woman holding tissue to nose and mouth

Though air quality is improving in some areas, a report issued in 2010 by the American Heart Association stated that evidence linking air pollution to heart disease and death has strengthened substantially. Fine particles from burning coal, diesel fuel, and wood can get deep into the lungs and spread to blood vessels throughout the body. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these particles can aggravate asthma, increase coughing, decrease lung function, and increase risk of bronchitis, headaches, irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

City and Country Areas at Risk
Major contributors to air pollution in cities include exhaust and gas from cars, buses, and airplanes, as well as ground-level ozone, which is created when engine and fuel gases interact with the sun's rays. Acid rain forms when moisture in the air interacts with nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide released by factories, power plants, and motor vehicles that burn coal or oil.

However, country areas aren't immune to air pollution. Dust from tractors plowing fields, trucks and cars driving on dirt or gravel roads, rock quarries, and smoke from crop fires and wood burning can all pollute clean air. Though everyone is affected by air pollution, populations that are particularly at risk include:

  • People with asthma
  • People with heart disease
  • People with respiratory diseases
  • Children
  • Active adults (exercising outdoors)
  • Older adults
  • People with diabetes
  • Pregnant women

Air Quality Index
The EPA uses the Air Quality Index (AQI) to provide the public with an easy way to understand the local air quality on any particular day. A sort of yardstick that runs from 0 to 300, the higher the AQI value, the greater the health concern. When AQI levels reach above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy. You can track the AQI in your area in your local newspaper, on television or radio weathercasts, and online at www.airnow.gov.

When levels reach 101-150, sensitive groups should reduce time spent outdoors and prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion, as exercise increases air intake. When the AQI reaches unhealthy levels (151-200), everyone should limit exposure. When levels are very unhealthy (201-300), sensitive groups--especially those with heart disease--should avoid all outdoor exertion.

How to Protect Yourself and Your Family
Air pollution is highest during the heat of the day, so plan your outdoor activities in the early morning or late evening. Avoid walking or biking on busy streets, and if you're sitting in traffic, use the recycled-air setting on your air conditioner to help cut down on fumes. If you're in a location where you can't escape the pollution, try putting a handkerchief over your mouth and nose to help filter gas and smoke.

Antioxidant-rich foods like fruits and vegetables can help shield your body from the damaging effects of free radicals, which are created by air pollution. Finally, don't forget that indoor spaces can be polluted, too. To limit pollution in the home, follow these recommendations:

  • Consider purchasing an indoor air purifier
  • Avoid polluting air fresheners and candles
  • Keep filters on air conditioners and heaters clean
  • Vacuum often
  • Wash sheets and stuffed toys to get rid of dust mites
  • Wash mold and mildew off hard surfaces
  • Open the windows on good-quality days to circulate the air

With a little extra effort, you and your family can breathe cleaner air and enjoy better health because of it.