By definition, air quality is the contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere (WHO, n.d.). Common sources of air pollution include industrial facilities, automobiles, and household combustion devices (WHO, n.d.). Some may think that air pollution is a faraway issue that does not directly harm us, but this is untrue. Air pollutants that are very concerning for health include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide (WHO, n.d.). In fact, air pollutants are so dangerous that they actually make up a large percentage of sources of morbidity and mortality (WHO, n.d.). With about 99% of the world’s population breathing in air with pollutants well above safe levels, we must start learning about what we can do to protect ourselves (WHO, n.d.). So, let’s talk about air pollution.
Let’s talk about Particulate Matter
Particulate is made of tiny particles of solids or liquids in the air, such as dust, dirt, and smoke (CDC, 2023). While some particles are big enough to see, others are not (CDC, 2023). Bigger particles like dust can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat (CDC, 2023). Smaller particles are especially dangerous as they are practically invisible and can get into the deeper parts of your lungs and even into your blood (CDC, 2023). Particulate matter can come from forest fires, factories, automobiles, and construction sites (CDC, 2023).
To protect yourself from particulate matter, here are a few things you can do:
- Spend more time indoors, where particle pollution levels are usually lower (CDC, 2023).
- If you spend time outdoors, choose more leisurely activities (like walking instead of running) so you don’t need to breathe as hard (CDC, 2023).
- Avoid busy roads and highways with many automobile emissions (CDC, 2023).
Let’s talk about Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide is a gas with no colour, taste, or odour, making it virtually impossible to detect (MDH, 2022). People usually cannot tell that they have been exposed to carbon monoxide until it is too late when symptoms similar to the flu have already manifested, making it a hazardous gas (MDH, 2022). About 400 million people in the US die of carbon monoxide poisoning every year (MDH, 2022).
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself:
- Install a carbon monoxide detector (American Lung Association, 2023).
- Maintain fuel-burning appliances like stoves and dryers (American Lung Association, 2023).
- Properly ventilate your fuel-burning appliances (American Lung Association, 2023).
- Know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, such as flu-like symptoms, feeling better when away from home, and everyone in the home feeling sick simultaneously (American Lung Association, 2023).
Let’s talk about Nitrogen Dioxide
Nitrogen dioxide is formed when fossil fuels such as coal are burned at high temperatures (Government of Canada, 2021). It can cause many health issues, such as lung inflammation, coughing, and asthma (Government of Canada, 2021). Nitrogen dioxide comes mainly from gas stoves, furnaces, and automobiles (Government of Canada, 2021).
To limit your exposure to nitrogen dioxide, there are a few things you can do:
- Ensure gas stoves and other fuel-burning appliances are well-ventilated (Government of Canada, 2021).
- Cook on the back burner of your stove to direct most of the smoke to the ventilator (Government of Canada, 2021).
- Avoid idling your car in enclosed, small spaces (Government of Canada, 2021).
Let’s talk about Sulfur Dioxide
Sulfur dioxide is formed when fuels containing sulfur, such as coal and diesel, are burned (ATSDR, 2014). It is a colourless gas with a very pungent smell, so fortunately, it is hard to miss (ATSDR, 2014). Sulfur dioxide can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract and cause pneumonitis and pulmonary edema (ATSDR, 2014). It can also worsen existing chronic pulmonary diseases like asthma and emphysema (ATSDR, 2014).
Here’s what you can do protect yourself from sulfur dioxide:
- Do not idle your car in small, enclosed spaces (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2022)
- Do not smoke indoors (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2022)
- Ensure gas stoves are well-ventilated (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2022)
As you can see, although many pollutants are present in the air and can have quite significant effects on your health, all hope is not lost. You can still set some measures into place to protect yourself and your loved ones!
If you are interested in other articles about pollution, check out this one on water!
American Lung Association. (2023). Nitrogen Dioxide. American Lung Association. Retrieved May 31, 2023 from: https://www.lung.org/clean-air/outdoors/what-makes-air-unhealthy/nitrogen-dioxide#:~:text=Nitrogen%20dioxide%2C%20or%20NO2,are%20burned%20at%20high%20temperatures
ATSDR. (2014). Medical Management Guidelines for Sulfur Dioxide. CDC. Retrieved May 31, 2023 from: https://wwwn.cdc.gov/TSP/MMG/MMGDetails.aspx?mmgid=249&toxid=46
CDC. (2023). Particulate Matter. CDC. Retrieved May 31, 2023 from: https://www.cdc.gov/air/particulate_matter.html#:~:text=Particle%20pollution%20—%20also%20called%20particulate,Soot
Government of Canada. (2021). Nitrogen Dioxide. Government of Canada. Retrieved May 31, 2023 from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/air-quality/indoor-air-contaminants/nitrogen-dioxide.html
MDH. (2022). Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning in Your Home. MDH. Retrieved May 31, 2023 from: https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/environment/air/toxins#:~:text=Carbon%20monoxide%20(CO)%20is%20an,bodies%20and%20lead%20to%20poisoning.
WHO. (n.d.). Air Pollution. WHO. Retrieved May 31, 2023 from: https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_1
Wisconsin Department of Health Services. (2022). Sulfur Dioxide. Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Retrieved May 31, 2023 from: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/chemical/sulfurdioxide.htm