The Most Dangerous Air Pollutants

We tolerate air pollution as an inevitable part of modern life, but what exactly are we breathing in every day? What effect does it have on our health? Most importantly, what should we do about it?

Studies show that pollution-related diseases kill more people per year than car accidents. Air pollution has a negative impact on our health, particularly in children, the elderly, and those with heart or respiratory problems such as asthma.

The effects of air pollution on our health can include:

  • Severe and frequent  asthma attacks
  • Coughing and shortness of breath
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, or lungs
  • Severe forms of emphysema and bronchitis
  • Heightened symptoms of heart conditions 
  • Cancer
  • Premature death

In this article we will go through the10 most common and most dangerous air pollutants. 

  1. Particulate Matter 

Particulate matter (also known as airborne particles or PM) is made up of airborne particles such as dirt, dust, and smoke, as well as small drops of liquid.

There are three sizes of airborne particles: PM10, PM2.5, and UFPs.

PM10 (Coarse particles)

PM10, or coarse particles, are inhalable particles with a diameter of 2.5 to 10 microns. These particles can be found in many places, such as the dust in your attic or in smoke from a wildfire. PM10 airborne particles have the potential to damage your throat, eyes, and nose, as well as cause serious health problems.

PM2.5 (Fine particles)

PM2.5, or fine particles, are inhalable particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less  and can only be seen under a microscope. Pet dander, dust mites, bacteria, and dust from building and demolition sites are all common sources of fine particulate matter. PM2.5 particles are tiny enough to lodge in lung tissue and cause respiratory diseases such as asthma.

Long-term exposure to PM2.5 can impair lung function and shorten life expectancy.

UFPs (Ultrafine particles)

Ultrafine particles (UFPs) have a diameter of less than 0.1 microns and account for approximately 90% of all airborne particles. 

Because of their small scale, UFPs are the most dangerous particulate matter to breathe. They are inhaled and stored in your lungs and absorbed directly into your bloodstream, allowing them to reach every organ in your body quickly. Ultrafine particles have especially bad health consequences, raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes while shortening  life expectancy.

  1. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs or volatile organic compounds are pollutants that are released into the air from a variety of items we use every day. During the manufacturing process,  VOCs are trapped in the product, or in it’s packaging. “Off- gassing” or “outgassing” occurs when these compounds are released into the air. Many VOCS are harmful , some can even cause cancer. Once in the air, they can also react with other gases and produce other pollutants.

VOCs are emitted from everyday items found in your home, including:

  • Building materials 
  • Home and office furnishings
  • Paints and other solvents
  • Cleaning Products 
  • Personal care products
  • Fragrances and perfumes 
  • Air fresheners 
  • Pesticides
  • Dry-cleaned clothing, carpets or furniture 

Exposure to VOCs can cause a lot of health problems. Short term exposure symptoms include: 

  • Irritation in the throat, eyes and nose
  • Headache and dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Worsening of asthma symptoms 
  • Low levels of concentration
  • Behavioral and mood changes

Long term exposure can cause more severe lifetime conditions like:

  • Cancer
  • Liver & kidney damage
  • Central nervous system damage
  1. Ozone (O3)

Ozone is a naturally occurring gas that can be present in both the Earth’s upper and lower atmospheres.  In the atmospheric layer where airplanes  fly, ozone helps protect us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. However, when ozone is present at ground level it is harmful to our health and causes many health problems.

Ground level ozone (lower atmosphere) is produced when car emission, refineries, power plants, factories and products release airborne chemicals that react in the sunlight.  Have you ever wondered why there’s more smog on hot summer days? 

The stronger the sun the higher the levels of produced ozone. 

Ozone emissions can have a number of serious health consequences, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing and weezing
  • More common asthma attacks
  • Increased risk of respiratory infections and diseases
  • Premature death
  1. Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Carbon Monoxide, also known as the “invisible killer,” is an odorless, colorless gas that can easily go by undetected. Carbon monoxide is generated primarily by combustion processes such as the burning of wood, gasoline, coal, charcoal, natural gas, and propane, but it can also be found indoors from a variety of sources. These sources include;  kerosene and gas heaters without proper venting, the back-drafting of furnaces and water heaters and the leaking chimneys and fireplaces.

Since carbon monoxide cannot be seen or smelled, it is important to install a carbon monoxide detector in your house.

Symptoms of exposure to carbon monoxide are:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

Carbon monoxide poisoning on the other hand (resulted by long term exposure) is associated with the following symptoms:

  • Loss of orientation
  • Mental Confusion
  • Loss of motorical coordination
  • Loss of concentration 
  • Loss of consciousness
  • ADHD like symptoms
  • Death 
  1. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

Nitrogen dioxide is a foul-smelling gas  that is produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, that are burned in road traffic, manufacturing, construction and more. Nitrogen dioxide also contributes to the production of ozone, particulate matter, and acid rain production.

Indoor sources of nitrogen dioxide are gas stoves or heaters that have adequate vents.

Nitrogen dioxide has a number of negative health effects, including:

  • Inflammation of lungs
  • Reduced resistance to respiratory infections 
  1. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a colorless gas or liquid with a noxious odor.

The accumulation of sulfur dioxide in the air is almost entirely due to human activity. When fossil fuels like coal and oil are burned in industrial processes, as well as when mineral ores like aluminum are smelted, sulfur dioxide is emitted.

This noxious gas are often responsible for reducing visibility and causing acid rain.

Health risk associated with SO2 are the following:

  • Irritation of the nose or throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Permanent damage to the lungs
  • Acute respiratory illness
  • Death
  1. Lead

Airborne lead concentrations in the United States decreased by 94% between 1980 and 2007, thanks to the phase-out of leaded gasoline.

However, industrial processes like lead-acid battery production have become a  significant source of airborne lead.

Lead exposure has a cumulative impact on your long-term health, which means that the more lead you are exposed to over time, the more likely you are to develop severe health problems later in life. Chronic lead poisoning can cause severe damage to:

  • Cardiovascular, immune, and reproductive systems 
  • Brain, kidney disease and central nervous system

Ultimately, lead poisoning can lead to death.

  1. Mold

Mold is most commonly associated with the icky green fuzz on spoiled bread, but there are over 100,000 species of mold. 

Adverse mold reactions come in three varieties: allergenic, pathogenic, and toxigenic. Although allergenic molds can aggravate mild allergies and pathogenic molds can cause infection in people with weakened immune systems, toxigenic molds cause a toxic response in humans and a negative impact on the environment.

Mold can be found in a variety of places, including homes, businesses, and schools.

Fort mold to grow, it needs a damp and an environment with high humidity. 

Mold is most commonly found on :

  • Roofs, walls, and basements that have leaks
  • In bathrooms and on walls, there’s a lot of condensation
  • Blocked drains
  • Dehumidifying equipment 
  • Wet floors and wet carpets
  1. Pollen

One of the most well-known causes of seasonal allergies is pollen.

Plants release tiny pollen grains in the spring, summer and fall to fertilize other plants of the same nature. If you are allergic to pollen, the grains will reach your respiratory system, where your body recognizes them as invaders (antigens). In response, your body produces antibodies to combat them.

Pollen triggers respiratory allergies. Trees, grasses, and weeds produce the majority of pollen that causes allergic reactions. Sneezing, runny nose, and nasal congestion, shortness of breath and worsening of asthma attacks are the most common symptoms of pollen allergies.

  1. Pet Dander

Birds, cats, dogs, mice, and other animals with fur or feathers shed small flecks of skin called dander. Dander also consists of tiny particles of dead skin cells from pets, as well as waste and urine particles. Even if there are no animals present, pet dander can easily spread from your home to schools, hospitals, and other public places.

Pet allergies are triggered by exposure to pet dander, resulting in symptoms such as:

  • Runny nose 
  • Sneezing 
  • Itchy, swollen, or watery eyes
  • Nose congestion

Furthermore, if you have asthma, being exposed to pet dander can aggravate your symptoms.

How To Deal With Air Pollution

You may not be able to completely avoid pollution on your own, but you can take these practical measures to protect yourself and your family from being exposed to harmful air pollutants.

  1. Avoid using toxic synthetic cleaners, paints, and other household products. Reduce your exposure to toxic VOCs, replace them with eco-friendly, naturally-derived products.
  2. Eliminate mold and allergy triggers from your home. To limit your exposure to biological contaminants, make sure your home is well ventilated, cleaned regularly, and has a relative humidity of 30% -60%.
  3. Invest in a high quality air cleaner. Air cleaners based on HEPA filtration with activated carbon  technology have been accredited and proven to remove dangerous particles from the air, providing you with the highest quality of air and up to 99.7% protection.
  4. Maintain your gas appliances properly. Ensure that your stove, heater and other gas-powered appliances are serviced by a qualified professional on a regular basis.
  5. Consider replacing your wood logs with gas logs. Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces emit a considerable amount of combustible contaminants such as CO, NO2 and ultrafine particles, even when properly maintained.
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