By Dr. Mercola
That air pollution is a source of toxic exposure that can lead to ill health should come as no surprise. What may surprise you is just how great a toll it actually takes.
According to a recent report1,2,3,4 on environmentally related deaths by the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 4 deaths are related to living and working in a toxic environment—with air pollution being the greatest contributor to this risk.
Meanwhile, thanks to improved sanitation, mosquito nets, and access to safe water, communicable infectious diseases like malaria have decreased, although they still account for one-third of the global death toll each year.
Environmental Pollution Now a Greater Threat Than Communicable Diseases
According to WHO's report, air pollution is a major contributor to diseases such as lung and respiratory infections, heart disease, and cancer. (Water pollution was found to be a significant contributor to diarrheal diseases and infant mortality.)
Of the top environmentally related deaths in 2012, stroke came in at No. 1, followed by heart disease. According to Dr. Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the WHO:
"There's an urgent need for investment in strategies to reduce environmental risks in our cities, homes, and workplaces.
Such investments can significantly reduce the rising worldwide burden of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, injuries, and cancers, and lead to immediate savings in healthcare costs."
WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan adds:
"A healthy environment underpins a healthy population. If countries do not take actions to make environments where people live and work healthy, millions will continue to become ill and die too young."
During the World Health Assembly in May, WHO has vowed it "will propose a roadmap to increase the global response by the health sector to reduce the effects of air pollution."
Brazilian City Demonstrates How Affirmative Action Pays Off
The report did include some good news though. A number of cities around the world have tackled environmental pollution head on, and the effects are readily observable. As reported by Global Post:5
"The WHO highlighted the example of the Brazilian city of Curitiba, where authorities are investing heavily in slum improvements, waste recycling, public transport and pedestrian walkways to encourage people to walk and cycle more.
Despite a five-fold population increase in the past 50 years, air pollution levels are comparatively lower than in many other rapidly growing cities and life expectancy is two years longer than the national average..."
Even Short-Term Air Pollution Exposure May Affect Your Diabetes Risk
While they're not sure of the mechanism behind this link, Mexican-Americans living in southern California were found to have an increased risk of high cholesterol, impaired blood sugar control, and insulin resistance after short-term exposure to air contaminants.
Lead author Dr. Frank Gilliland suggests inflammation may be the trigger — a hypothesis supported by previous research. As noted by Reuters:7
"[P]revious research has linked air pollution from traffic and other sources to an increased risk of type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes...PM 2.5 exposure was significantly associated with diabetes risk factors, with an effect equivalent to that of obesity..."
PM 2.5 refers to things like dust, dirt, soot, and smoke — particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These particulates can enter your system and cause chronic inflammation, which in turn increases your risk of any number of health problems, not just diabetes.
Air Pollution and Noise Pollution: A Double Whammy to Your Heart
Air pollution and noise pollution often go hand-in-hand, as some of the most heavily air-polluted areas are also those near loud busy roadways and airports.
Interestingly, earlier research has found that both air and noise pollution is independently associated with heart risks, specifically subclinical atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
In a German study8 of more than 4,200 people, researchers used a measure of arterial hardening known as "thoracic aortic calcification" (TAC) to estimate heart risks.
Exposure to fine particle air pollution increased TAC scores by nearly 20 percent while exposure to noise pollution increased TAC by about 8 percent.
This was after controlling for other variables that may influence heart health, such as age, gender, smoking, physical activity, alcohol use and more. What this means is that people living in high-risk areas need to account for both types of pollution to protect their heart health.
If you have an existing heart condition, air pollution becomes an even significant consideration. Previous research9 has shown that breathing exhaust fumes from heavy traffic may trigger a heart attack among this population – a risk that continues for up to 6 hours after exposure.
Simply sitting in heavy traffic has even been found to triple the risk of suffering from a heart attack, courtesy of the exhaust fumes.10
Interestingly, both fine particle matter air pollution and noise pollution are believed to increase your cardiovascular disease risk through similar biologic pathways, including by causing an imbalance in your autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Your ANS is intricately involved in regulating biological functions such as blood pressure, blood sugar levels, clotting and viscosity. As the researchers noted, "both exposures seem to be important and both must be considered on a population level, rather than focusing on just one hazard."
Pigeons Enlisted to Monitor Air Pollution in London
To raise awareness about air pollution in London, engineers at Plume Lab came up with a novel campaign. Pigeons carrying small backpacks equipped with air quality measuring devices were trained to fly "at strategic heights" over London during rush hour traffic. The equipment then automatically sent out the readings over Twitter.
According to the Christian Science Monitor:11
"The three-day campaign – ending Wednesday [March 16]– asks Londoners to help gather detailed, on-the-go, air-quality information by wearing similar sensing technology after the pigeons finish their rounds."
The "Pigeon Air Control" campaign was a temporary one, but Plume Lab has also created an app12 you can download to keep tabs of your local air quality. A number of major cities around the world are included, and the tech company is working on adding more locations.
If you live in London and want to get a personal sensor to help monitor your air quality, you can find more information on Plume Lab's air patrol crowdfunding site.13
Common Sense Precautions to Limit Exposure to Air Pollution
According to Michael Jerrett, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California, people living in areas with high air pollution would be wise to take some common sense precautions to limit their exposure, such as:14
- Limit outdoor exercise during peak commuting hours
- Avoid running or riding your bike along major highways
- Indoors, use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter on your furnace and/or air conditioning unit. Alternatively, use a stand-alone unit
Pay attention to the Air Quality Index15 (AQI), released by the EPA to calculate five major air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. If the AQI in your area is high, it may be wise to stay indoors as much as possible (provided you've taken steps to improve your indoor air quality as much as possible). At the very least, avoid exercising outdoors when air pollutants are high, such as during rush-hour traffic.
If you live in a heavily polluted area, your best option is to move, but I realize that isn't always a practical option. For most people, the best you can do is focus your attention on your immediate environment, which you have far more control over. The most effective way to improve your indoor air quality, for instance, is to control or eliminate as many sources of pollution as you can first.
Common Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
A shocking 2009 study16 that examined the air inside 52 ordinary homes near the Arizona-Mexico border found indoor air was far more contaminated than previously imagined. A whopping 586 chemicals were identified, including the pesticides diazinon, chlorpyrifos and DDT.
Phthalates were also found in very high levels. Even more disturbing, they detected 120 chemicals they couldn't even identify! So, what might you be breathing inside your home? The following table is a summary of some of the most common pollutants and toxic particles found in indoor air, and their sources.
Pollutants Sources Molds Water damage, high humidity regions, and humid areas of homes, like bathrooms and basements; most common molds are Aspergillus, Stachybotrys, and Penicillium; Aspergillus is a primary food for dust mites. Bioaerosols (Biocontaminants such as airborne bacteria, viruses, etc.) Humans, pets, moist surfaces, humidifiers, ventilation systems, drip pans, cooling coils in air handling units (can cause Legionnaires' disease and "humidifier fever") Combustion By-products (PAH, CO, CO2, NOx) Unvented kerosene and gas heaters, gas appliances, fireplaces, chimneys and furnaces, tobacco smoke, automobile exhaust from attached garages Tobacco Smoke (including second-hand smoke) Cigarettes, cigars, pipes can release mixtures of over 4,000 compounds Formaldehyde Pressed wood products (hardwood, plywood, fiberboard, etc.), urea-formaldehyde foam insulation, mattresses, clothing, nail polish, permanent press textiles, glue and adhesives, stoves, fireplaces, automobile exhaust Arsenic Pressure-treated wood products used for decks and playground equipment are often treated with arsenic-containing pesticides. Fluoridated water can also be a source of arsenic Other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) Paints, solvents, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, cleaners and disinfectants, copy machines/printers/faxes, carpets, moth repellents, air fresheners, dry cleaned clothes, hobby supplies Phthalates (plasticizers) Vinyl flooring, food packaging, shower curtains, wall coverings, adhesives, detergents, personal care products, toys, PVC pipe Pesticides Pest control poisons, garden and lawn chemicals Asbestos Deteriorating or damaged insulation, fireproofing, or acoustical materials Heavy Metals (lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, etc.) Paints, cars, tobacco smoke, soil and dust; huge industrial pollutants Radon (a radioactive gas that comes from uranium) Building materials such as granite, well water, soil, outside air, smoke detectors, certain clocks and watches.
Hazardous levels of radon can be found in nearly 1 out of every 15 American homes, and radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.
Tips to Improve Your Indoor Air Quality
To improve the air quality in your home, open a few windows for five to 10 minutes each day, preferably on opposite sides of the house to create cross ventilation. Even if outdoor air quality is poor, indoor air can be 5 to 10 times more polluted, so getting rid of that stale air can be an important and simple step.
Next, since it is impossible to eliminate ALL air contaminants, one of the best things you can do is incorporate a high-quality air purifier. My recommendations for air purifiers have changed over the years, along with the changing technologies and newly emerging research.
There are so many varieties of contaminants generated by today's toxic world that air purification manufacturers are in a constant race to keep up with them, so it pays to do your homework. At present, air purifiers using Photo Catalytic Oxidation (PCO) appear to be among the best. These units use light to destroy air pollutants, rendering them harmless.17
Aside from using an air purification system, there are a number of other steps you can take to improve your air quality and greatly reduce the amount of air pollutants generated in your home:
Vacuum regularly using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner. Standard bag or bagless vacuum cleaners are a major contributor to poor indoor air quality.
A regular vacuum cleaner typically has about a 20-micron tolerance. Although that's tiny, far more microscopic particles flow right through the vacuum cleaner than it actually picks up.
Beware of cheaper knock-offs that profess to have "HEPA-like" filters—get the real deal.
HEPA filters do a great job picking up small particles, but some are too small even for a HEPA. These include volatile organic compounds (VOCs). To filter these out, activated carbon filters are typically recommended.18
Switch to non-toxic cleaning products (such as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and vinegar) and safer personal care products.
Avoid aerosols, commercial air fresheners, and scented candles, which can out-gas thousands of different chemicals.
Look for VOC-free cleaners.
Houseplants can markedly improve the air indoors. For tips and guidelines, see my previous article The 10 Best Pollution-Busting Houseplants. Avoid powders. Talcum and other personal care powders can be problematic as they float and linger in the air after each use. Many powders are allergens due to their tiny size, and can cause respiratory problems. Take your shoes off as soon as you enter the house, and leave them by the door to prevent tracking in toxic particles. Don't hang dry-cleaned clothing in your closet immediately. Hang them outside for a day or two.
Better yet, see if there's an eco-friendly dry cleaner in your city that uses some of the newer dry cleaning technologies, such as liquid CO2.
Discourage or even better, forbid, tobacco smoking in or around your home. Upgrade your furnace filters. Today, there are more elaborate filters that trap more of the particulates. Have your furnace and air conditioning ductwork and chimney cleaned regularly.
Also ensure your combustion appliances are properly vented.
Avoid storing paints, adhesives, solvents, and other harsh chemicals in your house or in an attached garage. Avoid using nonstick cookware, which can release toxins into the air when heated. Make sure your house has proper drainage and its foundation is sealed properly to avoid mold formation. For more information about the health dangers of mold and how to address it, please see this previous article. Regularly air out your car, especially if it's new. Chemicals from plastics, solvents, carpet and audio equipment add to the toxic mix in your car's cabin.
That "new car smell" can contain up to 35 times the health limit for volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), "making its enjoyment akin to glue-sniffing."17