By Dr. Mercola
Just two short years ago the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report stating that a mere 12 percent of people living in cities that reported air quality standards were breathing air that met WHO standards.1
The new 2016 report released this month is even worse, as only 8 percent of people worldwide are breathing air that meets WHO standards.2 This means that 92 percent of the world population are breathing polluted air.
A toxic environment is responsible for at least 1 of every 4 deaths reported worldwide.3 Your body is dependent on the air you breathe and poor air quality can cause serious damage to your lungs, heart and other organ systems.
Unfortunately, indoor air quality may be as dangerous as your outside air quality. While poor to middle income countries are suffering from the worst overall air quality,4 the indoor lifestyle in which many Americans live may place them at an even greater risk.5
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poor indoor air quality is one of the top public health risks you face each day. In fact, studies of human exposure demonstrate that indoor pollution levels may be two to five times higher than outdoor levels.6
Air Pollution Rates Are on the Rise Around the World
The WHO air quality measurements were determined using on the ground and satellite data. According to the September 2016 press release:7
“It also represents the most detailed outdoor (or ambient) air pollution-related health data, by country, ever reported by WHO. The model … was developed by WHO in collaboration with the University of Bath, United Kingdom.”
The data suggests the majority of outdoor air pollution sources were from inefficient transportation vehicles, industrial activities, coal-powered plants and burning of household fuel and waste.
This new model is a step toward a better estimation of the impact air pollution has on the global health burden. According to Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, fast action must be taken to reduce the global effects. She states:
"Solutions exist with sustainable transport in cities, solid waste management, access to clean household fuels and cook-stoves, as well as renewable energies and industrial emissions reductions."
Figures May Be Conservative — They Do Not Account for All Air Pollutants
Although these numbers are considerable, the estimates of poor air quality may be conservative, as WHO did not factor in ozone or nitrogen oxides, which are known pollutants. This current report considered elevated air pollution levels of sulphates, black carbon, mineral dust, ammonia, nitrates and sodium chloride.8
Nitrogen oxides are common pollutants emitted from combustion engines, including cars, trucks and diesel engines. Nitrogen oxides are the combination of nitrogen and oxygen gasses that do not normally bind.
However, under high heat conditions, such as a lightning strike or the combustion of coal, oil or gasoline, they readily form and pollute the air.9
When oxygen combines with nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sunlight, ozone is formed.10 This pollutant remains mainly outdoors in more suburban and rural areas, but can be carried long distances by the wind.
Both of these types of air pollution also carry with them dangerous health effects. When WHO measured the air quality and determined the air pollution standards, they used particulate size and density to ascertain which areas of the world carried the greatest risk.11
Particulate Size Matter
In this short video you’ll discover some of the ways particulate matter (PM) that makes up air pollution may be measured. Particulate pollution is a term describing both solid particles and liquid droplets.
Particles like dust, dirt, smoke or soot are large enough to be seen with the naked eye while other particles are so small you need an electron microscope to see them.
The size of the smaller, inhalable particles is usually less than 10 micrometers. To put this in perspective, the diameter of the average hair shaft is 70 micrometers, making your hair seven times larger than the largest inhalable particulate.
Fine particulate matter, which is less than 2.5 micrometers in size, is responsible for reduced visibility and is the most dangerous type of air pollution.12 Also labeled PM2.5, these molecules are so small, they may be inhaled deep into your lungs and even make it into your bloodstream.
In the U.S., the EPA monitors air pollution. On-road and off-road vehicles are the primary contributors to carbon monoxide emissions. Sulfur dioxide is released with fuel combustion from electric generators and industrial and residential boilers using coal as the fuel source.
Airplanes,13,14 industrial processes and fuel combustion all contribute to the release of toxic pollution into the air.
Deadly Effects of Breathing Polluted Air
This short video explains the relationship between particulates and your health. Poor outdoor air quality has been linked to health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and stroke, and is responsible for at least 3 million deaths a year. Nearly two-thirds are in the Western Pacific region of the world, and Southeastern Asia.15
Poor outdoor air quality has also been linked to both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, such as asthma and lung cancer.16 According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), air pollution that originates from industrial exhaust and traffic is also linked to bladder cancer.
Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC monographs section assessing evidence and publishing official warnings, was quoted in the Guardian saying:17
"The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances. We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths."
Jim Zhang, Ph.D., Professor of Global and Environmental Health at Duke University and one of the officially recognized contributors to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change, said to CNN:18
"We also have data to show how PM2.5 affects the lung and the cardiovascular health. For example, PM2.5 exposure increases tissue and systemic inflammation, increases oxidative damage to DNA and cell membrane lipids, increases the risk for thrombosis. We also started to see cumulating evidence that PM2.5 lowers birth weight and impairs metabolic, cognitive and immune function."
The American Lung Association reports that air pollution may be associated with:19
✓ Developmental delays in children
✓ Premature death
✓ Reproductive health problems
✓ Increased susceptibility to infections
✓ Wheezing and shortness of breath
✓ Lung tissue redness and swelling
✓ Cardiovascular health concerns
Air Quality Is Becoming Worse, Not Better
New estimates of health effects related to air pollution are not based on the rising rates of pollution, but rather on a better understanding of the link between disease and poor air quality. A 2008 report from WHO estimated 1.3 million deaths would be related to pollution,20 while the 2014 report stated 7 million deaths could be attributed to air pollution in 2012.21
In an interview on CNN, Neira said, "What is still surprising is the fact that we have been alerting about these horrible figures for a while now, and it's not improving."22
According to statistics from WHO, air pollutions levels rose by 8 percent between 2008 and 2013, although some regions of the world showed improvements in their air quality. According to Dr. Carlos Dora, coordinator for environmental and social determinant of health at WHO, rich countries are getting better at controlling air pollution, while poorer countries are actually getting worse.23
Dora explained that air quality in Europe was suffering due to their reliance on diesel powered cars and farming policies that were generating more ammonia and methane gases.
Stuart Batterman, Ph.D., professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, believes the air pollutants that affect more of the U.S. are particulates such as ozone.24 In an attempt to help countries improve their air quality, WHO has called for an assessment of the sources of air pollution to be shared with policy makers in the respective countries in an effort to support change.
Your Indoor Air Is Likely More Polluted Than Outside
As dangerous as outdoor air may be, your indoor air quality could be even worse. Pollution in your home may come for a variety of sources, including your furniture, cabinets, and materials used to construct the building you are spending your time in. These can release VOCs that have both short- and long-term health effects.
Higher fuel costs and the drive toward greater efficiency may also increase your risk of indoor pollution. Some newer homes include instruction manuals teaching the home owner to properly ventilate the home to reduce indoor pollution.25 These airtight homes have lower utility costs, but hold an increased health risk for the occupants when not ventilated correctly. The number of products in your home that release VOCs number in the thousands and include:26
✓ Paints, paint strippers and solvents
✓ Wood preservatives
✓ Moth repellents, air fresheners and aerosol sprays of various kinds
✓ Stored fuels and car products
✓ Dry-cleaned clothing
✓ Copier and printer fluids
✓ Graphic and craft materials
✓ Building materials
✓ Correction fluid
✓ Hobby supplies
✓ Wood glue
✓ Permanent markers
✓ Pressed wood products made with MDF board
✓ Household cleaning products
What Can You Do to Improve Your Air Quality?
The good news is you can make a significant difference in the air quality both at home and at work, no matter the age of the building. According to research led by scientists from the University of Illinois, improvements to older buildings, producing better air quality, resulted in fewer reports of headaches and respiratory problems and less psychological stress.27
Here are several changes you can make to your own home, or suggest be made to your employer’s building. Most are very cost effective in the short run and may help significantly reduce your healthcare costs in the long run.
✓ Monitor the Air Quality
While there is no safe threshold for particulate matter and air pollution, monitoring the levels in your home and workplace may help identify contaminants and may give you an indication of the effect your changes make on indoor air quality.
✓ Filter Your Air
Commercially purchased air filters may change measurements of health, include lowering the amount of C-reactive protein and other measurements of inflammation and blood vessel function.28
Not all filters work with the same efficiency to remove pollutants from your home and no one filter can remove all pollutants. See this article for an explanation of the different types of air filters to meet your specific needs.
✓ Filter Your Water
You may already filter your drinking water, but do you filter the water from your shower? President Obama’s Cancer Panel recommends you use filters for your drinking water and shower to filter chlorine.29
During a 10-minute shower you can absorb 100 times more chlorine than you would drinking 1 gallon of water. Chlorine becomes airborne during a shower, and combined with high humidity levels in the bathroom increases the amount of chlorine you inhale.
Shop for a filter with NSF/ANSI 177: Shower Filtration Systems-Aesthetic Effects. These filters are tested by a third party to effectively remove chlorine.30,31
✓ Decorate With Plants
House plants are as functional as they are decorative. They brighten your space and purify your air. Research also demonstrates that greenery in your environment improves your mental and emotional health.
These are the top 10 plants to improve air quality:32 aloe, English ivy, rubber tree, peace lily, snake plant, bamboo palm, philodendron, spider plant, red-edge dracaena and golden pathos.
✓ Remove Harsh Cleaning Products and Scented Chemicals
Most over-the-counter and grocery store cleaning products contain chemicals that contribute to poor indoor air quality. Air fresheners and scented candles can contain VOCs that pollute the air in your home.
The American Lung Association recommends reducing the amount of VOCs in your home by reading labels and purchasing products low in chemicals. Soap and water, or vinegar and baking soda can serve as inexpensive alternatives.33
✓ Open the Windows
One of the easiest ways to reduce the pollutants in your home is to open the windows. Because most newer homes are energy efficient and have little leakage, even opening a window 15 minutes a day can improve the quality of the air you breathe.
✓ Service Your Appliances
A poorly maintained furnace, space heater, hot water heater, water softener, natural gas heater or stove and other fuel burning appliances may leak carbon dioxide or nitrogen dioxide. Have your appliances serviced per the manufacturer’s recommendations to reduce potential indoor air pollution.34
✓ Take Precautions Around Busy Streets
Car exhaust fumes contain both large and small particulate pollutants that may enter your car or travel into your home.35 Choose a place to live away from busy streets in order to ventilate your home without car pollution.
When in busy traffic, shut your car windows and don’t use the function on the heating and air conditioning that brings in air from the outdoors.