Ambient Air Quality: How Can We Do Better to Improve Our Health?
By Sijé Vargas
reviewed by Amadou Barrow
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines ambient air pollution as potentially harmful pollutants emitted by industries, power plants, cars, and trucks. Indoor smoke also represents a serious health risk. Additionally, biomass and coal are highly pollutant and are often found inside our homes.
Some of the pollutants that affect us are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2); all of them cause great damage to our health.
How do pollutants affect our environment and us?
The main cause of nitrogen dioxide emissions is traffic, especially in urban areas where the traffic density is high. People who work near busy roadways can experience high exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Also, the levels of nitrogen dioxide surrounding people who live close to heavy traffic or freeways can be twice as high as the levels measured for people who live in residential areas or on lesser-used roads.
High levels of carbon monoxide can be found in indoor areas, especially among poor and marginalized populations. According to PAHO, “household air pollution is the second largest environmental-health risk among low- and middle-income countries, estimated to be responsible for 3,8 million deaths in 2016 (6,7% of total mortality).’’
Carbon monoxide is a gas produced by burning any type of fuel, gas, oil, kerosene, coal, wood, or tobacco product. When ingested, it replaces oxygen in the red blood cells; people who have a heart disease are already more likely to develop chest pains when exposed to low levels of carbon monoxide. If you are exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, it can slow your reflexes and cause confusion and drowsiness; at very high concentration in enclosed spaces, it can result in death.
Ozone formation responds to natural sources such as volatile organic compounds which, according to the Government of Canada, can significantly affect vegetation and decrease the productivity of agricultural crops. Ozone can also damage flowers and shrubs and contribute to forest decline. It can damage synthetic materials, it causes dyes to fade faster, and accelerates the deterioration of some paints and coatings. It also damages cotton, acetate, nylon, polyester, and other fabrics.
Who is most affected?
According to South Coast Air Quality Management District from the United States, people who are most likely to suffer serious health problems due to air pollution are:
- People with heart or lung diseases
- People with respiratory problems such as asthma or emphysema
- Pregnant women
- People who work outdoors
- Children under the age of 14 whose lungs are still developing
- Elderly residents whose immune systems are weaker
- Athletes who exercise outdoors
How does ambient air quality affect our health?
The University of Rochester Medical Center from New York states that some of the symptoms related to air pollution are watery eyes, coughing, an irritated throat, or heavy breathing. The actual risk depends on current health status, the type and concentration of the pollutant, and the length of time a person has been exposed to polluted air.
Spare the Air reported that high levels of air pollution can damage the cells of the respiratory system and can cause health problems, such as aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. As this produces more stress for the heart and lungs, they would consequently have to work harder to supply oxygen to the body.
A study in 2020 demonstrated that lungs aged rapidly when exposed to high levels of pollution, which can lead to the development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer. High pollution levels can also shorten a person’s life.
A 2013 evaluation by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to us and that particulate matter in polluted air is closely linked to the increasing incidence of cancer, especially lung cancer. A link has also been observed between outdoor air pollution and an increase of urinary tract and bladder cancer.
What can I do to help?
To help the environment and consequently help to improve air quality, you can do the following:
- Reduce motorized traffic in metropolitan areas.
- Promote public transport or carpool.
- Promote the use of bicycles and pedestrian traffic in urban areas and when air quality is healthy, bike or walk instead of driving.
- Use renewable electricity.
- When refueling, avoid spilling fuel.
- Tighten the gas cap securely.
- Avoid smoking in indoor spaces since it is bad for you, the environment, and for the people around you – especially for second-hand smokers.
- Keep your car, boat, and other engines tuned up.
- Inflate car tires to the recommended pressure.
To reduce pollutants inside your home you could try the following:
- Don’t smoke at home or permit others to do so. Ask smokers to smoke outdoors.
- Save energy in your homes. If it is possible, improve energy efficiency through insulation and design in a way that your home uses natural ventilation and lighting (this can positively impact your wallet and health, too).
- Ventilate your homes. Air ventilation can help you reduce the number of pollutants inside your home; it is recommended to do it once a day for at least 15 minutes.
- Use an air cleaner. If the air outside your home is too polluted, you can use an air cleaner. There are many types and sizes of air cleaners on the market.
- Adopt new technologies. The WHO suggests adopting clean technologies that reduce industrial smokestack emissions.
- Ventilate the attic and crawl spaces to prevent moisture build-up.
- Install and use exhaust fans over gas cooking stoves and ranges and keep the burners properly adjusted.
Through different social projects related to Human Rights, my education background in Literature and personal experiences as a migrant I came to the conclusion that words can help us to move forward and heal. I use writing as a method to spread the word about topics that help us imagine alternative ways of living where we are all included. I highly believe that in order to have an inclusive world we must focus on communicating the importance of holistic health and wellbeing as a key part of achieving a better life.
My areas of expertise center around climate change and global health; Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH); environmental and occupational health; health education and promotion; and health risk communications. I have experience as a lecturer at both university level in the area of health psychology, health education & promotion, water supply & sanitation, biostatistics, epidemiology and research methodology. I have published several scientific manuscripts in various reputable journals on maternal & child health morbidities and mortalities in LMIC settings. I am a passionate digital health enthusiast with a special focus on holistic wellbeing at all levels.
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