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Because this gas is odorless and tasteless, a person can be exposed to it without their knowledge. A person who is suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning may experience a headache, confusion, dizziness or nausea, and eventual death if it is not treated.
Signs of Air Pollution
The signs of air pollution are not always as obvious as a person might think. Certain types of pollutants, such as smoke, smog, and visible mold are obvious and easily identified. Other times, pollutants such as carbon monoxide can only be detected by carbon monoxide detectors or by knowledge of possible symptoms.
If a person experiences certain symptoms in a building that disappear when he or she leaves, it likely an indicator that some kind of indoor pollution is the culprit. If mold is present, but cannot be seen, there may be a musty smell or a mildew odor. Visible dust is also a sign of airborne pollutants. Outside the sky may seem gray or have a hazy, dirty appearance on days where pollution is high.
How to Protect Air Quality
Protecting the air is a responsibility that everyone must take seriously. Outdoor air quality can be improved by reducing the amount of time spent driving. This may require exploring alternate means of transportation, such as riding a bicycle or taking public transportation. Driving a vehicle that does not rely entirely on fossil fuels, such as hybrid or electric vehicles, is also a way to contribute to the reduction of air pollutants.
Ceasing personal activities that increase pollution can also help. The cessation of cigarette smoking, for example, can reduce air pollution both indoor and outdoors. Vacuuming and dusting on a regular basis will help reduce exposure to dust and dust mites. Remove mold using warm water and soap or a solution made of diluted bleach.
People can also test their homes for radon, which is an odorless and colorless gas that can cause cancer. Home testing kits are typically sold at home improvement stores. After following the testing instructions, the samples are then sent to the designated laboratory for evaluation.
Older homes should be checked by a certified inspector for asbestos. Keeping homes and building well-ventilated will help protect the quality of indoor air.
- Air Quality Index (AQI) – A Guide to Air Quality and Your Health
- Spare The Air
- The American Lung Association: In-Depth Resources
- Indoor versus Outdoor Air: What’s the Difference?
- Indoor Biological Pollutants
- Air Pollution, Asthma and Allergy
- Childhood Asthma Linked to Freeway Pollution
- Medline Plus: Indoor Air Pollution
- Indoor Air Quality
- Air Pollution Impacts on Infants and Children
- What Are the Six Common Air Pollutants?
- Indoor Air Quality: Dust and Molds
- Lead and Air Quality
- Sulfur Dioxide
- Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)
- Carbon Monoxide – Your Safe Home
- Carbon Monoxide Questions and Answers
- Ozone, Air Quality, and Asthma
- Smoking – Health Risks
- What is Smog?
- Indoor Air Pollution: A Global Tragedy
- Air Pollution & Respiratory Health
- How Can Air Pollution Hurt My Health?
- Asbestos Fact Sheet: General Information and History
- Albert Einstein College of Medicine: Fiberglass
- Science Daily: We’re Surrounded! House Dust Is A Rich Source Of Bacteria
- House Dust Mites
- WebMD – Breathe Easy: 5 Ways To Improve Indoor Air Quality
- How To Protect Yourself From Air Pollution