We’ve learned a lot about the importance of clean air and robust respiration to maintaining good health. It isn’t just about providing oxygen to power the mitochondria in our cells; it’s also about maintaining a proper pH balance, providing positive pressure for the effective movement of nutrient-rich blood, eliminating gaseous waste, and so much more. Here, we will discuss the dangers of low air quality, the benefits of clean air and why air quality matters, and how to address the quality of the air you breathe, using the latest research.
Table of Contents
- Why is Air Quality Important?
- How Does Air Quality Affect Health?
- What are the Causes of Air Pollution?
- Factors That Affect Air Quality
- What Can You Do to Improve Outdoor Air Quality?
- What Can You Do to Improve Indoor Air Quality?
- Good Air Quality Helps With a Good Life Quality
Why is Air Quality Important?
Back in the 1950s, the big tobacco companies were doing everything they could do to convince the general public that smoking wasn’t just safe, but that it was also good for you and the people around you. Today, we not only know that smoking tobacco is bad for you, but we have a pretty good understanding of why.
Smoking clogs the lungs with tar. This tar is a carcinogen, but perhaps more importantly in the short-term, it clogs our respiratory system. This increases pressure on the heart as it works tirelessly to provide the body with oxygenated and nutrient rich blood. Clean, oxygen rich air is as good for your health as smoking is bad for it. The two exist on opposite ends of a spectrum. By learning why air quality matters and improving the quality of the air we breathe on both personal and community levels, we improve human health outcomes drastically.
How Does Air Quality Affect Health?
High-quality air can be considered priority one in the hierarchy of health needs. You can live without food for a month, without water for up to a week. However, without oxygen-rich air, you’re gone within five minutes.
Short-Term Effects of Poor Air Quality
The short-term effects of poor air quality are fair indicators of what can happen down the road if these conditions persist. If we are alert to the quality of the air around us and the effects it has on us, we can do our best to avoid long-term exposure to compromised air. Ensuring we breathe clean air is the greatest determining factor for our long-term health.
The short-term effects of poor air quality should be looked to as warning signals of the disastrous health effects that we can expect if we ignore them. They include:
- Poor sleep quality: The subtle stress that is triggered by poor air quality can disturb sleep, which will contribute to poor health in the long term on its own. Poor sleep is also a major long-term health risk. This is because we do most of our healing during deep sleep.
- Elevated heart rate: Another consequence of poor air quality, elevated heart rate can harm cardiovascular health, prevent relaxation, and — once again — disturb sleep. A persistent elevated heart rate is a sure way to take years off of your life.
- Irritability: A foreseeable consequence of the two issues above, irritability is an emotional state that indicates subtle stress, which is in turn an indication of an underlying problem. Persistent stress has been associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and other systemic life-threatening health problems.
- Fatigue: An inevitable result of persistent stressors — a status for which poor air quality certainly qualifies — seemingly undue fatigue is there to tell you that something is taxing your system. Ignore it at your peril.
Long-Term Effects of Poor Air Quality
The long-term effects of poor air quality are catastrophic, and include heart disease and cancer. Research has linked persistent exposure to common airborne impurities to a variety of different forms of pulmonary disease. This is true in adults across the spectrum, regardless of overall health, and regardless of the presence or absence of other risk factors. Breathing low-quality air over an extended period of time can also have devastating effects on children, taxing their young systems and causing lasting damage. The dangers of low air quality are present for all ages.
Long-term research has linked poor air quality to myriad cardio-pulmonary conditions. Surprisingly, this is even more true for the very young than it is for middle aged and elderly people. As well as affecting adults of all ages, long-term poor air quality is a significant cancer and cardio-pulmonary risk for children as young as five years old. If there are small children in your household, it is arguably even more important for you to consider the quality of the air you breathe every day.
In short, poor air quality is a primary health concern. Keeping air quality high should be a priority on par with — or higher even than — the potential effects of dietary habits and poor hydration. While the quality of the air we breathe can have major effects on all of us, there are some risk factors to consider that may make it even more crucial to regulate your air quality for the sake of yourself and your loved ones.
Who Is At Risk For More Severe Symptoms?
While people of all ages are affected by the composition of the air we breathe, children younger than 10 years of age are at the greatest risk for a host of cardio-pulmonary conditions, ones resulting directly from poor air quality. Many childhood diseases not caused by diet or medical error are the direct and provable result of poor air quality.
While diet is a significant factor in the short term health of children, poor air quality has a much more rapid and often irreversible negative effect on their long-term health outcomes.
What are the Causes of Air Pollution?
The causes of poor air quality are many, as sources of pollution vary. There are pollutants we can affect directly — the indoor factors — and those to which we are subjected whether we want to be or not — the outdoor factors. If you wish to assess the air quality in your own home, you can perform a home air quality test.
The most prevalent source of poor indoor air quality at home is dust. Indoor dust is made up of roughly 90% human skin flakes. These flakes are the favorite food of many species of dust mite which can and will lay eggs in linens, clothing, human hair, skin, and even in our lungs. The accumulation of dead organic matter in our lungs is suspected to be a major causal factor of many forms of lung cancer.
Our outdoor air quality at home can be affected by the proximity of the home to industrial and high-traffic areas. Vehicle exhaust carries far more than just the remains of burnt fossile fuels. It also contains microscopic metal particulates of various elements, such as copper, aluminum, platinum, and other heavy metals. These particulates can lower the air quality. Once they are breathed in, they are practically impossible to extract from the body and can cause adverse health effects for many years. Proximity to major highways, airports, and metropolitan centers are the biggest predictors of dangerously poor air quality in the area.
Other environmental air quality factors include those related to the local microbiome. Naturally humid climates near swampy locations can be rich in potentially harmful bacteria and fungi which should be avoided as much as possible — though of course we can’t always choose where we live.
Factors That Affect Air Quality
There are numerous things to look out for when it comes to guarding against poor air quality — so many that we simply cannot cover them all here. The most prevalent factors in air quality are:
It may be a critical ingredient for our protective atmosphere, but — like radon gas — ozone is a known health hazard for human respiration. Ozone is a natural product of chemical processes deep within the Earth’s crust and can accumulate in indoor spaces in a way that is harmful in high concentrations. We cannot control or change these natural processes, only find the best way to live with them. On an individual level, the most effective way to limit ozone exposure is to ventilate your living spaces and spend more time outdoors.
Present in many forms, harmful particulate matter comes from both natural and human-created sources. There are particulates that enter our air from industrial processes, such as car exhaust, as well as ones derived from people, plants, and animals. Natural sources of harmful particulates include indoor dust and dander from people and pets, as well as pollen from plants. Like ozone and radon gas, the best way to avoid particulate matter in our air is through ventilation, high quality indoor air filters, and spending more time outdoors.
Oxides of Nitrogen
Consisting of seven known compounds, all nitrogen oxides are made from an admixture of nitrogen and oxygen. These compounds are a well-known health hazard. The most familiar oxide of nitrogen is called “laughing gas” — nitrous oxide. Laughing gas rapidly cuts the supply of oxygen to the brain, which has the effect of limiting judgment in such an immediate way that insensate laughter results. This makes it an excellent anesthetic for the uses of dentistry. Long-term effects are far less safe or useful. The results of cutting oxygen to the brain over long periods of time are not good and inevitably result in severe brain damage.
What Can You Do to Improve Outdoor Air Quality?
Improving outdoor air quality is not something most people can do easily. The factors that affect outdoor air quality are largely communal or industrial factors, not ones that you can individually change. However, there are a few steps you may be able to take. If you have a large yard, you can take advantage of this privilege by planting trees and bushes. Tamping down dust and other outdoor particulates can also go a long way toward protecting your lungs from dangerous aerosolized matter. Installing outdoor water assets such as ponds and especially fountains will go a long way to clean the air around your home.
Plants are vital in exchanging harmful gases in the air for ones that are beneficial, increasing the amount of oxygen available and decreasing gases such as carbon dioxide. Creating more green spaces can help improve air quality as the plants “clean” the air. However, it’s important to keep in mind the fact that bushes, trees, and ponds can also be attractors and generators of dust and allergens. Therefore, choosing the right trees and other organic assets for your yard can be critical to your success in treating outdoor air quality.
While you may be able to take steps within your own yard, the most important factor in the outdoor air quality of your home is location. Living near a major highway is not healthy. Neither is living near an airport or shipyard. Finding a home nearer to green spaces and minimizing your exposure to industrial pollution can help.
What Can You Do to Improve Indoor Air Quality?
Improving indoor air quality can be delightfully simple — the act of opening windows and doors, especially when the air outside is moist, can be a good start. Installing high quality air filters in your HVAC system is another simple step to take, and free-standing air-purifier fans can also be a great help.
Happily, one of the best and cheapest ways to improve indoor air quality is by elevating humidity and by introducing plants. By raising humidity, you ensure that airborne moisture will bond with harmful particulates and drag them to the ground by the simple process of condensation. The addition of indoor plants reduces the carbon dioxide content of the air while boosting the oxygen content.
Installing indoor air purifiers can help improve the air quality of your home as well, though this step can be expensive. If you choose a high-quality air scrubber, it is well worth the expense, however, especially since respiratory healthcare down the line can be catastrophically expensive. An air scrubber or purifier can be a great investment to improve your health both immediately and further down the line.
While the steps above range in cost and effort, each one can help improve the air quality of your home. Using your time and resources to make the air in your home cleaner and safer is of endless value to the future health of your family.
Good Air Quality Helps With a Good Life Quality
At the end of the day, the quality of the air you breathe is the most important factor in maintaining your health into the future. Therefore, obtaining clean, fresh air for you and your family should be considered of the utmost importance.
Your investment in clean air is crucial to your current and future health, whether it’s by choosing a healthful location, maintaining good indoor air quality through some of the steps we’ve outlined here, or ideally both. Short-term and long-term effects of poor air quality can be devestating, so don’t wait, and don’t take half measures.