July 11th, 2023, 1:20 PM

With the smoke of the recent Canadian wildfires making national news and increased air pollution in New York, Pennsylvania, and other states, many people are growing concerned with the everyday quality of their air. It's a reasonable concern—after all, clean air is something we quite literally can't live without. Breathing polluted air can do lasting damage to your health, especially if you're regularly exposed to it; in worst-case scenarios, it can lead to lethal complications. 

What Causes Air Pollution?

When you think of air pollution, your first thoughts are probably one of two things: car emissions or smoke from fires. While these are two common causes, air pollution can originate from a variety of sources. 

Traffic-related Air Pollution 

If you've ever walked by a speeding car and received a faceful of exhaust, you're already familiar with traffic-related air pollution. This is the mixture of harmful gases and particles emitted by cars, trucks, trains, and other forms of transportation. 

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter, or PM, is extremely fine matter composed of various chemicals, such as sulfates or carbon. It's found in fossil fuel emissions, cigarette smoke, and smoke from burning organic matter. A subset of PM, known as fine particulate matter, is 30 times thinner than a strand of human hair and is responsible for most health issues related to air pollution in the US. 

Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile organic compounds are carbon-containing compounds that are gaseous at or near room temperature. They're emitted by cleaning supplies, pesticides, glue, the burning of gasoline and natural gas, and more. 

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, are hazardous compounds containing carbon and hydrogen. They are created during combustion, as well as many industrial manufacturing processes. 

Disaster-related Air Pollution

As the name implies, disaster-related air pollution is pollution caused by natural causes (although there can still be human influence). This includes smoke from wildfires, ash and toxic gases from volcanic eruptions, and even methane released from decomposing organic matter. Unfortunately, the onset of climate change has made this form of pollution much more common, due to higher temperatures and the resulting increase in wildfires.  

What's an Air Quality Alert? 

While smoggy skies, the smell of smoke, and an irritated throat are good signs that you're breathing polluted air, it's not always so easy to tell. And even if there are visible signs, how bad does the air have to be before you lock yourself indoors with an air purifier? 

The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s method of determining air quality and a useful tool for telling if it's safe to go outside. The AQI runs from 0 to 500, with a lower score indicating clean air and a higher score indicating polluted air. If the AQI is high enough, then an Air Quality Alert (AQA) is issued to let people know that the air is dangerous. 

The AQI has six categories of increasing severity:

  1. Good (0-50)
  2. Moderate (51-100)
  3. Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (101-150)
  4. Unhealthy (151-200)
  5. Very Unhealthy (201-300)
  6. Hazardous (301-500)

The rating is determined by the present levels of five major pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. 

The Dangers of Air Pollution

Standing too close to a running car or a smokey campfire may not be enough to cause permanent damage, but don't underestimate the dangers of air pollution. Repeated exposure can increase your chances of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory diseases such as bronchitis. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with severe or chronic illnesses are particularly vulnerable. 

How to Improve Your Respiratory Health

Now that you know how to read the AQI, you can move on to the next step: protecting yourself from polluted air. While circumstances may not always be forgiving—for example, it may be hard to avoid car exhaust in a bustling city—there are several simple precautions you can take to limit your exposure to airborne pollution. 

Avoid Polluted Air When Possible

If the AQI indicates that the air is hazardous, it's best to avoid going outside when possible. If you must go outside, invest in a mask that can filter out airborne particles. Avoid exercising near heavy traffic or other smoggy areas to minimize the amount of fine particles you inhale. Don't burn wood or trash, and avoid standing too close to the fumes if you do. 

Note that staying indoors does not guarantee that you're avoiding polluted air. Secondhand smoke, radon, mold, and chemicals from cleaning supplies can make indoor air even more polluted than the air outside. Make sure your home is properly ventilated, cover any hazardous chemicals, and clean any mold spots before it spreads. 

Don't Smoke

Smoking cigarettes or cigars is one of the fastest and easiest ways to damage your lungs. Smoking can cause chronic inflammation in your throat and lungs, which can cause bronchitis and emphysema. It can also trigger cancerous growths. If you want to keep your lungs healthy, avoid smoking at all costs.

Exercise Regularly

Regular physical activity can help strengthen your lungs. Not only does it strengthen muscles in your diaphragm, which helps with the act of breathing itself, it also trains your body to transport oxygen from your lungs to your muscles more efficiently. 

Breathe Easy with Arnot Health

If you're suffering from the consequences of living with air pollution, contact Arnot Health Services. We offer primary care services and walk-in appointments, as well as specialized services, such as z-rays, cancer care, and more. If you're suffering from respiratory distress, don't delay. Find a location near you and schedule an appointment today.


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