Health Effects of Air Pollution: What You Need To Know

Guest Post by TZOA Ambassador and PhD Candidate Ekaterina (Kat) Galkina.

How many environmental hazards do we get exposed to on a day-to-day basis? Since air pollution is not always visible to the naked eye or smelled by the nose, we really don’t have a good sense of what our lungs’ immune cells have to combat every day.

In the indoor environment there are several inconspicuous culprits creating harmful pollution such as emissions from cooking and burning incense or candles. Who would have guessed that cooking burgers creates higher emissions than cooking bacon?[1] The seemingly innocuous act of printing and photocopying releases nanoparticles that once inhaled are small enough to pass through the olfactory bulb into one’s brain. Once there, the foreign substances may initiate a harmful overactivation of the body’s immune system, which could damage the brain.[2]

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ah, the joys of city living. You’d think going for a run in the morning or after work would contribute to an altruistic healthy lifestyle; however, the worst levels of fine particulate matter (PM) – specks of waste at least 30 times finer than a human hair [3] - occur in cold weather. Unless you are running in a park, being proximal to exhaust pipe pollution from dozens of cars stuck in heavy traffic may be doing more harm than good. And when you open a window to let in some “fresh” air in the summertime, you’re likely to be introducing your home to millions of unwelcome pollution particles [4]. It doesn’t take a Chernobyl-level incident to inadvertently get exposed to all sorts of toxins during daily activities.

If you knew that you were walking into a zone of high pollution, would you try to avoid it if you could? Of course! In order to “see” the air quality you would need to have a device that accurately monitors air pollution and is small enough to comfortably carry around with you everywhere. This is the idea behind the new wearable environmental tracker, TZOA. This innovative new product would allow people to #seetheair via an app on their smartphones. The TZOA monitor measures the presence of coarse and fine particles suspended in the air. The need for such a device is astounding. After all, if you saw construction up ahead and knew how much fine particulate pollution is carried in all that dust from heavy machinery,[5] you may opt to take an alternate route.

The harder choice to make is to uproot yourself (and also your family) and move out of a city that has consistently toxic levels of air pollution. In Beijing, Mexico City and Los Angeles hazy outlines of the skyline are drowning in smog made of ozone and PM. In New Mexico, the levels are enough to produce Alzheimer’s-like symptoms in dogs[6] (yes, dogs!). On the EPA’s list of the most toxic cities in the US, Los Angeles holds the #1 spot for highest ozone levels.[7] But it’s hardly a match for Beijing, where if the PM concentration even reached the pollution levels of Los Angeles, life expectancy could increase by over five years! [8]

But even at relatively low levels air pollution can have a detrimental effect on our health. The biggest impact that particle pollution has is on heart and lung health, though recent evidence also implicates poor air quality as a contributing factor to neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s.[9] Short-term pollution and long-term pollution are both associated with a range of health risks, to which children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. The associated health conditions may range from worsening of respiratory issues (such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) to the development of cancer, as seen in the most recent case of 9/11 survivors.[10] On days when particle pollution really spikes, investigators have observed a rise in hospitalizations and even deaths from respiratory and heart conditions such as heart attacks, heart failure, and stroke.[11]

So what do you do? Knowledge is power. And it takes a lot of knowledge to make our voices heard. The hundreds of scientific articles on toxic exposure make a gradual difference in changing policy. After all, the Clean Air Act has already been revised twice since its creation in 1970.[12] However, the power of social media equipped with an army of tiny easily accessible air trackers may be just the catalyst our society needs to clean up our skies for the sake of the next generation to come.