Welcome to the fourth and last part of my 4-installment series on particulate matter. This installment teaches you how to lower your exposure to particulate matter buy 90% or more!
But let's recap first:
Here's what I've done so far in the last 3 installments:
Next up, this fourth installment gives you 7 additional strategies to lower your exposure even further!
Later on, I reflect from a philosophical perspective on the 4 parts of this series, specifically the problem of particulate matter pollution and ethics.
The most important suggestion I have for reducing the damage that particulate matter does to your body is not to wait for governments to solve the problems for you.
You have to take matters into your own hands...
Again, even the strictest limits of particulate matter exposure that are set by the World Health Organization (WHO) are not strict enough.
The WHO themselves admit that their recommended particulate matter exposure level of 10 micrograms per m3 is still damaging to your health.
And the only way you're going to lower your exposure level to levels below 10 micrograms per m3 is by moving to Scandinavia and live in the middle of nowhere.
And no, living in a city in Norway or Finland is not good enough: pollution levels still far exceed the 10 micrograms per m3 there in most cities...
So what's the solution?
Control what you can control, and minimize damage. Below I'll give you eight different strategies to lower the negative health effects of particulate matter.
This outcome surprised me as well.
If you consume more antioxidants from food, you can partially undo the damage of inhaling lots of particulate matter.
Vitamin D, E, and the plant version of vitamin A (carotenoids) have been demonstrated to lower the respiratory symptoms of exposing yourself to particulate matter, for example. The animal form of vitamin A - called "retinol" - is also known to inhibit allergies.
Some of particulate matter's effects on asthma, COPD, and lung cancer can thus be inhibited or prevented by these aforementioned nutrients.
Additionally, B vitamins may lower some of the damaging effects of PM2.5. - this effect has (problematically) not been studied in great detail (yet).
Other nutrients that may aid are omega-3 fatty acids (preferably from fish, not supplements), vitamin C, choline (found in liver and eggs), and curcumin (a turmeric extract).
Overall fruit and vegetable consumption also help you deal with particulate matter, a fact derived from a study that showed that a Mediterranean diet is protective.
Food: a counter-intuitive particulate matter harm reduction strategy
I recommend antioxidant supplements because it's very easy to go overboard with that strategy. Consuming too many antioxidants - amounts that cannot be had from regular food consumption - has been associated with some adverse health effects, such as an inability to adapt to exercise
The bottom line is very simple: improve your diet to lower the damaging effects of particulate matter.
You're exposed to over four times the particulate matter when riding that bicycle compared to the car when taking the same route.
The more you exert yourself, the greater the amount of particulate matter you're inhaling--exercising outdoors in polluted areas can thus have downsides for some individuals.
During heavy exercise, for example, you'll inhale up to 5 times as much PM0.1 compared to when you're doing nothing.
How do you know when to exposure yourself?
Again, refer to the air pollution map that (hopefully) shows trends for your living location, or buy an air quality monitor instead and do your own measurements. Then make sure you're not exercising at peak pollution times - if you're susceptible to particulate matter's effects.
There's no clear-cut advice I can give that can be universally applied to everyone's location:
Again, taking your unique situation into account becomes paramount.
The strategy to reducing your individual particulate matter exposure is very simple: know when you're exposed in the first place, and then (try to) deal with the situation.
Lots of people are exposed to particulate matter when they're commuting, for example. You might be too. Air filtration in cars is generally quite poor.
Another tip: it's oftentimes very simple to drive outside the city, and exercise in nature. Doing so can cut your particulate matter exposure by 10 or 20-fold during that day because remember: more intense breathing makes you inhale more of that toxic PM0.1 and PM2.5
If you do exert yourself, nasal breathing is always your best option because more toxins get filtered from the air.
There's another layer to this tip though:
Remember that some groups of people are far more susceptible to particulate matter exposure? These groups included children, the elderly, and people with heart disease or lung conditions.
The more airway, lung, cardiovascular, and brain problems you have in general, the warier you should be of exposing yourself to lots of particulate matter. Avoid exercising in the city altogether, in such instances, and get a high-quality air purifier.
For some people exercise's benefits may not even outweigh the particulate matter exposure risks.
Remember that heart problems can emerge relatively quickly if you get exposed to higher levels of particulate matter. Higher exposure does not take a month to manifest itself but can happen within minutes or hours.
Lung problems? You might exacerbate your conditions by exposing yourself to higher particulate matter levels for an hour.
Genetic variation also exists, moreover, in how well you're able to handle particulate matter exposure.
If you've got lung problems, I'm even willing to go as far as saying that taking the London metro every day (which is very much polluted) is not recommended.
If you've got young children or teenagers, living in a big city is almost certainly going to harm them unless you're willing to go to extremes to lower the exposure they're exposed to...
Bottom line: be more careful if particulate matter does more damage to you...
If you're thinking: "but wait, you recommended NOT to spending lots of time indoor on this blog before?"
Yes, that's true.
But let's say there's a factory in your town that pollutes your neighborhood between 15:00 and 17:00 during workdays. Or let's assume that your neighbor is burning wood every evening at 19:00.
In such cases, you can strategically close all your windows to minimize the amount of particulate matter entering your home.
Windows can be opened up daily from 8:00 to 14:00, for example, if a close-by factory emits lots of air pollution in the late afternoon.
Make sure to reduce guesswork in relation to exposure levels to the minimum.
Get an air quality meter to be sure.
Closing windows while using air conditioning can reduce PM2.5 exposure by about 50% on average.
If your building lets through lots of particulate matter through cracks, that number will be lower. If no air comes through while your windows are closed, more than 50% of PM2.5 will be blocked.
Closing windows so that fewer PM2.5 particles enter the building can almost immediately improve some measurable variables such as "heart rate variability".[210; 211]
You can even make your home more airtight if you want to reduce particulate matter levels even further...
Please keep in mind that I'll never recommend keeping your windows closed at all times.
With closed windows, there's no new oxygen that can enter the house or CO2 that can be removed. Moreover, toxins that are created inside the home from cooking or that are emitted from furniture will also remain trapped and re-circulate.
If you use air conditioners - which are used in large parts of the warmer locations in the developed world - there will always be an exchange of air - preventing the effectiveness of this strategy.
Of course, air exchange locations of air conditioners can be ideal locations for filtering out particulate matter with an air purifier.
One more thing:
Completely airtight homes are not a perfect option, in my opinion. Why? Well, such homes might help you limit particulate matter from entering your home, but indoor oxygen levels will also be dramatically reduced in such instances - unless you put lots of plants inside your home.
The ultimate method for avoiding particulate matter exposure in the city is thus to create an airtight home with so many plants that CO2 is fully recycled into oxygen.
A man can dream...
A blue print for my home in 5 years? Time will tell...
You can simply envision outdoor plants to be "air purifiers" that are placed outside your house.
Pines especially capture particulate matter well. You can buy pines that can grow on rooftops, such as:
Don't worry if you don't understand what these Latin plant names refer to - I don't either. Nevertheless, if you ask a professional gardener they'll probably know what to do if you tell them you want a very specific plant on your rooftop.
Pinus mugo, as I've been told
by mister Google
If you cover 90% of an average home's rooftop with such pine plants, up to 100 kilograms of PM10 and PM2.5 can be filtered out of the air over the course of a year.
Another strategy is to surround the perimeter of your home with conifer trees, which is also a pine class plant. Conifers have been proven to effectively filter the air from particulate matter.
Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), Hedera helix, also called "common ivy" or "English ivy" are additional great plants that you can place around your house.
Protecting plants from rain exposure increases the amount of particulate matter is effectively captured from the air. The reason is that rain removes some of the particulate matter that's captured by the plants again.
Of course, you cannot fully remove plants from rain exposure...
Placing plants closer to polluting areas - self-evidently - also increases plant's efficiency.
Not all plants are equally as effective in reducing particulate matter. Some types of plants re-emit the particulate matter they capture during warmer seasons.
Scots Pine - simple, but one of the kings of
outdoor air purification.
Unfortunately, studying the effects of vegetation on particulate matter reduction is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, almost all trees will reduce the amount of PM2.5 or PM10 that enters your home to some extent - some plants just do so better than others.
Combinations of several types of plants work best.
Even creating a "living wall" - literally a wall of vegetation - can dramatically reduce particulate matter exposure. Juniperus chinensis, or Chinese Juniper, is a great option for that - which is a pine plant again.
Other highly effective species for creating a living wall is:
If all roads had living walls like these,
particulate matter would be much less of a problem
The downside of plants?
Some people will have allergic reactions to having lots of plants in their vicinity. Whether increasing vegetation around your house is a solution thus depends on your personal context.
Nevertheless, if you're (mostly) allergy-free, then surrounding your entire home with plants and plant walls can massively improve your particulate matter exposure levels...
But what if you can't do much with plants because you're living in a flat?
In that case:
Yes, air pollution does have political solutions (sometimes).
Remember that as an individual, you cannot accomplish anything in the political domain. As a group of people, especially those who are affected most by air pollution in a single area, you can change things.
The expansion of an airport, the creation of a new busy road near your neighborhood, or the construction of a new factory may be preventable if you band together in your community.
While this strategy is self-evident, I'd still decided to include it here. Again, remember that pollution that's emitted close to your living and working environment mostly predicts the PM
0.1 and PM2.5 levels there...
Lastly, another harm-reduction strategy:
Infrared one of the types of light that's emitted by the sun - the others being ultraviolet light (that give you a sunburn) and visible light (which makes up all the colors of the rainbow).
Some types of infrared light are actually what makes the sun feel warm to your skin - infrared light also literally penetrates into your body.
That infrared light is also used in "infrared saunas". And because infrared light heats up your body, it is an alternative sauna method than traditional saunas that use hot air.
Infrared light has actually been shown to aid in the detoxification of many substances.
Unfortunately, there's no direct evidence for infrared light expelling particulate matter from your body - the same is true for regular saunas. Nonetheless, it can reasonably be expected that infrared light expels particulate matter levels from your cells and helps your body detox.
Of course, sunlight is your best overall option for adding infrared light to your body.
One problem with air pollution is that smog can dramatically reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the air's surface - a problem that I'll treat in my next blog post on air pollution in general.
I'd like to see studies on the detoxification of particulate matter in the near future, especially because this type of air pollution is so widespread...
As always, all roads lead to the sun...
In fact, particulate matter is so widespread that you'd have to ask ethical questions regarding its output - that's exactly what I'll do in the next section...
Want to get a few additional tips to further decrease your risks? Download the infographic below:
Remember the statistics: 800,000 deaths directly attributable to particulate matter per year, and almost 5 million lives cut short.
One reason for including this short ethical and political analysis of particulate matter in relation to the environment is because solutions to this problem are not always up to us.
You might be affected by air pollution while having no say in the matter at all...
Let's take several diverging ethical and political views in Western societies, and apply them to the problem of particulate matter:[24; 25; 26; 27]
While I'm oversimplifying here, famous 20th-century liberal philosopher John Rawls has claimed that societies should be set up in such a way so that human lives are ruled by circumstances as little as possible, so that each individual in a liberal society has the maximum amount of freedom.
Rawls accepted that some redistribution of economic goods might need to be introduced so that each individual would have their lives ruled as little as possible by circumstance.
From the political perspective of the West, Rawls is considered a more left-leaning thinker.
Translated to the problem of particulate matter, you could argue that from Rawls' philosophy, individuals in society might need to be compensated for the damage particulate matter does to them.
In a sense, because particulate matter damages individuals for which they are not compensated, and because your freedom as an individual is inhibited due to air pollution, particulate matter emissions are fundamentally unjust in a sense.
(I'll get back to why some people are hit harder by air pollution than others later on.)
A more libertarian principle of justice entails that aggression should not be permitted upon other members of society.
It's possible to make the case that emitting particulate matter actively harms other people - and can thus be considered an act of (minor) aggression...
Because particulate matter emissions are a form of aggression upon other members of society, victims should be compensated for the damage dealt upon them (or particulate matter emissions should be prohibited, which is less viable.)
That libertarian perspective is more right-leaning in Western societies (although it's also arguable that libertarianism transcends the left-right paradigm).
My point is that particulate matter can be considered problematic from both the left and right spectra of politics.
Why do people accept air pollution in society so easily then?
The problem with air pollution in general, and particulate matter specifically is that you're not directly observing the harm that's being done.
Emitting particulate matter is like buying palm oil that leads to the destruction of rain-forests: if you don't directly see the harm that's being done, you more prone to buy the palm oil anyway.
Of course, people also understand that particulate matter emissions are also harming people, but its nature is different than direct violence (such as assaulting someone).
Let me explain:
If I directly poison a few people with lead, the police will be at my doorstep pretty quickly. If I poison 100,000 people with just a little bit of lead through the air, however, I often won't have to pay for my deeds.
Let's explore that example further with a case study:
Assume that I have a factory that directly emits pollutants into the air, and 100,000 people in that environment are affected.
Let's also assume that I operate that factory for 30 years so that the negative consequences of the particulate matter are thinly spread out over a long period of time.
Fortunately, you now know that air pollution cuts peoples lives short, so the case study below should be telling.
Assume these facts:
Over the course of 30 years, 10,000 people who live very close the factory have their lives cut short by 3 months, 50,000 people living in a medium range lose 1 month of their lives, and 40,000 people have their lives cut short by two weeks.
Again, because the damage occurs over a 30 year period, no-one really notices the harm being done.
To ease calculation, let's also assume that 1 month consists of 4 weeks.
In the case sketched above, let's calculate how many weeks of time I remove from people's lives with my factory:
Overall, 120,000 + 200,000 + 80,000 = 400,000 weeks of human lives that are lost over a 30-year period.
Let's also say the average person becomes 80 years old in the area around the factory. For simplicity sake, assume that a year contains 50 weeks. In that case, one human life consist of 4,000 weeks.
Here comes the kicker:
Remember my factory shortened the lifespans of people in that area by 400,000 weeks over a 30-year period? 400,000 weeks / 4,000 week per lifetime = 100 lives being lost.
Almost imperceptibly, I would thus kill 100 people over a 30-year period, which equals more than 3 human beings per year.
And yet, there's no police at my doorstep arresting me.
If you still think my scenario is some very out of the box fantasy, think again.
There are actual instances in which such a shift in mortality rates and health is observed, due to a factory temporarily closing because of strikes.
Overall, I would consider air pollution and particulate matter a type of secondhand smoking.
That sounds counter-intuitive but bear with me...
By emitting particulate matter into the air, someone profits in a society.
If I drive a car for 30 hours a week, I'm benefiting because I can drive my car. Other people are harmed because they live near the road I'm emitting that particulate matter on.
Someone who lives in the city and who bikes to their work does not emit much particulate matter at all (perhaps only in relation to the energy production they rely on), and has thus a net-negative contribution of particulate matter in that society.
The biking person is harmed on a relative basis because of particulate matter emissions, but never compensated.
The key here is to understand that not everyone produces particulate matter equally and is harmed equally.
Some people produce almost no particulate matter but are harmed quite a lot...
Want a more extreme example than cars? Take the particulate matter emissions of airplanes.[327; 328; 329; 330]
80% of this planet has never flown--20% of Americans have never flown.
And yet, if you've never flown your health is still negatively influenced to the same extent as people who do fly - often even more negatively influenced because as a poor person, you're more prone to live near the airport...
PM0.1 concentrations near airports can be 2 fold higher within a 4-kilometer distance from an airport, and 30% higher at 7 kilometers. In the direct vicinity of an airport, particulate matter concentrations can increase 10-fold.
Unfortunately, that particulate matter penetrates indoors as well.
If you're working at a minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant chain near an airport, you're taking a big hit to your health without being compensated for that particulate matter damage.
To make matters worse:
The problem is that our entire economic system is based upon at least a degree of air pollution.
If air pollution was completely prohibited, no factory or car could function anymore.
The problem, in my mind, is not pollution per se, but that people are not compensated for the pollution they're exposed to in a just manner. Of course, measuring the pollution output of each individual in a given society would be almost impossible.
Particulate matter concentrations are the highest in areas where most people work and live.
Solutions are possible though:
Up to 80% reductions in particulate matter concentrations can be achieved by technologies that are currently already available. The society-wide implementation of such technologies is partially responsible for the reduction in particulate matter concentrations in the EU.
One very successful intervention, installing particulate matter filters in diesel trucks and cars, have reduced their emissions by 95-99%.
Unfortunately, many people who have diesel motor vehicles are intentionally removing their filters. The reason for the removal is that these filters also need to be replaced over time, just as HEPA filters in your air purifier.
Buying a new air filter can be costly, and people don't buy a new one. Costs are leveled upon other members of society again...
Particulate matter's effect is not just restricted to human health. The environment you live in also deteriorates the more particulate matter is emitted into the air.
Let's shortly go through three environmental effects one by one:
Firstly, particulate matter lowers the health of plants.[317; 320; 321; 322]
Particulate matter, for example, can lower the health of soils.
Crops themselves can also be directly damaged by particulate matter. Soils next to road have lower nutrient levels.
Bacteria and fungi in the soil are affected by particulate matter, for example, which will affect plant growth.
Additionally, particulate matter sometimes "covers" plants so that they receive less sunlight. Light is essential for plants to grow, and when plants are covered by dust they won't grow as well as they otherwise would.
The temperatures of leaves are also increased when more dust settles on them. Some sources argue that the dust increases rather than decreases light absorption, but that increase occurs in an unnatural way.
Secondly, particulate matter negatively affects water quality.[320; 323; 324; 325; 326]
Water in your environment can become more acidic due to particulate matter settling there. Particulate matter also carries certain toxic metals such as aluminum or cadmium into the water supply.
Another effect is that even the nutrients in oceans and rivers are influenced by particulate matter. The quality of the seafood you're eating and the water you're drinking may thus be affected by particulate matter emissions of cars and factories.
Thirdly, even rain becomes different the more particulate matter emitted into the air.[318; 319; 320]
While it was previously believed that particulate matter causes "acid rain", that claim is criticized nowadays.
It is nevertheless clear that particulate matter changes the nature of our rain. Emitting lots of pollutants in the air does not make them disappear - that pollution will come down somewhere.
Many more environmental effects of particulate matter can be found.
Demonstration of that latter goal gives credence to the thesis that particulate matter is both an ethical and societal problem
Please keep in mind that I did not want to sketch the ethical and political implications of particulate matter pollution exhaustively.
Doing so would require a 200,000-word blog post, instead of a 22,500 one...
Nevertheless, I hope that this small section has made you think about what a problem of justice particulate matter pollution can entail for society...
As you know by now, some particulate matter exposure is unavoidable - you also know that that exposure is a human tragedy...
Hundreds of thousands of people die on a yearly basis because of breathing particulate matter, and millions of lives are cut short.
And yet, there's no easy solution to the particulate matter problem: the entire modern economic system is indirectly based upon processes that produce particulate matter, such cars, industry, and energy production.
Governments only slowly manage to reduce particulate matter pollution - even in Western societies.
You also know by now that particulate matter also causes heart and lung disease, diabetes, cancer, brain problems, and much more.
So what's the solution? Take matters into your own hands...
Plant trees around your house, use air purifiers both at home and at work, take political action to prevent that busy road from going by your house, wear a respirator when you're in your car, exercise in nature, and eat a good diet.
Do what you need to do to take care of your health.
No-one is going to do that for you...
You've just got yourself one step closer to paradise
by reading this blog post...
Believe it or not, my message is optimistic.
Well, you can control how particulate matter affects you, and cut your exposure levels down with up to 90%.
That's a huge difference...
Even if you're living in a polluted metropolis, you may still be able to get your exposure levels down to the level of a Norwegian forest.
Will doing so cost some money? Sure: good air purification and related upkeep and energy costs, planting lots of trees, and making your house airtight are felt in your wallet.
But your health will thank you in the long run. And even though I've painted a bleak picture in this article, you can pull it off.
Start by measuring your exposure levels, and then systematically reduce exposure.
For God's sake, get a high-quality air purifier if you're living in a toxic city...
Starting to improve you air quality is like riding your bike for the first time - you might be scared at first, but with practice, you'll get effortless control and succeed automatically.
Begin today, not tomorrow.
You deserve it - and your health does too...
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - with distinction), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com.
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