The Air You Breathe Is More Polluted Than You Know

breathing polluted air

Story at-a-glance -

  • Your life depends on the air you breathe, which data demonstrates has an increasing load of ozone pollution, increasing the risk of respiratory illnesses, especially in children
  • Nearly half of Americans are breathing polluted air, increasing potential risk for autism, heart disease, cancers, stroke and infertility
  • Your kitchen cabinets may be a significant source of the carcinogenic flame-retardant chemical PCB, as the sealants degrade over time
  • Simple strategies to improve your air quality at home include opening your windows, decorating with plants, servicing your appliances and installing water filtration devices

By Dr. Mercola

Your life depends on the air you breathe. Your body is so dependent on oxygen, you can go only a few minutes without air. The quality of air affects your respiratory system and your overall health. Unfortunately, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 92 percent of the world breathes polluted air1 and nearly 7 million deaths are attributed to air pollution each year.2

From several sociological studies,3 researchers determined the average time a person living in the U.S. spends inside has remained stable for decades. The data indicates those who are employed spend 2 percent of their time outside, 6 percent in transit and nearly 92 percent of their time indoors.

This means your indoor air quality is more important to your overall health than ever before. However, some indoor pollutants may be as much as 100 times higher than outdoor levels as many of today's homes are nearly airtight to achieve energy efficiency.4 According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poor indoor air quality is one of the top public health risks.5

According to WHO, air pollution is a major contributor to respiratory infections, heart disease and cancer. In a collaborative effort of more than 40 researchers looking at data from 130 countries, the scientist called air pollution the “largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today.”6 In 2015 nearly 16 percent of all deaths worldwide were attributed to air pollution, accounting for three times more than deaths related to AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

The most dangerous air pollution is fine particulate matter (PM) which refers to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5). These particles are small enough to pass through lung tissue and enter your bloodstream triggering chronic inflammation and chronic disease. According to the most recent research, more Americans are breathing polluted air than ever before, despite efforts from automobile and manufacturing industries to reduce emissions.7

Nearly Half of Americans Breathe Polluted Air

As you look outside your window, it's likely the air you see and breathe is cleaner than it was decades ago. Since 1980 levels of some air pollution have fallen.8 Smog covering cities like Los Angeles are on the decline. It might be tempting to assume America won the war on pollution, but the American Lung Association (ALA) finds this is not the case.9 In their State of the Air report, the ALA finds nearly 148 million Americans live in areas where air pollution is at unhealthy levels and simply breathing may be dangerous.10

What's worse, the report also demonstrates some aspects of air quality have been deteriorating in the past years instead of improving. Although some improvements have been recorded as coal-fired power plants have reduced their level of particulate pollution, and particulates have fallen as a whole since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the ALA report clearly demonstrates ozone pollution is once again on the rise.11

Ozone levels had spiked in the United States in 2016, which marked the nation’s second hottest year on record. Of the 25 cities with the highest levels, 16 suffered an increase in the number of high-level ozone days and many of those were located in California. As levels of “dirty” air pollution are decreasing, particulate pollution from ozone is rising. Report author Janice Nolan, assistant vice president of the national policy for the ALA commented:12

“As heat increases, ozone forms more rapidly, so we had more cities with more ozone days. We saw a lot of evidence in 2016 of the impact climate change and global warming is going to have on us. Air quality would get worse in many places. There are a lot of subtle places where the [EPA] could weaken and roll back the progress we have made, and we are very concerned about that.”

The State of the Air report clearly demonstrates progress is being lost, in part from climate change. Rising levels of ozone are linked to warmer temperatures making it tough to fight smog in the future. The ALA report found more than 40 percent of Americans lived in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, increasing risk for premature death, lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular damage and developmental and reproductive harm.13 Writing about the risks of ozone pollution, the ALA report states:14

“Inhaling ozone pollution is like getting a sunburn on the lung. It can trigger coughing and asthma attacks and may even shorten life. Warmer temperatures make ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up.”

Poor Air Quality Increases Risks to Adults and Children

In an evaluation of the effect of air pollution on the respiratory system,15 researchers tracked over 146,000 people, 77 percent of whom were younger than 2 years, who were treated for infections in hospitals and clinics in Utah. At the same time, data was gathered on levels of PM2.5 particulate matter at three locations in the area.

Documenting a substantial variation in levels of PM2.5, researchers found with each increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5, there was up to 23 percent increase in serious respiratory infections.16 Researchers said this was the largest study published to date involving the evaluation of air pollution on children.17

Lead author Benjamin Horne, Ph.D., director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, believes an important finding from the study demonstrated infectious processes may be influenced by air pollution.18 Although the data revealed concerning results, the researchers pointed out the average daily air pollution readings in Utah were lower than those commonly found in Los Angeles or New York.19

Your Kitchen Cabinets May Be Loaded With PCBs

Two primary sources of indoor air pollution are the materials used to construct the building and everything in it, and chemical products you bring into your home, such as hairspray and room deodorizers. Many of these sources release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with short-term and long-term health effects. Formaldehyde, arsenic, flame-retardant chemicals and phthalates are all toxic chemicals found in products in your home.

Flame-retardant chemicals have been identified as one of 17 high priority groups to be avoided to reduce breast cancer20 and which are poisoning pets21 and wildlife.22 In 2015, a coalition of medical consumer worker groups successfully petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban all organohalogens, most commonly used in flame-retardants found in children's products, furniture, mattresses, yoga and exercise mats and electronic casings.23

Among this class of chemicals are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in 1977 due to health concerns.24 Researchers now suggest PCBs, banned nearly four decades ago, may be released from your kitchen cabinets as the sealants break down.25 These PCBs are cancer-causing chemicals and once used in everything from electrical appliances to fluorescent lighting.

The study was performed at the University of Iowa College of Engineering, during which researchers investigated the types and levels of PCBs found in homes.26

Investigators collected data inside and outside 16 homes in Iowa during a six-week period and found three types of PCBs. Interestingly, the homes built more recently had higher levels of the harmful chemicals. In an effort to pinpoint the sources, the researchers tested a variety of household goods and found the highest levels were emitted from kitchen cabinetry.

They suspect the PCBs were a byproduct of the sealants used in the cabinets and emitted as the sealants degraded. Researcher and assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Alicia Timme-Laragy, Ph.D., commented on the types of PCBs found in the homes,27 “This is a really important finding in terms of potential health risks to people and vulnerable populations — and pets. Who would think kitchen cabinets would be a source of PCBs?”

Weakening the Clean Air Act Likely to Trigger Increased Pollution

More than 95 percent of the world's population breathe unsafe air, but the burden is falling hardest on the poorest countries. In a report published by the Health Effects Institute,28 researchers used satellite data to estimate the number of people who breathe air pollution at levels higher than deemed safe by WHO.

Vice president of the Health Effects Institute, Bob O'Keefe, believes the gap between the most polluted air and the least polluted air is striking, as developed countries have made moves to clean up air pollution and developing countries have fallen further behind while concentrating on economic growth.29 The Health Effects Institute report, released almost simultaneously as the ALA State of the Air report, reinforces an increasing weight of data demonstrating how air pollution is contributing toward a rising number of deaths.

Data from satellites and ground monitoring reveal health risks are rising from breathing dirty air. However, while many consumer protection advocacy programs are fighting to clean the air you breathe, it appears efforts led by the Trump administration could lead to worse air quality in America.30 The ALA called out Congress and the EPA in their State of the Air report for six threats to the nation's air quality, including steps being taken by the administration to weaken enforcement of key safeguards required in the Clean Air Act.31

Current legislation to weaken the Clean Air Act include repealing plans to reduce carbon pollution from power plants and removing limits on emissions from oil and gas operations each contribute to increasing particulate air pollution and raising your health risks.32 ALA national president and CEO Harold P. Wimmer said in a press release following the release of the report:33

"The Clean Air Act has saved lives and improved lung health for nearly 50 years. Congress and the EPA are tasked with protecting Americans — including protecting the right to breathe air that doesn't make people sick or die prematurely. We call on President Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and members of Congress to fully fund, implement and enforce the Clean Air Act for all pollutants — including those that drive climate change and make it harder to achieve healthy air for all."

Improve Your Air Quality at Home

There are steps you may consider to improve the quality of air you breathe each day in your own home and thus decrease your exposure to toxins. Many of these strategies are very cost-effective in the short run and may help significantly reduce your health care costs long-term.

Ventilation

One of the simplest and easiest ways to reduce the pollution count in your home is to open the windows. Since most new homes have little air leakage, opening the windows for as little as 15 minutes each day can improve the quality of the air you're breathing. An attic fan may reduce your air conditioning costs and bring in fresh outdoor air. Kitchen and bathroom fans venting outside help remove contaminants from these rooms.34

Some builders are installing Heat Recovery Ventilation systems to help prevent condensation and mold growth and improve indoor air quality in energy efficient homes.35 The same principles apply to ventilating your car. Chemicals from plastics, solvents, carpet and audio equipment in new cars add to the toxic mix in your car's cabin.

The "new car smell" can contain up to 35 times the health limit for VOCs, as discussed in my previous article, “What’s in That New Car Smell?” However, when driving in heavy traffic you’ll want to reduce air pollution from car exhaust by closing your windows and recirculating the air in your car until you are out of traffic.

Purification

An inexpensive method of removing toxins from the air and destressing your environment is using plants as discussed in this short video.36 See my previous article, “12 Healthy Houseplants That Improve Your Indoor Air Quality,” for a list of plants you may consider your home.

High-quality air purifiers using photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) is one of the best technologies available. Rather than merely filtering the air, PCO actually cleans the air using ultraviolet light. Unlike filters, which simply trap pollutants, PCO transforms the pollutants into nontoxic substances. In addition to using them in your home, portable air purifiers are available to take with you when you work or travel.

Filtration

Water filters function to reduce the amount of airborne chlorine during a shower. This, combined with humidity levels in the bathroom, increases the amount of chlorine you inhale.37 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.38

Vacuum your floors regularly using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner or, even better, a central vacuum cleaner which can be retrofitted to your existing house. Standard bag- or bagless vacuum cleaners are another primary contributor to poor indoor air quality. A regular vacuum cleaner typically has about a 20 micron tolerance.

However, far more microscopic particles flow right through the vacuum cleaner than it actually picks up. Beware of cheaper knock-offs professing to have "HEPA-like" filters — get the real deal.

Cleaning

Avoid hanging dry-cleaned clothing in your closet as soon as you bring them home. Instead, hang them outside for an entire day or two if possible. Better yet, see if there's an eco-friendly dry cleaner in your city using some of the newer dry cleaning technologies, such as liquid CO2.

Most cleaning products, air fresheners and scented candles contribute to poor indoor air quality. Research has linked once-weekly use of cleaning products with a 24 to 32 percent higher risk of progressive lung disease.39

Fortunately, there are safe, cost-effective and efficient options, including soap and water, or vinegar and baking soda.40 Strategies in my previous article, "Are Household Products Killing Us?" may help reduce your toxic load. Consider these suggestions to clean your home using simple products you may already have in your cabinets.

  • Borax: Acts as a whitener and will boost your detergent power. Add between one-fourth cup and 1 cup to your laundry, depending on the size of your load.
  • Vinegar: A weak acid, this common liquid is a natural cleaning and deodorizing substance. Consider adding between one-fourth cup and one-half cup to your laundry with your detergent and wash as usual. Don't mix the borax with vinegar in the same load as they neutralize each other. Vinegar is also a good general all-purpose cleaner for your kitchen and bathroom, and works great for cleaning mirrors and windows.
  • Homemade scouring powder: Make your own safe scouring powder for soap scum in the bath by combining two parts baking soda, and one part each of borax and salt.

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.

Your air conditioner may also be a source of dangerous bacteria. On several occasions, outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease have been traced back to contaminated air conditioner units.

Your air conditioner compressor might be outside your house, but inside, often in the attic or basement, is where the condensation occurs. 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 aren't a source of pollution.

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. 

Prevention

Ask smokers to go outside. Secondhand smoke from cigarettes, pipes and cigars contains over 200 known carcinogenic chemicals, endangering your health. Test for radon, a colorless, odorless gas linked to lung cancer. It can get trapped under your home during construction and may leak into your air system over time. Radon testing kits are a quick and cheap way to determine if you are at risk.

Avoid storing paints, adhesives, solvents and other harsh chemicals in your house. If you must have them, keep them in a detached garage or shed. Avoid using cookware with nonstick coating, as these pots and pans can release toxins into the air when heated.

Avoid powders, whether cleansing scrubs, talcum or other personal care powders — these 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.

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