Air Pollution and Its Impact on Health
Air pollution is a serious global health issue that has resulted in increasing morbidity and mortality worldwide. Air pollution causes and worsens a number of diseases, ranging from asthma to cancer, pulmonary illnesses and heart disease. Anyone can experience health impacts from polluted air such as respiratory irritation or breathing difficulties when exercising or doing outdoor activities. However, the gravity of effect depends on your present health status, the pollutant type and concentration you are exposed to as well as the length of your exposure to air pollution.
Air pollution includes harmful particles or gases in the air we breathe in. It is a mixture of hazardous substances in the air from both man-made as well as natural sources. The man-made air pollution is caused by human activities and the primary sources include vehicle emissions, fuel oils, coal-fuelled power plants and fumes from chemical production. Nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter are the main pollutants associated with man-made air pollutants. On the other hand, natural air pollution is caused by natural events and the natural sources of air pollution includes smoke from wildfires as well as ash and gases from volcanic eruptions. Ozone is one of the most common natural air pollutants.
Air pollution can be invisible to the eyes and odourless to the nose. People who do not realise this, may be at a higher risk of developing serious health problems of the unseen gases or particles in the air.
Pollution is found in the air not only outdoors but also affects the quality of the air we breathe indoors. It is classified in two types, namely, ambient/outdoor air pollution and household/indoor air pollution.
Household air pollution
Indoor air pollution is the degradation of indoor air quality by harmful chemicals and other materials. It includes dust, dirt or gases in the air inside a building such as your home or workplace that can be extremely harmful to us. It can be worse than outdoor air pollution because closed areas allow potential pollutants to build up more than open spaces. It is one of the leading causes of diseases and premature death globally.
Indoor air pollution can be generated through cooking, combustion activities such as burning of candles, use of fireplaces, use of unvented space heaters or kerosene heaters and cigarette smoking. This produces a variety of health-damaging pollutants, including particulate matter (PM), methane, carbon monoxide, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).
Ambient air pollution
Ambient air pollution is the air pollution in outdoor environments. Poor ambient air quality occurs when pollutants reach concentrations high enough to affect human health and the environment. Urban outdoor air pollution is a more specific term referring to the ambient air pollution experienced by populations living in urban areas, typically in or around cities. It involves exposures that take place outside of the environment. The most common outdoor air pollutants are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter of different size fractions and sulphur dioxide.
Exposure to high levels of these pollutants can cause a variety of adverse health outcomes such as increased risk of respiratory infections, heart diseases and lung cancer. Both short and long term exposure to air pollutants have been associated with health impacts. People with underlying pulmonary conditions are more severely affected by exposure to pollutants. The particulates may cause respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis, COPD and the worsening or exacerbation of COPD. Nitrogen dioxide causes respiratory infections and deteriorates lung functions, whereas sulphur dioxide causes exacerbation of COPD and cardiovascular diseases. In addition to this, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide may cause wheezing and exacerbation of asthma.
Effects of air pollution on children
There is a disparity in the impact of air pollution on children and adults as children are more vulnerable to breathing in polluted air than adults. Consequently, children are more vulnerable to the adverse health effects of air pollution because their airways are smaller as their lungs are still growing and developing and they spend longer periods of time outdoors, engaged in vigorous activities that make them breathe more rapidly than adults. Also, they breathe through their mouths which lets the air pollutants pass deeper into the lungs.
Moreover, air pollution affects children’s lungs both before and after birth as the exposure to air pollution can harm the normal growth of the lungs, impacting the function of the womb during gestation period of the foetus, and during the period of childhood and adolescence. Air pollutants have been associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes such as premature birth and low birth weight. Air pollution can also affect neurodevelopment and cognitive ability of children who may also develop asthma and cancer from the inhaled air pollutants. Exposure to the high levels of air pollution can put children at a greater risk of developing chronic diseases in their later life such as cardiovascular diseases.
Tips to protect yourself from unhealthy air
Personal actions can be taken by individuals to effectively reduce the risks of adverse health effects from air pollution. Here are some simple but effective tips for protecting you and your family from the dangers of air pollution:
- Check daily air pollution forecasts in your area to know when the air quality is bad from TV weather reports, newspapers and online weather forecasts. This will help you determine when you should take extra precautions to safeguard your health.
- Avoid going to areas known as pollution hotspots like highways and busy roads, especially during the peak hours. The further you keep yourself away from the traffic, the lower the pollution levels are.
- When the pollution level is high, avoid outdoor activities such as cycling and walking and instead go for indoors exercises such as gymming. In particular, restrict the period of time your child spends playing outdoors when the air quality is bad.
- Keep your windows closed when the outdoor air quality is poor and during periods of extreme cold.
- Smoking tobacco is one of the main source of air pollution indoors, therefore, you should avoid or ban smoking indoors.
- Use high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or purifiers at home to trap a large amount of circulating dirty particles in the air to reduce pollution indoors.
- Keep yourself well nourished by including fish oil and vitamin C in your diet to avoid and recover from damage caused by air pollution.