How to protect yourself from air pollution
Air pollution is everywhere: according to the WHO, over 99% of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds its guidelines for pollutants. Breathing polluted air can lead to a variety of adverse environmental and health effects. What can we do to protect ourselves from the dangers of air pollution? Read on for some tips.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution occurs when there are pollutants present in the air that may be detrimental to the health of humans, animals, and the planet. According to the WHO, over 7 million people per year die as a result of air pollution around the globe, and countless others suffer from air pollution-related illnesses and diseases1.
Pollutants are released into the air in a multitude of ways from the products we use to the burning of fossil fuels. The three types of air pollution - fine particle, chemical, and biological - all have different sources. To provide some examples, industry and vehicle transportation are two of the sources that contribute most to fine particle pollution. Chemical pollutants, common especially in our indoor spaces, may include carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and pesticides. Biological pollutants may include infectious agents like viruses and bacteria and allergens such as mould, animal dander, and dust. Read more about the three types of pollutants here.
Climate change plays an important role in the severity of air pollution. By releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the air when we burn fossil fuels, this raises the Earth’s temperature; the subsequent increased heat then creates more ultraviolet radiation and worsens smog, a form of air pollution. Furthermore, more allergenic air pollutants are created, particularly mould (as a result of more extreme weather and increased flooding causing damper conditions) and pollen (due to an extended pollen season with warmer global temperatures)2. It is a vicious cycle.
With the presence of air pollution in our breathing air, we are subject to a host of health complications. Fine particle pollution (such as particulate matter, or PM) is especially dangerous because, due to its small size, it can easily enter the body through the respiratory system and move with ease into the bloodstream, giving it quick access to other organs of the body such as the brain and heart. The health problems caused by air pollution include respiratory irritation and disease, increased incidence of allergies, multiple types of cancer (especially lung cancer), and even an increased likelihood of experiencing mental health issues. For people with asthma, air pollution causes more intense symptoms and can trigger asthma attacks. As a whole, it weakens our immune system and makes us more vulnerable to suffering from epidemic diseases. A Harvard study performed in 2020 showed that there were more deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic in places with higher soot concentrations than compared to areas with lower soot concentrations2. Historically, polluting sites tend to be located in or in close proximity to low-income neighbourhoods, meaning that the adverse effects of air pollution are experienced disproportionately by individuals living in these communities, generating an issue of climate injustice.
How can we protect ourselves from air pollution?
In order to determine the level of caution to take on any given day, in the UK, Defra has produced a daily air pollution forecast database with a postcode finder service that allows you to monitor air pollution levels (Air Quality Index of AQI) in your area. It is helpful to refer to this website regularly to observe your local air pollution trends, allowing you to plan accordingly. The website can be found here: https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/. You can also refer to the Defra Twitter feed @DefraUKAir or call the Defra helpline on 0800 55 66 77. Some parts of the country may also have local monitoring services including Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Greater London.
We can and should all do our part in reducing our contributions to air pollution in the first place. You can do this by limiting your use of your personal vehicle by favouring walking, biking, or using public transportation to get to your destination (and if you must drive, never leave your vehicle idling). You can also opt for electric options (vehicles, lawn equipment, etc.) whenever possible to avoid consuming polluting fossil fuels. Finally, avoid burning wood or natural gas to heat your home. These are just a few things you can do to reduce your contribution to air pollution.
If air pollution is already a problem where you live, the following list will help you protect yourself and your loved ones:
1) Close your windows and doors when pollution is high. On days of high pollution, scientists recommend that you stay inside and keep your windows and doors closed. Even on days of low pollution, people at high risk – notably babies and children, the elderly, immunocompromised individuals or those with respiratory diseases like asthma, and pregnant women – should still take extra precautions.
2) Ventilate your space when pollution is low. If pollution levels are low, ventilation is key to circulate any stale air in your home or office to prevent accumulation of indoor air pollution (remember: indoor air is 7-10 times more polluted than outdoor air!).
3) Recirculate the air in your car. If you have the air conditioning on while you drive, choose this option to avoid outdoor air from entering your car. This is particularly important on days of peak pollution or if you are behind a heavily-polluting vehicle.
4) Breathe through your nose. Your nose has natural filtering capabilities that block out large pollutants like dust and pollen!
5) Wear a mask. And not just any mask: only N95 or FFP3 masks will protect you from fine particles. This is a good tip if you live in a location with exceptionally high air pollution or on days of peak air pollution.
6) Take a shower after exposure. If you’ve been spending lots of time outside on days with higher pollution levels, rinse yourself off, especially your face, to clean off particulates that may be on your skin. It is also recommended to change your clothes. This is helpful with allergies as well.
7) Go in to work earlier or later. If you commute to work, it helps to leave a bit earlier or later (30-60 minutes) to avoid rush hour traffic when emissions are highest.
8) Rid your space of mould and mildew. The presence of mould and mildew contributes significantly to indoor air pollution and should be addressed as soon as possible.
9) Hoover your home regularly. This helps to prevent accumulation of dust, an allergen that contributes to indoor air pollution. Note: only do this on days of low pollution so that you can properly ventilate your space.
10) Stay away from pollution hotspots. If you can, avoid areas that emit high levels of pollution. If you cycle, run, or walk to work, avoid doing so on motorways or places with heavy traffic. The further away you are from traffic, the lower the pollution levels.
11) Plant trees. Trees absorb carbon monoxide and improve air quality.
12) Purchase an air purifier.3
Protect your health from air pollution with Eoleaf
It can sometimes feel that, despite your best efforts, air pollution and quality is out of your hands. While that can indeed be true for outdoor pollution, you still have the power to control your indoor air quality. Consider purchasing a high-quality air purifier. At Eoleaf, our air purifiers contain 8 different filtration technologies that can rid your indoor air of all three types of pollution (particulate pollutants, chemical pollutants, and biological pollutants). Our devices can successfully clean your air of smoke, soot, pollen, dust, dander, carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), pesticides, and germs (bacteria, viruses, and toxins). Our devices allow you to breathe freely, giving you back control of your breathing air.
We even have a model for cars. Read about the benefits of installing an air purifier in your car and find more information on our PURE CAR model here.
1 World Health Organization. (2022, December 19). Ambient (outdoor) Air Pollution. World Health Organization. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ambient-(outdoor)-air-quality-and-health
2 Mackenzie, J., & Turrentine, J. (2021, June 22). Air pollution: Everything you need to know. NRDC. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/air-pollution-everything-you-need-know
3 How to protect yourself from Air Pollution. Carbonfund. (2022, June 28). Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://carbonfund.org/how-to-protect-yourself-from-air-pollution/
4 Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The new science of a lost art. Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.