By Dr. Mercola
Nearly 92 percent of the world are breathing air that doesn’t meet the World Health Organization standards for clean air.1 But, your body is dependent on the air you breathe to sustain health and life. Scientists know that poor air quality contributes to serious damage to your heart, lungs and other organ systems, significantly shortening your life.
Both indoor and outdoor air are often dangerously polluted, although with different toxins. Air pollution is a significant health risk, leading to the death of over 6.5 million people worldwide each year, according to a new study from the International Energy Agency.2
The report estimates that premature deaths caused by outdoor pollution will rise from 3 million to 4.5 million by 2040. Although many deaths occur in developing nations, a study from MIT attributes 200,000 early deaths in the U.S. to air pollution, the primary source of which in this study were vehicle emissions.3
Steven Barrett, study author and assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, found those who died early from air pollution died a decade earlier than anticipated.
Air Pollution Linked to Heart Disease
Past research has demonstrated a link between cardiovascular disease and air pollution,4 especially from combustion engines. However, researchers have not identified how those particles inhaled through your lungs affect your blood vessels and heart muscle.
Now, a recent study published by the American Chemical Society has found evidence that may lead to an answer.5 Scientists used human and animal models to evaluate how inhaled microscopic particles, or nanoparticles, travel through the bloodstream, potentially explaining how air pollution affects developing and deteriorating heart disease.6
Air pollution has shortened the lives of nearly 40,000 people in the U.K.,7 which is often attributed to the part it plays in worsening or triggering heart and lung disease.
Researchers used 14 healthy participants, 12 post-surgical participants and several mouse models to study the effect of inhaled gold nanoparticles, previously tested for use in medical imaging and drug delivery. Within 24 hours after inhalation, the particles were detected in both the blood and urine of the participants.
Researchers determined the nanoparticles appeared to have an affinity for accumulating in areas of the vascular system that were damaged or inflamed.8 The results appear to suggest microscopic particles have the ability to access the bloodstream from your lungs and reach susceptible areas of your cardiovascular system.
Interestingly, in some participants the nanoparticles were detectable in the urine three months after testing, suggesting to the researchers that nanoparticles from air pollution may have the potential to make a similar journey in your body. Co-author of the study, Dr. Nicholas Mills, commented:9
"We have always suspected that nanoparticles in the air that we breathe in could escape from the lungs and enter the body, but until now there was no proof. These findings are of wide importance for human health, and we must now focus our attention on reducing emissions and exposure to airborne nanoparticles."
Nanoparticles Have Direct Link to Your Bloodstream Through Your Lungs
Researchers also worked with participants who were scheduled for removal of damaged blood vessels, making them a high risk for stroke and heart attack. On the day before surgery, these participants inhaled gold nanoparticles. Following surgery to remove the damaged blood vessels, researchers analyzed the plaques and found nanoparticles had accumulated in the areas over the prior 24 hours.10
Although some researchers complimented the design and execution of the study, others felt the gold particles did not closely mimic the chemistry of outdoor air pollution, and thus thought it would be difficult to draw conclusions as to how the pollution particulates would act inside the human body.11
What is clear is air pollution does damage your heart and lung tissue. Major components of outdoor air pollution include carbon monoxide, phytochemical oxidants, sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxides and lead.12 Chemicals include inorganic and organic compounds, ranging from those that may be seen by the naked eye to nanoparticles that may easily slip into your bloodstream.13
Diesel Fumes May Damage Your Brain
Diesel fumes and particles from car exhaust contribute to outdoor air pollution as demonstrated in this short video, which looks at outdoor air pollution across the world. Damage to your heart muscle from air pollution begins in your blood vessels. Fumes emitted from diesel-burning engines may also accumulate in your nervous system, causing damage to your brain tissue. If the sheer smell of diesel exhaust isn’t enough to send you running for cover, then you may be exposing your brain to a stress response.14
After only 30 minutes’ exposure to diesel fumes, a study using quantitative electroencephalography demonstrated a significant increase in brain activity in the frontal cortex, corresponding to a stress response in brain activity. Paul Borm, lead researcher from Zuyd University in the Netherlands, commented on the results of this study, saying:15
"We believe our findings are due to an effect nanoparticles or 'soot' particles that are major components of diesel exhaust. These may penetrate to the brain and affect brain function. We can only speculate what these effects may mean for the chronic exposure to air pollution encountered in busy cities where the levels of such soot particles can be very high."
Diesel emissions are high in nitrogen dioxide that may trigger eye, throat and nose irritation, and may also trigger breathing problems in young children.16 However, diesel emissions may also be responsible for autism and schizophrenia in young children who live near busy roads. Long term exposure during brain development may change the way a child’s brain matures.
The authors of the study found that higher exposure during the third trimester was associated with a high rate of autism spectrum disorder diagnosis in the children, suggesting high levels of environmental toxin exposure while the child is developing may interfere with the normal process of brain development.
Indoor Air Pollution May Be Just as Dangerous
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air pollution may be two to five times higher indoors than you experience outside, as I explain in this short video. In fact, some pollutants may be as much as 100 times greater indoors.17 Poor indoor air quality is one of the top risks to public health, as it contributes to the development of dangerous health conditions. As newer homes are more air tight to reduce energy leaks, they also reduce the amount of air exchange.
In fact, some newer homes come with instructions teaching homeowners to properly ventilate the home in order to reduce indoor pollution.18 The problem affects not only residential homes, but also office buildings and schools.
After the installation of a cell tower on the top of a school building outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, students were exposed to diesel fumes as exhaust from a generator was sucked into the building’s ventilation system.19 In a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found a link between exposure to indoor pollution and cognitive function after measuring mental performance of office workers exposed to controlled amounts of indoor pollution.20
Common Indoor Air Pollutants
Many times, your exposure to indoor pollution is not unusual, as in the example above, but rather commonplace, courtesy of everyday items. Some of the more common toxic exposures include:21
✓ Chlorine gas
Steamy showers, evaporating toilet water and aerosolized kitchen sink water all contribute to inhaling chlorine used to treat most city water supplies.
According to the Cancer Panel initiated by President Obama, filtering your drinking water and shower supply may be two of the most important ways you can reduce your potential exposure to toxic chemicals known to cause cancer.22
Look for NSF/ANSI Standard 177 filters, third-party tested, to remove chlorine from your water supply for your shower and drinking water filters.
✓ Radon gas
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is the result of the breakdown of uranium. According to the EPA and Surgeon General’s Office, as many as 20,000 cases of lung cancer a year are attributed to exposure to radon gas.23
Have your home tested as there are no symptoms that alert you to the presence of this gas. Radon mitigation systems help to reduce the amount of gas leaking into your home through your basement.
✓ Volatile organic compounds (VOC)
VOCs, organic compounds released from man-made products, are highly toxic and found in commonly used items in your home. Paint cans, fuel containers in your garage, personal care products, dry cleaned clothes and upholstered furniture are some of the more common reasons VOCs are found indoors.24
Remove paint cans and fuel cans from your home. Replace as many personal products as you can with natural, nontoxic ones. Reduce or eliminate the need to dry clean your clothes by replacing them with clothes you can wash at home.
✓ Flame retardant chemicals
Flame retardants are hormone disruptors and can be found in many household products, including your carpet padding, upholstered furniture and bedding.
These solvent chemicals, which are part of the glycol ether family, can be found in your printer ink cartridges, digital cameras and some chemical carpet cleaners. These solvents have been linked to miscarriages, gene mutation and developmental damage.25 Ensure you are using your printer and camera in well ventilated areas and never use toxic chemicals to clean your carpets.
You may find them sweet smelling, but the chemical composition of most products with fragrance is protected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.26 To achieve the scent, manufacturers may use toluene and benzene — both known to cause cancer.
Many also contain respiratory tract irritants, such as hydrocarbon chemicals. Switch out your room deodorizers for beeswax candles. Choose essential oils for aromatherapy and use natural cosmetics listed in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database.
Found in non-stick cookware, this chemical can pollute the air in your home to the point it may kill your pet bird. It has been linked to obesity, thyroid disease and ADHD. Safer alternatives are ceramic cookware and glass storage containers.
✓ Store cleaners
Most store cleaners contain fragrances, chlorine and other toxic chemicals to get the job done. You can achieve your goals, without the added risk of toxins, by using hydrogen peroxide, water, baking soda and white vinegar.
If you want that clean fresh scent after cleaning, fill a spray bottle with half water and half white vinegar and a slice of orange, lemon, essential oil or sprig of sage to use while cleaning.
Protect Your Health Against Air Pollution
Although the number of potential pollutants is large, there are several strategies you may use to reduce your exposure:
✓ Open your windows
One of the simplest and easiest ways to reduce air pollution in your home is to open the windows and let fresh air in. Since most homes are tightly sealed these days, opening the windows for as little as 15 minutes every day can improve the quality of the air you're breathing.
An attic fan may increase your fresh air and reduce your air conditioning costs. Kitchen and bathroom fans that vent to the outside can help remove contaminants from these rooms.27
✓ Consider a heat recovery ventilator (HRV)
Since most newer homes are more air-tight, making air exchange with outdoor air more difficult, some builders are now installing HRV systems to help prevent condensation and mold growth and improve indoor air quality.28
If you can't afford to install an HRV, open your windows and run the bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans to vent your indoor air to the outside for approximately 15 minutes daily, summer and winter. You might lose a little in electricity costs, but the improvement to your health is worth it.
✓ Decorate with plants
Houseplants are functional decorations that brighten your space and purify the air. Greenery improves your mental and emotional health as well. Try adding an aloe, English ivy, rubber tree, peace lily or snake plant in your home or apartment to improve your air quality and reduce your stress levels.29
✓ Service your fuel-burning appliances
Poorly maintained natural gas heaters and stoves, furnaces, hot water heaters, space heaters, water softeners and other fuel-burning appliances can leak carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.
✓ Keep the humidity below 50 percent indoors
Mold grows in damp and humid environments. Use a dehumidifier and air conditioner to keep your humidity under 50 percent. Keep the units cleaned so they don’t become another source of pollution.
✓ Avoid smoking indoors
Ask smokers to go outside. Secondhand smoke from cigarettes, pipes and cigars contains over 200 known carcinogenic chemicals.
✓ Avoid scented candles, air fresheners and hazardous cleaning supplies
Candles and air fresheners release VOCs into your home. You might enjoy the scent, but it's not worth the risk to your health. Instead, remove garbage from your home as often as necessary and keep soiled laundry away from the living areas. Clean with less hazardous supplies, such as white vinegar and baking soda.30
✓ Clean air ducts and regularly change air filters
The air ducts from your forced air heating and air conditioning units can be a source of pollution in your home. If there is mold growth, a buildup of dust and debris, or if the ducts have become home to vermin, it's time to call a professional and have them cleaned.31 Change your furnace and air filters every three months or earlier if they appear to be dirty.
✓ Roll up your car windows and recirculate the air
Rolling up your car windows and using the recirculation setting when you are in heavy traffic, or stopping frequently at red lights, will reduce your exposure to air pollution from diesel and car exhaust.32,33
Research shows exposure when the windows are open is more than six times greater than for pedestrians at a three- or four-way intersection. While shutting the windows in your car is important to reduce air pollution, in newer and more air-tight cars you may experience a buildup of carbon dioxide.
Too much carbon dioxide in the car may increase your experience of drowsiness, fatigue, confusion, headache and sleepiness.34 These are dangerous symptoms to experience while driving a car. To prevent this from happening, researchers recommend you pull in outside air for one to two minutes every 10 to 15 minutes to facilitate air exchange, while still minimizing over exposure to air pollution.35