The Crippling Effects Of Air Pollution On Human Health (+Best Solutions)
I know what you're thinking: "I'm living in the city where everyone is exposed to air pollution - little I can do about the problem".
Or: "thousands of cars and trucks pass that busy road I live nearby each day, and there's an polluting airfield close by, so there's no avoiding breathing in that air"
Sometimes you'll even start to believe that air pollution is "part of the deal" in modern life...
At other times, you you may think: "no need to worry about the effects of air pollution on human health - I'm not living in an Asian city right?!"
You may also assume that "governments would never let me be exposed to extreme levels of air pollutants".
I get why you're thinking that way. It's easier to look the other way and pretend there's no problem with air pollution in the first place. It's also easy to assume you're powerless.
And yet, there's need for that attitude.
In this blog post I'm not only supplying you with the basics about the harmful effects of air pollution on human health, I'll also give you 10 different practical strategies to lower your exposure levels.
This is a guest blog post by Bart Wolbers. Bart runs a health blog at www.naturebuildshealth.com and has coached several clients on Alex' Hormone Reset Program to teach them to take charge of their health.
Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy, Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc), and helps thousands of people take charge of their own health with his company. As a personal challenge, he completed his three Master's degrees simultaneously.
The Crippling Effects Of Air Pollution On Human Health (+Best Solutions)
Hi, I'm Bart, and in this blog post I'll explore the effects of air pollution on human health. Air pollution is nothing magical: it should simply be seen as a toxin that you ingest, mainly by breathing it in.
You probably know that Alex has written about many types of toxins before, such as:
Alex also talks about how you need to use (infrared) saunas to detox your body - which is a great strategy.
This blog post is similar. The post is made up of three parts:
- I'll first explore why the effects of air pollution on human health are so underestimated
- Then I give you a crash-course on the devastating effects of air pollution on human health
- And thirdly, you'll receive ten solutions to lower the harmful effects of air pollution
Stay with me to find out why you're never powerless to counter air pollution's crippling effects.
Let's get started:
Why The Effects Of Air Pollution On Human Health Are So Underestimated
My argument is set up like Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy: I'm taking you with me in a journey starting in hell that slowly transitions towards heaven over time.
An alternative analogy for if you're into movies: we'll start with "the ugly" and then move to "the bad" and "the good".
I'll start with the bad news:
The statistics regarding air pollution are a nightmare.
I often tell people that millions die due to air pollution every year. People then think I'm talking about millions of people every century - others think that number relates to every decade.
Millions of people die every year due to air pollution's health effects.
7 to 9 million...
Sure, most of these deaths occur in the developing world. But even in developed nations, the effects of air pollution are still devastating.
Let me give you some examples:
- In the United Kingdom, an air pollutant called "nitrogen dioxide" (NO2) kills between 10,000 and 20,000 people each year. Air pollution in general kills between 28,000 and 36,000 people in that country.
- Germany? 8,000 deaths because of nitrogen dioxide. Incidences of diseases also increase dramatically: about 440,000 cases of asthma and the same number of diabetes cases are directly caused by nitrogen dioxide exposure.[3; 4]
Yes, these figures are shocking...
And you know what's worse?
Air pollution probably affects your health even if you don't die or get sick because of its consequences. Phrased differently, not dying because of air pollution does not mean that air pollution doesn't damage your health.
Let me explain:
90% of people on earth are breathing polluted air.[5; 6]
You may think: "then why don't I hear about the effects of air pollution on human health on the news every week?"
Or: "why doesn't my physician tell me I need to avoid air pollution?"
The answer is simple:
Most people - even in the health community - assume that air pollution is simply "a given".
In other words, air pollution is deemed to be something that you cannot control as an individual. The implicit assumption is often that air pollution is a problem that should be regulated by the government.
And yet, that assumption is devastating...
Firstly, in the best case scenario, worldwide air pollution levels are expected to only half in 2030.[7; 8; 9] Yes, you'll have to wait ten more years for your exposure to half.
And even if air pollution levels are halved, you're still exposed to toxic amounts of pollutants. Waiting for the government to solve your problem is thus not an option.
And you know what?
There's a very specific reason why there's no incentive for governments to solve the air pollution problem instantly.
And no, I'm not talking about some kind of "conspiracy": this data can be found everywhere.
You see, most air pollution is created by humans. Sure, volcanoes can erupt and put tons of pollutants into the air, and deserts are a source of many fine particles in Africa and the Middle East.
And yet, in cities, most of the air pollutants are created as a byproduct of fossil fuel use, industry, or energy creation.
To stop all air pollution governments would have to stop using fossil fuels tomorrow. And by forbidding fossil fuel usage, the economy would collapse and billions of people would die.
There's no way out...
Air pollution is thus intrinsically intertwined with modern economies.
Sure, some technological solutions to lower air pollution exist.
Many diesel trucks are equipped with filters that lower the number of pollutants emitted by the exhaust, for example, Most coal power plants also contain filters to lower air pollutant emissions - giving rise to the term "clean coal".
The problem with these solutions is that they increase the price for the polluters.
Coal power plants that have filters installed create energy less efficiently, for example, because air pollutant filters increase the energy cost of the entire production process. In other words, some of the energy created by coal needs to be reinvested to make that coal cleaner.
Diesel cars and trucks are another example.[10; 11]
Diesel vehicles create relatively high levels of air pollutants compared to cars with other fuel sources. Filters for lowering the air pollutants emitted have been mandatory in many countries.
Some users of these filters, however, simply choose not to replace the $1,500 piece of equipment. Not replacing diesel vehicles' filters saves the user a lot of money, while people in the vicinity of that vehicle will breathe more polluted air.
Filtering all air pollution costs so much energy and money that governments only implement the most economically viable options.
So what's the solution for you?
You don't want to be breathing in polluted air all the time right?
The fix is simple: take matters into your own hands - I'll help you do just that.
Don't wait for the government to fix the problem for you, as that solution will not arrive in decades.
You have to act...
A Crash-Course Of The Effects Of Air Pollution On Human Health
Many, many air pollutants exist - some examples are asbestos found in building materials, tiny particles (called particulate matter) that are emitted by industry and transportation vehicles, "Volatile Organic Compounds" (VOCs) from benzene and furniture, sulfur dioxide (SO2) as a byproduct of the coal industry, airborne heavy metals, and toxic mold growing in humid building materials.
And that's just a shortlist.
In this guide I'll just go over five of the most important air pollutants:
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
Nitrogen dioxide is a gas. The burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of human nitrogen dioxide exposure.
If you breathe that gas, your airways, lungs, and heart health take a small hit. Sure, you won't immediately notice but over time NO2 can do real damage.
Nitrogen dioxide causes lung conditions such as COPD (in which your lung and breathing capacity is chronically inhibited) and asthma (inflammation of the airways).
For every 10 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide found in the air, your overall risk of dying increases. "All cause mortality" measures that overall risk of dying in medicine.
(A microgram is a thousand times as light as a milligram).
That all cause mortality does not distinguish between dying of heart or lung disease, or whether you die in an accident, or of old age. That general risk of dying is nonetheless useful because if a substance makes it go up, you'll know it's bad business.
Heart disease also increases the more nitrogen dioxide you're exposed to, moreover, as well as lung cancer..[14; 15]
For a long time, it was hard to isolate the negative health effects of nitrogen dioxide, as many different air pollutants are simultaneously emitted by industry and transportation. Nevertheless, new research methods demonstrate that NO2 is much more destructive to your health than originally thought.
Remember these 10,000-20,000 yearly deaths in the United Kingdom, and the 440,000 yearly cases of asthma and diabetes in Germany? NO2 is responsible there.
And that's just one air pollutant...
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Remember that new car smell, or the way your living room smelled once you got that new couch?
The smell of gasoline when you refilled your car's gas tank? Or the smell of your air "refresher"?
All of these smells are the result of breathing in gases. These gases are called VOCs.
What makes VOCs special is that they can be emitted from material at a very low temperature. Such VOC are continually off-gassed in many buildings, due to toxic materials on walls and in furniture.
At lower dosages, symptoms of breathing in VOCs are throat, eye, and nasal discomfort - organ damage such as to your liver and brain may result with higher exposure levels.
Modern buildings are very different from what humans used to live in 500 or even 5,000 years ago. Because you're living in building that are fully insulated nowadays, new problems emerge.
If the building you're spending lots of time in has had water damage and contains mold, and is insulated, that entails that you're "trapped inside" 24/7 with that mold.
You can observe water damage and toxic mold on the wall below:
The gray "stains" on that wall are mold.
Unlike most situations in nature, mold has a perfect environment to continually grow in places such as walls of modern buildings.
In nature, mold naturally competes with other biological organisms, and cannot grow without limit. In homes, mold can remain in place for decades because buildings are insulated from the outside environment.
The problem with molds is that they continually emit substances called "mycotoxins". These mycotoxins lungs and bloodstream, and may even affect your health through skin contact.[31; 32; 33; 34]
If you're thinking: "but my building is not affected by mold", then I recommend you to be cautious. Why? Well, a whopping 10 and 50% of buildings in the developed world have mold problems. Some estimates assume that 50% of buildings are affected.
Toxic mold always negatively affects your health, the question only is to what extent. In some people, the effects are really minor - you may just have an allergic response, headaches, or experience shortness of breath.
A part of the human population is less lucky though: some people who are extremely sensitive to mold can end up with neurological diseases, autoimmune diseases (in which your immune system attacks your own body), disabilities, and finally death.
Well, in some individuals mold toxins cause the continual activation of the immune system. Every time mold-sensitive individuals breathe in mold, they're triggered - and if these individuals stay inside a mold-infested building, their immune system will be active all the time.
The initial result is tiredness, brain fog, breathing problems, lowered well-being, and weakness. Over time, these symptoms evolve into much bigger problems.
Let's move to the next air pollutant: carbon dioxide...
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Yes, carbon dioxide - the stuff you're breathing out. You may not assume that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant, and yet it is: only indoors.
Due to highly insulated modern buildings carbon dioxide levels build up to extreme levels.
If you don't properly ventilate a highly insulated building, CO2 levels will rise over time. In nature, CO2 levels fall between 300 and 425 parts per million in the last century.
In offices and classrooms, these CO2 levels can reach 1,000 or even a whopping 5,000 parts per million.
The end-result of those high CO2 levels are fatigue, headaches, and a poorer ability to think. Research demonstrates that children are generally less affected by higher CO2 levels than adults.
You're probably an adult if you're reading this, so if you want your brain to perform well, let in some fresh air once in a while!
Particulate Matter (PM)
As an air pollutant, particulate matter is made up of tiny particles emitted into the air. These particles are so small that they're measured in micrometer size.
Remember that a micrometer is a thousand times as small as a millimeter.
Particulate matter is invisible to the human eye. And yet, if you breathe that stuff it can end up in your lungs and enter the bloodstream. By that mechanism, particulate matter can be deposited in your body.
The most important categories of particulate matter are the ones that are smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10), smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), and smaller than 0.1 micrometers (PM0.1).
PM10 is called "coarse", PM2.5 "fine", and PM0.1 "ultrafine". Keep in mind that due to the way the scale is built up, PM10 also automatically contains PM2.5 and PM0.1. Additionally, PM2.5 contains PM0.1 as well.
So how small are these particles actually? Imagine: a human hair has a diameter of 70 micrometers. The most damaging forms of particulate matter, which are PM2.5 and especially PM0.1, have a diameter that's 30 to 700 times as small as a human hair.
PM0.1 is even more dangerous, as it's speculated that this substance can directly end up in your brain, when traveling alongside or through the brain nerves that lie close to your nose (i.e. the olfactory nerve).
If this story sounds all abstract, particulate matter can simply be imagined to be "dust" that you breathe in, which then pollutes your body. The same way dust pollutes a pool, dust will also pollute your bloodstream and be spread around. The smaller the dust, the easier that dust penetrates in all kinds of places it should not go.
So what are the health effects?
Lung problems and lower lung function, allergies, heart attacks, strokes, problems with your nervous system, cancer, and more...[16; 17; 18; 19; 20; 21; 22; 23; 24; 25; 26; 27; 28]
Even short-term exposure to particulate matter increases stress hormone levels such as cortisol and adrenaline.[29; 30] Heart rate variability, which is a great marker for stress, also deteriorates - Alex has written a great blog post on heart rate variability in the past.
Again, particulate matter is not a side-issue. 800,000 people die directly because of particulate matter exposure every year.
No, not every century, not every decade, but every year.
So what's so special about the effects of air pollution on human health?
I'll tell you:
You won't immediately notice the negative health effects. In fact, air pollution can be compared to a "poison drip".
Let me explain that analogy...
Assume that someone adds a little bit of poison to your food every day. Mercury or lead are great examples, because you cannot smell or taste them. You cannot even see these toxins in small amounts...
And yet, if you consumed a little bit of these poisonous toxins through your food every day, you'd never notice, even though your health deteriorates imperceptibly over time.
Over the course of a year, a little bit of mercury can do some damage--over the period of a decade, you won't recognize yourself (or your health) anymore.
You'll start speculating about why you're getting neurological symptoms, brain fog, weakness, poor sleep, an inability to think, and continuous sickness - all possible symptoms of metal poisoning...
You may even assume that you've just got bad luck, or that you didn't exercise enough the last few years, or that you're eating the wrong foods.
But nothing could be further from the truth: you were slowly poisoned.
So let's consider why you don't notice:
As a human being, your cognitive apparatus is not able to perceive very slow changes over time.
Just think about it:
- You don't observe the grass outside your home slowly growing--you just notice that the grass has gotten tall in an instant.
- You never notice how your kids are growing a tenth of a millimeter each day. Maybe you're surprised to see that they've gotten very tall out of nowhere.
- $2,000 withdrawn from your bank account? All alarm bells will go off in your head. But if your phone contract increased with $10 this month you may not even notice until you've been paying the higher price for years...
You won't notice the negative health effects of air pollution in the same way.
Slowly, every day, the toxic poison drip of the air you're breathing in will lower your health a little bit more and more.
Fortunately, that's what I'm going to talk about now:
Ten Solutions To Lower The Effects Of Air Pollution On Your Health
You've now traveled through hell and other places, and you've arrived at paradise. Finally you'll be able to see the bright side of the air pollution problem: you can control your exposure level.
You're in power...
But before I hand you the keys to the kingdom, let's consider measurement of your exposure levels first.
First of all, I recommend getting a guesstimate of the air quality levels in your city or environment.
Take a look at the "Air Quality Index" which is perfect for that goal.
Let's consider my situation and consider the results:
The Dutch city I'm living at a few mile distance from Enschede, has a reading of 19. Keep that number in the back of your mind.
Now, Alex's old city Sydney has the following readings:
As you can see, air pollution levels are somewhat higher in the Western part of Sydney. Maybe there's lots of industry there.
All readings in Sydney are also higher than my city, by which you can conclude that Sydney is probably more polluting than the remote place I'm living (which makes sense).
Also observe that a few streets of distance can make a lot of difference. There's half a kilometer distance between the 34 and 53 reading.
Not all cities are so lucky though. Let's consider Mumbai, in India:
Now you know why I'm recommending getting a guesstimate of your location: air quality is horrible everywhere you go in Mumbai, India.
As you can see, there's a 20% increase from 76 to 91 with one street distance. Additionally, there's no safe place to hide.
For the best results, I'd recommend watching that air quality index map over several days, and possibly over several months. The seasons and weather can have a large impact on the air quality, which create lots of variability between days.
So you've now got a guesstimate of the air quality in your environment.
What's the next step?
Make sure to measure the air quality of the locations you're spending a lot of time in as well, such as your home and office.
You can buy a budget air quality meter HERE, and a more high-quality one HERE.
Are these air quality meters perfect, and do they measure all pollutants?
Is doing some measurement better than nothing? Damn yes!
You see, one street can make lots of difference in air quality. If you're living near a busy street for example, just moving behind a set of trees can dramatically lower the air pollutants you're exposed to.
Living near a factory? In that case, walking just one block away can make all the difference in the world.
Measuring frequently can give you a great impression on what's impacting air quality, and what you're currently exposed to. On the ground measurements can never be replaced by looking at an air quality map.
And yet, there's another reason I'm recommending these measurements:
Measuring your air quality helps you determine whether the 10 strategies to lower your exposure I'm about to give you actually work.
Are you ready?
So what can you do to dramatically lower your exposure to air pollutants? Here are 10 different strategies:
- Ventilate the buildings you're spending time in
This strategy is great for lowering the effects of CO2 and VOCs. If you're painting a room, for example, VOC levels can rise 1,000-fold (no typo). Remember that if buildings are really well isolated, CO2 levels will also build up over time.
Cooking indoors? Open your windows or use a range hood.
It's therefore recommended to open up your windows once or a few times a day to let indoor air pollutants leave the building.
Don't keep your windows opened up all the time though, as you might increase the number of air pollutants in the building if you're living in a polluted environment.
Let CO2 and VOC levels drop off once in a while...
- Avoid the most air polluted areas
Yes, I know: the downtown parts of the cities are really exciting because lots of stuff is happening there--they're also the most polluted part of the city.
And yes, your boss probably expects you to arrive early in the morning--but by going to work even earlier and avoiding rush hour you can cut your air pollutant exposure by up to 50%.
Use common sense with this tip: more cars, airplanes, and industry means you're exposed to more pollutants.
Simple, and yet, very effective.
- Insulate your home
You may think: "wait, didn't you tell me that insulated buildings cause lots of problems with indoor air pollution?!"
Yes, that's exactly what I said.
And yet, insulation is mandatory in modern cities. If buildings are not well insulated then outdoor air pollution enters a building 24-7. That nitrogen dioxide and particulate mater I talked about earlier will thus end up in your home, slowly wreaking havoc on your health.
- Eat healthy
This strategy is a no-brainer.
And yet, many people don't eat as healthy as they should.
While eating healthy does not remove all the negative health effects of air pollution, this strategy does give you more leeway. The inflammation and stress response that occurs due to air pollution is lowered by eating healthy, for example.
The best way to find a diet that works for you? Consider signing up for the Hormone Reset Program, a year-long health journey that teaches you to find the perfect diet for your unique circumstances (and learns you how to take control of your health)
Will you do better on a low-carb diet with lots of vegetables,
or a higher carb diet? Find out on the Hormone Reset Program.
- Don't walk away but run away from water-damaged buildings
Remember that toxic mold could be devastating to your health? If the building you're spending time in is water-damaged, it's highly recommended to bring in a mold expert.
The problem is that you cannot always observe that mold emits toxins as it may grow behind wallpaper. Another problem is that many proposed "cures" for mold growth, such as vinegar or bleach do not solve the mold problem--possibly making issues much worse.
If your building may be water damaged and you're experiencing explainable mold symptoms then I'd highly recommend spending some time outside the mold-infested area.
Two to three weeks are enough to know that the building you spent time in were causing you issues. Beware though: removing yourself from a moldy environment can make your issues worse in the short-term - due to detox.
Additionally, make sure not to bring any personal belongings with you. Many belongings are contaminated with mold, and will keep triggering you even if you're removed from the toxic building.
Is removing yourself from a toxic moldy environment difficult and time consuming? Yes. But letting mold destroy your health over a decade of time is far more costly...
- Aim for 50% indoor humidity levels
The topic of indoor humidity is extremely complex. There's some consensus in research studies, however, that 50% indoor humidity levels are best.[36; 37]
Well, mold grows best at indoor humidity levels over 60%. I'm talking about what is called "relative" humidity here, which is the saturation of water vapor in the air. With greater humidity more VOCs are also emitted from your furniture.
A 50% humidity levels is a win-win. Why? Well, humidity that's significantly lower than 50%, such as 30%, causes irritated eyes in some people, as well as breathing problems.
It's thus best to keep humidity levels around 50%.
In colder climates, you may need to use a steam humidifier to keep humidity levels higher. Make sure not to increase humidity levels too high as windows may freeze.
The best way to keep humidity levels under control--yet again--is to prevent water damage in buildings.
Another mold prevention tip: keeping temperatures around 18 degrees Celsius as opposed to the commonly-used 21 degrees also prevents mold growth.
- Use plants outside as well as indoors
This strategy is extremely simple to understand: the more plants around the perimeter of the building, the more air pollutants are blocked from entering.[39; 40]
Pines and conifers are the best plants to prevent air pollutants from entering your home. These plants are superior because they've got lots of surface area. Particulate matter, which I've described earlier, sticks to these plants.
You'll want to create a "living wall" around buildings to prevent air pollutants from entering in the first place. Even rooftops can be stuffed with plants.
Tens if not hundreds of kilograms of air pollutants don't end up indoors. Make sure to place trees as close to roads as possible. Air pollutants will stay trapped around that road and won't enter your home:
For indoor plants I recommend reading Alex' blog post about that topic. Indoor plants act as a second line of defense, once toxins have penetrated your outdoor "defense system".
This one's simple: strengthen your lungs and heart as much as possible, and air pollution will have less of an effect on you.
If you've already got lung or heart problems, I recommend to exercise outside the city.
Exercise causes you to breathe more frequent and deeper, which can increase the toxins you inhale up to 5-fold. If you're already sick, inhaling more toxins can undo some of the benefits of exercise.
- Take your personal circumstances into account
Children, the elderly, people with lung or heart problems, and others who have a disease are hit much harder by air pollution.
Take more action to mitigate the negative health effects.
The equation is very simple: if you're 25 years-old and in very good shape, you can probably handle some air pollution (although such pollutants are always damaging).
If you're 75 years old, had a previous heart attack, and you've got trouble getting out of bed in the morning, then breathing in polluted air may do you in - you don't want that. In that case, you may even need to move to a less polluted location to radically lower your air pollution exposure.
- Buy furniture that's made of natural materials.
Doing so will dramatically lower your indoor VOC exposure.
Instead of buying laminate, buy a stone floor. Instead of buying furniture that contains finishes, but hardwood. Instead of buying a mattress that emits lots of VOCs, buy an organic option.
Sure, buying that kind of furniture is expensive - I cannot afford that stuff (yet) either. Just buy less and higher quality furniture and you come a long way.
You can also buy less but more high-quality stuff for your house. No need to change your couch every three years to keep up the Joneses.
That's it: Ten strategies to lower your air pollution exposure.
Even though the health effects of air pollution on human health are horrible, I have to re-emphasize that you're in power to control your exposure.
The more of these strategies you stack, the lower exposure levels will be. Just spending less time in the city can cut your exposure by 50-70%. Using plants outside your home and indoors as well can cut levels by another 50%.
And buying healthy furniture can lower VOC exposure dramatically - and so forth.
Let's finish your journey:
Conclusion: Realize You're In Control Of The Effects Of Air Pollution On Human Health
I hope you're realizing that you don't have to be among the billions of people whose health is slowly but negatively affected by air pollution - and the millions who die due to air pollution every year.
You really have a choice.
Sure, you may start from very bad circumstances: living in metropolitan city while already having lung disease is an example.
Just realize that even if you don't want to move to a less polluted location, you can dramatically lower your exposure levels.
One principle is certain: you'll never control the effects of air pollution on human health if you believe pollution is "normal" or outside your control.
Learned helplessness is widespread regarding air pollution, and that's a shame.
Do yourself a favor: don't become a victim--take charge.
While you may not feel any change in your health today or tomorrow, small decisions taken over time will massively pay off over the long run.
Let me give you an analogy:
Investing just $50 a week can make you a rich 30 years down the road. Avoiding the extremes of air pollution can make you healthy as opposed to sick 30 years down the road.
Invisible killers, such as air pollution, are the most dangerous. After reading this article, fortunately, air pollution is no longer "invisible" - it's fully clear and understandable in broad daylight now!
By the way, if you want even more information on different air pollutants, I treat 13 different air pollutants in intricate detail in my 100% free e-book sized blog post about air pollution. I'll also give you additional strategies to lower your exposure even more.
Update 2021: The Original Blog Post Quoted Here Is Now Published On Alexfergus.com In 3 Installments:
Found This Interesting? Then You Might Like:
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com.
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