Air pollution refers to the release of pollutants into the air that can harm human health and our planet as a whole. Most of it comes from production and energy use, as burning fossil fuels releases chemicals and gases into the air. Making things even worse is that air pollution doesn’t just contribute to climate change, it’s exacerbated by it as air pollution, in the form of carbon dioxide and methane increases the temperature of the Earth. If you think climate change only harms the environment, however, think again, as it also increases the production of allergenic air pollutants like mold, due to damp conditions caused by things like flooding and extreme weather, as well as pollen, as there is more pollen produced and a longer pollen season.
Even healthy people can experience health impacts from polluted air, such as respiratory irritation or breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities. Your own personal risk of adverse effects depends on your current health status, the pollutant type and concentration, and the length of your exposure to the polluted air, but as air pollution contributes to the body’s toxic load, there is little doubt that it has a negative effect on anyone’s health.
The average person, at rest, inhales and exhales nearly 3,000 gallons of air a day, and someone who is more active obviously uses a lot more than that. Just imagine how many pollutants we’re breathing in every single day?
Toxic air pollutants get into the body mainly through breathing, though they can also be ingested or absorbed through the skin. Once a pollutant enters the body, it can stay in things, like asbestos, be exhaled, or move into the stream from the lungs, such as the oxygen we breathe, or from the digestive system or skin. Once in the bloodstream, it’s carried to all parts of the body. And, as it moves around the body, any of those pollutants can undergo chemical changes, particularly when passing through the liver, that makes them either less, or more, toxic.
Toxic air pollutants can cause health problems by interfering with normal body functions. Most commonly they lead to chemical reactions within individual cells, which are the building blocks of living things. Those changes can kill cells or impair cell functioning. That may result in damaged organs, cancer, or birth defects in an unborn child, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that taking deep breaths on a smoggy day or inhaling fumes at the gas pump isn’t a good idea when it comes to your health.
The tiniest airborne particles in pollution like soot, made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens, in the form of gas or solids, that are carried in the air, are especially dangerous as they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even premature death. Research in 2013 found that pollution increases the risk of having a heart attack. The Italian study found that people over the age of 65, and males, in particular, were especially susceptible to having arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation or acute coronary syndromes at increasing levels of air pollution.
Air pollution can have immediate effects, including:
- Aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory illness
- Added stress to heart and lungs, requiring those organs to work harder to supply the body with oxygen
- Damaged cells in the respiratory system
It can also have long-term effects, such as:
- Accelerated lung aging
- Loss of lung capacity and weaker lung functioning
- Diseases like cancer, bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema
- A shorter life span
There are many other possible effects depending on the specific pollutant too, among them are:
- The development of chronic respiratory disease in children
- Chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive lung disease
- Irregular heartbeat
- Nonfatal heart attacks
- Greater susceptibility to respiratory infections
- Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Dry throat
- Lowered resistance to infections
- Increased fatigue
- Weakened athletic performance
Some hazardous air pollutants can even be deadly, or have severe health risks in small amounts and are regulated by law, such as mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene. Those pollutants are most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incinerating, or in gasoline. Walke says. Benzene, for example, is classified as a carcinogen by the EPA and can lead to eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term, and blood disorders over the long term.
While that’s all rather concerning if not downright frightening, there are ways to protect yourself from harmful air.
6 Ways To Protect Yourself From Harmful Air
1. Take Fish Oil
In 2012, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, involving healthy, middle-aged participants was conducted in the United States. They were divided into two groups, one who was given a placebo, and the other, fish oil. The group given the fish oil received 3 grams of it daily four weeks. All volunteers were also exposed to unclean air for two hours. After the four-week period, the searchers found that the fish oil group did not suffer the negative consequences that the placebo group did, suggesting that the omega-3 fatty acids fish oil is known for the potential to help protect against health issues, including lipid and cardiac effects, associated with air pollution exposure.
There are plants all around us that can help us to fight the negative effects that air pollution can have on the human body, including eucalyptus. Australian Aborigines have long used the leaves of the eucalyptus tree to create infusions that when inhaled, help to ease congestion, colds, and fevers.
The healing powers of eucalyptus come thanks to a compound known as cineole, the active ingredient that can ease a cough, fight congestion and soothe sinus irritation. Multiple studies have been conducted supporting its use, including 2008 research out of the NYU Langone Medical Center. The experts concluded that sinus issues were significantly decreased when 200mg of cineole was taken three times a day.
Another powerful healing plant, the menthol contained in peppermint helps to soothe the respiratory tract to allow for easier breathing. As peppermint is also an antihistamine and an antioxidant, it can work as a decongestant in addition to fighting off organisms that are harmful to the respiratory system.
Lungwort is a natural plant that’s been used since the 17th century for treating respiratory illnesses and clearing airways. A member of the Boraginaceae family that can be found growing in the wild in many parts of the world, has been used to treat all sorts of respiratory conditions, including colds, coughs, bronchitis and asthma. Lungwort contains a number of beneficial compounds, like saponins, quercetin, allantoin and tannic acid in addition to having antibiotic, wound healing and mild diuretic properties. Lungwort also has a high mucilage content that makes it very useful for treating chronic bronchitis, and it can be used to treat asthma and coughs, particularly when combined with herbs like coltsfoot. It has also been used to treat chest infections, thanks to its natural antibiotic effects.
5. Osha Root
Osha, or Ligusticum porteri, is a perennial herb that inhabits the dry, upland meadows and ravines of the Rocky Mountains. The beneficial part of the osha plant is the root, which has long been used and is considered sacred by Native Americans for cold, cough, and other respiratory ailments. It contains oils, including camphor, saponins, ferulic acid, terpenes, and phytosterols, which make it one of the greatest remedies for supporting lung function. The herb boosts circulation of air to the lungs, making it possible to breathe deeper. Its antihistamine properties will also calm irritated sinuses and soothe other respiratory irritations. Osha root helps clear mucus from the sinuses and lungs by increasing expectoration which relieves congestion to make breathing easier.
6. Essential Oils
A number of essential oils can also help reduce ill effects of air pollution, according to recent research. Trans-anethole, which is a flavor component of anise and fennel, estragole found in basil, and eugenol from clovebud oil, as well as Isoeugenol, found in ylang ylang, are just some of the ingredients that show potential for battling excess inflammation caused by fine particles of polluted air.
“The findings provide the first evidence that natural essential oil components counteract the inflammatory effects of particulate matter, such as that contained in polluted air,” said the lead author of the study published in Springer’s journal Environmental Chemistry Letters, Miriana Kfoury.
There are other essential oils that are known for their ability to heal and support the health of the lungs, as well as offering other beneficial effects to combat air pollution symptoms. Pure Oregano essential oil contains strong antimicrobial qualities, anti-inflammatory properties, and antibiotic effects. It is useful in getting rid of the phlegm and buildup from the sinuses and upper respiratory tract. Pure Rosemary essential oil, particularly 1, 8 – cineole chemotype is excellent for lung health, helping to strengthen the immune system and create a better defense against viruses and infections as well as offering anti-inflammatory properties. It can help sore throats, respiratory infection, and possibly bronchial asthma, due to its antispasmodic properties.