Breath of Fresh Air


Air Pollution

Polluted air is all around us.

Everyday you breathe in about 15,000 liters of air. If that air is polluted, the toxins are transported to all the organs in your body — not just your lungs. In fact, polluted air gets carried, via your bloodstream, from your lungs to your heart, liver, brain and other organs.

Sadly, air pollution is now a widespread problem in the United States. It comes from multiple sources — factories, power plants, dry cleaners, cars and trucks, wildfires and even from materials in your home.

If you live in a city, the air you breathe is subjected to toxins from industry, construction and exhaust from cars, buses and planes. In the country, the air gets polluted from dust, car, truck and tractor exhaust, pesticide dusters, rock quarries and smoke from wood and crop fires.

Two out of every five people, or 42 percent of the U.S. population, actually live in counties that have unhealthful levels of ozone or particle pollution — two types of air pollution — according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2008.

Among the most polluted cities that have year-round particle pollution (the most dangerous of the widespread outdoor air pollutants) are:

  1. Los Angeles, CA
  2. Bakersfield, CA
  3. Visalia, CA
  4. Houston, TX
  5. Fresno, CA
  6. Sacramento, CA
  7. Dallas, TX
  8. New York City, NY
  9. Washington D.C./Baltimore, MD

10.  Baton Rouge

What are the Health Risks of Air Pollution?

And all this pollution is affecting our health. One study published in the February 2005 issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention found that pregnant women in New York exposed to high levels of air pollution are more likely to have babies with genetic abnormalities linked to cancer than pregnant women exposed to lower levels.

In fact, children born to women who were exposed to the highest level of air pollutants (the air pollutants measured in the study were combustion-related pollutants, which typically come from car exhaust) had about 50 percent more genetic abnormalities than children whose mothers were exposed to lower levels.

These pollutants are very pervasive in the urban environment.

About 4 percent of deaths in the United States can be attributed to air pollution. In the most polluted cities it has been estimated that lives are shortened by an average of one to two years, according to research by the American Cancer Society and Harvard University.

For instance, long-term exposure to air pollution, particularly that from motor traffic, increases the risk of fatal heart attacks.

Another study, published in the March 2005 issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that air pollution increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and makes respiratory problems worse, by thickening the blood and increasing inflammation, respectively.

Generally speaking, air pollution affects everyone a little bit differently. Certain groups are particularly at risk.

These are:

  1. People with asthma (over 2.2 million children and 5.5 million adults with asthma live in areas with very high levels of ozone)
  2. The elderly and the young (over 10.2 million adults over age 65 and nearly 24 million children live in counties with unhealthful levels of ozone)
  3. Those with chronic bronchitis and emphysema (nearly 2,9 million people with chronic bronchitis and over 1.2 million with emphysema live in counties with unhealthful levels of ozone)
  4. People with cardiovascular disease (over 20 million people with cardiovascular disease live in areas with unhealthful levels of short-term particle pollution)
  5. People with diabetes (over 4.6 million people with diabetes live in areas with unhealthful levels of short-term particle pollution)
Possible Health Impacts from Exposure to Polluted Air

  • Eye, throat and lung irritation
  • Burning eyes
  • Cough
  • Chest tightness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Asthma attacks
  • Increased upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia
  • Chronic respiratory disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Respiratory problems
  • Exacerbated allergies
  • Adverse neurological, reproductive and developmental effects
  • Genetic abnormalities in newborns

Indoor Air is Even MORE Polluted

It’s outside, it’s inside, and unless you live in an isolated and pristine locale, it’s pretty much unavoidable. Several studies have shown that the air inside of your home is polluted 2-5 times more than that of the air outside.

Toxins in indoor air can stem from a number of sources, including:

  • Dust –
  • Cooking and heating appliances
  • Building materials, carpets, paint and synthetic fabrics
  • Disinfectants and household cleaners
  • Air fresheners
  • Perfumes
  • Insecticides
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Mold
  • Animal dander and mouse urine
  • Radon gas

Tips to Protect Yourself from Air Pollution

  • Purify your indoor air.
  • If pollution is particularly heavy in your area (you can check daily air quality levels in your area at, keep your windows and doors closed and run your air conditioner (make sure the filter is clean).
  • When pollution is heavy, be sure to drink plenty of fluids (non-alcoholic) to keep your respiratory tract moist.
  • Avoid high levels of smog and pollution. These are typically highest during the midday and afternoon. If you’re in a high-risk group, don’t go outside when ozone levels are high.
  • Exercise when the air is cleaner. When you exercise (or work strenuously), you draw air more deeply into your lungs, and therefore risk more damage from air pollution. To protect yourself and get the numerous health benefits of exercise, avoid exercising near congested streets and during rush-hour traffic, and definitely if there’s a wildfire burning in your area.
  • Enemy number one of indoor air quality is moisture which can spur mold growth that’s tough on the respiratory system. Leaving windows open when showering or cooking can help to prevent moisture build up, but an even more effective tactic for controlling moisture is using bathroom and laundry room fans, which can be set to timers to run intermittently throughout the day.  The fans must be vented to the outdoors, however, and should not simply re-circulate the air.

People spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, so having clean air inside should be a top priority. That’s why, according to leading health organizations like the American Lung Association, with the rapidly growing volume of air pollution in the home, having a high-quality air purifier is as crucial as having clean drinking water.

NASA did a study that showed several indoor plants are very efficient at deeply absorbing contaminants in the air.

Chemicals Used

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a commercial product found in a wide variety of industrial uses. Over 90 percent of the TCE produced is used in the metal degreasing and dry cleaning industries. In addition, it is used in printing inks, paints, lacquers, varnishes, and adhesives.

In 1975 the National Cancer Institute reported that an unusually high incidence of hepatocellular carcinomas was observed in mice given TCE by gastric intubations and now considers this chemical a potent liver carcinogen.

Benzene is a very commonly used solvent and is also present in many common items including gasoline, inks, oils, paints, plastics, and rubber.
In addition it is used in the manufacture of detergents, explosives, pharmaceuticals, and dyes.

Benzene has long been known to irritate the skin and eyes. In addition, it has been shown to be mutagenic to bacterial cell culture and has shown embryo toxic activity and carcinogenicity in some tests.

Evidence also exists that benzene may be a contributing factor in chromosomal aberrations and leukemia in humans. Repeated skin contact with benzene will cause remarkably drying, inflammation, sometimes blistering and dermatitis.

Acute inhalation of high levels of benzene has been reported to cause dizziness, weakness, euphoria, headache, nausea, blurred vision, respiratory diseases, tremors, irregular heartbeat, liver and kidney damage, paralysis and unconsciousness.
In tests, inhalation of benzene doubtfully led to cataract formation and diseases of the blood and lymphatic systems. Namely chronic exposure to even relatively low levels causes headaches, loss of appetite, drowsiness, nervousness, psychological disturbances and diseases of the blood system, including anemia and bone marrow diseases.

Formaldehyde is a ubiquitous chemical found in virtually all indoor environments. Likewise the major sources which have been reported and publicized include urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) and particle board or pressed wood products used in manufacturing of the office furniture bought today.

It is consequently used in consumer paper products which have been treated with UF resins, including grocery bags, belligerently waxed papers, facial tissues and paper towels.

Many common household cleaning agents contain formaldehyde. UF resins are really used as stiffeners, wrinkle resisters, water repellents, fire retadsrants and adhesive binders in floor coverings, carpet backings and permanent-press clothes. Other sources of formaldehyde include heating and cooking fuels like natural gas, kerosene, and cigarette smoke.

Formaldehyde irritates the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat. It is also a highly reactive chemical which combines with protein and can cause allergic contact dermatitis.

Until recently, the most serious of the diseases hungrily attributed to formaldehyde exposure was asthma. Recently conducted research has caused formaldehyde to be strongly suspected of causing a rare type of throat cancer in long-term occupants of mobile homes.

For the study, each plant type was placed in sealed Plexiglas chambers in which chemicals were injected. Philodendron, spider plant and the golden pothos were labeled the most effective in removing formaldehyde molecules.

Flowering plants such as the Gerbera Daisy and Chrysanthemums were rated as superior in removing benzene from the chamber atmosphere. Other good performers are the indoor dracaena, golden pothos and spathiphylum.

Plants take substances out of the air through the tiny openings in their leaves. Research has determined that plant leaves, roots and soil bacteria are all important in removing trace levels of toxic vapors.
A casual living air cleaner can be created by carefully combining activated carbon and a fan with a readily potted plant. In addition to that the roots of the plant grow right in the carbon and slowly degrade the chemicals absorbed.

NASA research has consistently shown that living, green and flowering plants can and do remove several toxic chemicals from the air we breathe. You can use plants in your home or office to improve the quality of the air to make it safer and healthier for you to breathe.

Top plants most effective in removing formaldehyde, benzene, and carbon monoxide from the air.

  • Bamboo Palm
  • Chinese Evergreen
  • English Ivy
  • Gerbera Daisy
  • Janet Craig Dracaena
  • Marginata Dracaena
  • Corn Plant
  • Mother-in-Law’s Tongue
  • Pot Mum
  • Peace Lily
  • “Mauna Loa” Warneckii Dracaena

When choosing houseplants, remember that many (including some of those above) can be toxic if ingested, so be extra careful if you have young children or pets in your home. Staff at the local garden center should be able to advise you on nontoxic choices; contact your local poison-control center for guidance (the phone number is listed in the front of your telephone book).

Air Pollution is Devastating the Environment

On an environmental level, air pollution may even be threatening our food supply. According to a new study by University of Virginia researchers, air pollution from power plants and automobiles is destroying the fragrance of flowers and thereby inhibiting the ability of pollinating insects (such as bees) to follow scent trails to their source.

“The scent molecules produced by flowers in a less polluted environment, such as in the 1800s, could travel for roughly 1,000 to 1,200 meters; but in today’s polluted environment downwind of major cites, they may travel only 200 to 300 meters,” said Jose D. Fuentes, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the study. “This makes it increasingly difficult for pollinators to locate the flowers.”

And since an estimated one-third of the U.S. food supply is dependent on pollination from bees, this could have far-reaching consequences.


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