Of all the things that are good for our health, oxygen is both the number one necessity, and the one we take most for granted. But that could change, since the air delivering that oxygen is becoming increasingly polluted. A study recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters found that in 2016, 95 percent of the population lived in regions where levels of air pollution were higher than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines deemed to be safe. The researchers also found that in 2016, air pollution reduced the average global life expectancy by about a year (and by more than that for highly polluted countries). So what are the health implications, and what can we do? Take a deep breath and read on.

Woman looking at smoggy view

What Is Air Pollution?

The term “air pollution” just means chemicals or particles present in the air, either as gas, liquids, or solids, that can damage our health. It’s mostly caused by man-made inventions, including emissions from cars, planes, and factories, and even cigarette smoke, although there are also natural sources, such as wildfires and volcanic eruptions. The most dangerous particles — and the ones looked at in the study — are called PM (particulate matter) 2.5, because they are particles smaller than 2.5 microns. To put that in context, a cross-section of the average human hair is 50 microns in diameter. These tiny particles are so dangerous because they can easily get into our lungs.

What Are the Health Risks?

As you might expect, air pollution mainly causes problems in the lungs. Pulmonologist Dr. Norman Edelman, MD, professor at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York and senior scientific advisor to the American Lung Association, says, “Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cardiovascular diseases are the main conditions.” However, some scientists have cautioned that this is just the start. Beth Gardiner, a London-based environmental journalist whose book Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution comes out in 2019, warns, “The effects go much further than breathing problems like asthma. Dirty air is tied to a long list of ailments, including heart attacks, strokes, many kinds of cancer, premature birth, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, diabetes, and miscarriage.”

While Gardiner notes that “we are all affected by dirty air,” some people are more vulnerable to the impacts than others. Edelman identifies “the very young, the old, those with chronic diseases of the heart and lungs, and pregnant women” as those most in danger. Regarding that latter group, new research presented on September 16 at the European Respiratory Society International Congress found evidence that particles from the air can transfer from a pregnant woman’s lungs via her bloodstream to the placenta, and potentially to the fetus. The society’s president, Professor Mina Gaga, said this new study highlights a need for “stricter policies for cleaner air to reduce the impact of pollution on health worldwide.”

What Is Deemed a Risky Level of Air Pollution?

Unless you live in a particularly smoggy city, chances are you can’t see the air pollution around you. And currently, there’s no clear consensus on exactly what’s safe. “The precise numbers are in dispute and not generally available to the public,” Edelman says. “Instead, a color system has been developed for public consumption and is usually presented on weather broadcasts.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created a chart for the US called the Air Quality Index (AQI) which grades air pollution risks based on levels of the five major air pollutants (ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide) using a color-coded numbered scale from zero to 500. For example, an air quality reading within zero to 50 (coded green) is regarded as safe, while 51 to 100 (yellow) is still acceptable for most people, but potentially dangerous for those in higher-risk groups. It’s when you get over 151 (red) that more people without pre-existing health conditions start to notice the effects. You can view live air pollution levels here.

What Can We Do?

There are immediate and long-term ways you can help slow the impact of air pollution, not only for yourself but for the world. And it doesn’t start with those paper-thin masks you might have seen people wearing. “Masks can be good, but you have to get the right kind,” Gardiner explains. “Those flimsy surgical masks don’t keep any pollutants out; you have to buy one that is certified to filter out PM2.5.”

If you’re not experiencing lung problems, or living somewhere that regularly sees levels of air pollution exceed 150, you could consider less dramatic measures. “Pollution levels can be much higher right near a busy road compared to even a hundred yards away,” says Gardiner. “So if you’re walking in a city, try to find a route that takes you along less traffic-clogged roads, or through a park, if possible. This is particularly true if you’re exercising, because we take in more air (and more pollution) when we’re exerting ourselves. So if you’re running or biking, it’s particularly important to try to stay away from traffic.” Edelman recommends checking the AQI levels in your area, and avoiding exercising outside when it’s red, or yellow if you’re in a sensitive group. When you’re inside, he adds, make sure your air conditioner has a good filter that will stop those outside pollutants from coming in.

As the original study pointed out, this isn’t just about our personal health. The major finding from that research was about global life expectancy. “I think it’s important to mention that air pollution is not a problem any of us can solve on our own,” Gardiner emphasizes. “Government action is necessary to force polluters to clean up — and it’s been very successful at doing so in the past. Anyone who’s concerned about pollution should consider urging their elected officials to do more to deliver cleaner air.” If we act now, we can make sure no one is writing a sequel to this article 10 years from now about the latest ways to accessorize your air pollution masks.

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(Photo via Getty)