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The average adult takes around 15 breaths every minute. That’s a whopping 21,600 breaths every day. Each inhale brings in precious oxygen to nourish our cells. But it can also bring in a slew of toxic chemicals commonly found in the air we breathe.
Industrial manufacturing, the burning of fossil fuels, raging wildfires, car emissions, and even household products have tainted the air with hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny toxic particles.
In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified over 180 different air pollutants as significant hazards to human health (1). Many of these air pollutants are suspected by the American Lung Association to increase the risk of cancer, birth defects, bring about cardiovascular harm, and even reduce fertility (2).
More than 4 in 10 Americans are estimated to breathe unhealthy air (3). Here you’ll learn about seven of the most dangerous types of air pollution, along with tips on how to protect yourself from harm.
Even though ozone is currently regulated by the EPA, it’s still a pervasive air pollutant. If you’ve ever been in a city when there’s thick smog, the majority of that smog is made of ozone.
Ground-level ozone, or smog, is generated when industrial and motor vehicle emissions interact with sunlight. This is why smog is usually at its worst during the summer months.
Ozone can travel long distances and exert negative effects on the respiratory system. This includes airway irritation, reduced lung function, and worsening of respiratory diseases such as asthma or bronchitis (4).
Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that is released from a variety of sources both indoors and outside. Treated wood products, cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, new furniture, paints, new carpets, and certain fabrics can emit formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is usually most concentrated indoors. That’s because formaldehyde is found in higher concentrations in new home furnishings or construction materials. When purchasing new furnishings, it’s a smart idea to open up your windows often to air out the room.
The Department of Health and Human Services classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen (meaning it can cause cancer). There’s also evidence it can increase the risk of asthma, intestinal ulcers, and eczema (5).
Heavy metals such as lead or cadmium aren’t just found in old paint or corroded water pipes. They can also be found in the air before they settle on surfaces or make their way into the water supply.
Cadmium is a heavy metal emitted in secondhand cigarette smoke (6). Mercury is readily released by coal-fired power plants; while toxic lead gets into the air from small aircraft emissions, waste incinerators, and other industrial facilities (7). Once inhaled, lead can displace calcium and deposit in your bones, increasing the risk of bone fractures (8).
Research has also shown that lead can negatively affect the kidneys, immune system, and cardiovascular system. Childhood exposure may also contribute to learning deficits and a lower IQ (9).
Benzene is one of the top 20 most manufactured chemicals in the United States (10). Many industries use benzene to produce other chemicals including plastics, rubber, dyes, and pesticides. Much like formaldehyde, benzene can pollute both indoor and outdoor air.
Scientists have found that benzene exposure may increase the risk of certain cancers including leukemia (11). Benzene exposure may also reduce your red blood cell count and cripple the immune system by reducing the number of circulating white blood cells.
As you may know, wildfires are becoming an increasingly common environmental issue. The effects of wildfires, however, go far beyond environmental devastation. Wildfire smoke can travel for thousands of miles and take a serious toll on your health.
This is because wildfire smoke contains a form of particulate matter called PM1. Researchers believe that PM1 is one of the deadliest and most harmful forms of air pollution.
Wildfire smoke also contains hundreds of other contaminants, and has been found to have high levels of lead and other heavy metals (12). Health effects include inflammation, asthma attacks, damage to the lungs, and even an increased risk of certain cancers.
Historically, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were a common industrial chemical. Almost 50% of the world’s production of this chemical occurred in America. Due to their substantial negative effects on human health, they were finally banned in the US in 1979.
Despite this ban over 40 years ago, PCBs are still contaminating the air and waterways to this day (13). Old buildings, landfills, and waste incinerators slowly release PCBs into the air (14).
Additionally, indoor PCB air pollution was found to be at its highest during the winter months when windows tend to stay shut. As such, home air purification and sufficient ventilation are particularly important if you live in an older building.
Acrolein is a toxic air pollutant found in its highest concentrations indoors. Off-gassing in new homes from construction materials and indoor cooking are thought to be the two largest sources of acrolein pollution (15). Tobacco smoke and gasoline emissions are also significant sources of acrolein.
Evidence suggests that acrolein exposure can promote inflammation, increase the risk of ear infections, and cause blood cancer in people who are directly exposed (16, 17). Animal studies have also shown that acrolein can negatively affect the nervous system, impacting the brain and nerves.
It is impossible to avoid breathing in air pollution outright. But you can take steps to shield yourself from the damage and reduce your exposure.
To protect your body from the effects of continued exposure to air pollution, consider drinking cold-infused marshmallow root tea or eating more oatmeal. Both are demulcents, meaning they help increase the production of healthy mucus in your lungs, helping to protect the cells in your respiratory tract.
Aim to increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables. Plant-based antioxidants help protect your body from the harmful effects of toxins by protecting your cells from oxidative damage. Greens are also detoxifiers. For example, broccoli has been shown to increase the excretion of benzene from the body (18). If you struggle to eat 5-9 servings a day of organic fruits and veggies, consider an organic green juice to reach your goal.
Most importantly, detoxify on a daily basis with zeolite, a natural volcanic mineral that helps to trap and remove toxins and environmental pollutants that have made their way into your body. Natural zeolite has a wide-range of health benefits, from detoxifying to strengthening the immune system.