Poor Air Quality and the Consequences for Lung Health

Both indoors and out, air quality has an impact on human health.

Especially if you live in a large city, air quality can be a real issue for respiratory and lung health in particular. While you can’t control the air outside, you can take steps to improve indoor air. Be aware of the potential contaminants in the air at home or in the workplace that could be compromising your health, and understand what outdoor air pollution is and how to protect yourself from it.

Outdoor Air Quality and Pollutants

The air outside, especially in larger cities and in industrial areas, can be contaminated with ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and literally hundreds of more pollutants. To understand what the air is like where you are, check the Air Quality Index, or AQI. This measurement tracks particulate matter, ozone, and four common chemical air pollutants.

The AQI measure ranges from green, no pollution at all, to maroon, hazardous levels of pollutants that require all people stay indoors if possible. In between the two extremes, the levels are yellow, orange, red, and purple. Even at yellow, the AQI recommends that anyone sensitive to pollutants should limit outdoor activities.

There are several lung problems that can be triggered or worsened by poor outdoor air quality and specific pollutants:

  • Ozone in the air irritates the lungs, causing an effect similar to sunburn.
  • Particulate matter in the air that is less than half the width of a hair gets trapped in the lungs.
  • Particles can trigger lung inflammation.
  • Particulate matter worsens existing lung conditions, like asthma, and leads to more hospitalizations.
  • Long-term exposure to particle pollutants damages the smaller airways of the lungs.
  • Long-term exposure also slows the development of lung function in children.

Outdoor air quality is not something any one person can control. But you can protect yourself by checking the AQI, especially before being active outdoors. The negative impacts of pollutants on the airways are worse when you are exercising or exerting yourself. Change your plans for outdoor activities if the AQI is orange or worse.

Indoor Air Quality and Health

The quality of air in your home or workplace can potentially be worse than outdoors, but you have more control over it. A good air filter or air purifier will help keep indoor air in good condition to minimize harm to the lungs. Some of the pollutants and irritants indoors that may impact your lungs include:

  • Viruses and bacteria
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Pet dander
  • Cockroaches
  • Cleaning supplies and other volatile household chemicals
  • Carpet
  • Mold
  • Dust and dust mites
  • Radon
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Burning of wood or garbage outdoors
  • Lead
  • Nitrogen dioxide

Indoor air pollutants affect the lungs in a number of ways: triggering asthma attacks, making asthma worse, increasing the risk of respiratory infections, and worsening chronic conditions like bronchitis and COPD. People with existing lung conditions are at the greatest risk.

When Air Contaminants are Cancerous

Of all the ways in which air pollutants can trigger lung health problems, cancer is the most frightening. While smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, there are still many people who develop this cancer without ever smoking a cigarette. Evidence from research increasingly shows that a contributing factor in these victims is air pollution and poor air quality.

An important indoor contaminant that is definitively connected with cancer is asbestos. This harmful material was used in constructing homes and both commercial and industrial buildings for decades. It causes the rare cancer mesothelioma in the tissue around the lungs and can also trigger lung cancer.

You can protect yourself in the home and at work with air purifiers, but because of how damaging asbestos is, you should also be aware of its presence. If you suspect asbestos is in your home, which is common in buildings built before 1980, hire a professional asbestos abatement company. They can either secure any asbestos to keep it from affecting air quality or safely remove it.

Air quality, both indoors and out, is an important factor in lung and respiratory health. Be aware of what may be in your air and take steps to protect yourself and your family. At home and in the workplace you can actively change the quality of the air around you, and this can help combat any negative impacts from outdoor air pollution.

The contents of the Venta blog are intended for informational purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of health and medical professionals. Always refer to your physician or other qualified healthcare professional for questions or concerns you may have about your health and wellness.