Research continues to show that air pollution harms your health. In December 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health: they aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions and their role in causing warmer weather leads to prolonged heat waves, which are hazardous for the most vulnerable in society. Startlingly, research also shows that exposure to air pollution harms the entire cardiovascular system, not just the lungs.
Cause of Airborne Pollutants
Air pollution is caused in part by vehicles, power plants, factories, and other machines that burn fuel. As the fuel burns, chemicals are released into the atmosphere. These chemicals may react with each other, and with other compounds already in the air, worsening the health hazard of their presence alone. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide also react with these chemicals, increasing air pollution. This poses harm to people with existing cardiovascular conditions and raises their likelihood of an attack.
Of Special Concern: Particulate Matter
Scientists also raise concerns about particulate matter, the fine and ultrafine particulates found in air pollution. The EPA defines fine particulates as about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair. Ultrafine particulates may be 25 times smaller. The American Lung Association has raised concerns about particulate matter because our bodies have no defenses against it. The particles enter the body, unopposed by the lungs' typical protective measures. This is hazardous because chronic exposure to particulate matter increases the likelihood of asthma attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer deaths.
How Particulate Matter Harms
Scientists don't know the exact method by which particulate matter harms health, but the leading theory revolves around the particles' ability to travel deep into the lungs. This causes the release of inflammatory cytokines and over the long-term, it causes systemic inflammation. Low-level inflammation is an underlying factor of many other diseases like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Particulate matter also seems to change the body's regulation of blood pressure and the constriction of blood vessels. Some research even shows that the smallest particulate matter can pass directly into the bloodstream and damage organs directly.
It Affects More Than the Lungs
The effects of particulate matter go further than on the respiratory system. A long-term study following people for 16 years found that those who lived in cities – where there are higher levels of fine particulates – had a greater risk of cardiovascular death. In that study, researchers found that an increase of 10 micrograms of particulates per cubic meter posed an 18% increase in death from narrowed arteries, 21% from cardiac arrest, and 13% from arrhythmia. The particulates cause blood clotting, high blood pressure, and electrical instability within the heart. These effects in turn can cause stroke, heart attack, and sudden cardiac death. But it's not just long-term exposure that's harmful. Research also shows that when cities' particulate matter suddenly spikes, there is a spike in hospital admissions, emergency room visits, and cardiac death in the hours and days to follow.
It Harms Certain Groups
Some groups are more affected than others. The obese are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of particulate matter, even young adults. Research by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that when 18-to-35-year-olds were exposed to ozone, a higher body mass index (BMI) correlated with decreased lung function. Given obesity rates in the U.S. that makes air pollution of significant concern for public health. While the obese are particularly affected, so are other vulnerable groups like the young, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions like heart disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes.
It May Cause Disease
Air pollution may not simply exacerbate already-present conditions; it may, in fact, cause disease itself. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences also found that sports-playing children aged 9 to 16 who lived in areas with high ozone levels had a 30% higher risk of developing asthma. Other studies show that the babies of women who were exposed to air pollution may have slightly greater risks of premature birth, low birth weight, and death. Researchers are looking into air pollution's effect on miscarriage rates and sperm count, as well.
How to Reduce Airborne Pollutants
Scientists say we should reduce air pollutants like ozone in order to improve rates of cardiovascular disease. The EPA has already taken steps to try and control the release of greenhouse gases. But large-scale reductions of air pollution may be some time off. For now, you can at least improve your indoor air quality with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. By design, HEPA filters remove 99.97% of airborne pollutants as small as 0.3 microns. So while you can't control the wider world, you and your family can at least breathe healthy, clean air in your own home.
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