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What Can You Do to Protect Yourself Against the Effects of Air Pollution?

Significant strides have been made in improving outdoor air quality in the United States since the inception of the Clean Air Act — but despite that, many regions exceed the established limits for at least one common air pollutant, and particle pollution has been on the rise again in recent years.

If you have been worried about the effects air pollution could have on your health, perhaps because you have noticed respiratory symptoms that you think could be caused by poor air quality, you may feel like there is not much you can do to protect yourself. The air is, after all, everywhere. You have no choice but to breathe it in.

Fortunately, that is not quite true — everyone can take proactive steps to safeguard themselves against the detrimental impact of air pollution, which includes an increased risk of lung conditions, heart disease, stroke, and even cancer. The threats come not only from the environment outside, but also from within your home, so the fight against air pollution has to be waged on two fronts.

What Common Pollutants Contribute Most to Poor Outdoor Air Quality?

You may be surprised that the outdoor air quality in the United States has generally improved since the 1970s. Despite that fact, many common air pollutants continue to pose a threat to your health. The most frequent sources of outdoor air pollution in the US today include particle pollution and ground-level ozone pollution. Together, they contribute to higher rates of heart attack, stroke, asthma, and the worsening of other respiratory conditions, as well as higher general mortality rates. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which are likewise associated with respiratory illnesses, are the two other major threats. Lead pollution in the air, meanwhile, only remains a concern in industrial areas.

Where does air pollution come from? The major offenders will not surprise anyone:

  • Vehicles. Traffic is one of the main causes of outdoor air pollution, as it releases a wide variety of harmful chemicals such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and benzene into the air, along with particulate matter.
  • Industry and utilities. Both may lead to the emission of pollutants such as ozone, carbon monoxide, various heavy metals, and numerous Volatile Organic Compounds.
  • Combustion and smoke. Wildfires, barbecues, wood burning, and the burning of coal all release a noxious mixture of gases and particles into the air.
  • Construction projects. Large-scale construction projects lead to a lot of dust in addition to the release of Volatile Organic Compounds caused by the use of solvents and other materials.
  • Other human activities. These include things you may do, such as painting your garage door.

Biological components, too, pose a risk to air quality — and in the environment, pollen released by trees, grasses, and weeds are most likely to have an immediate affect on vulnerable people’s quality of life.

It is further important to note that weather and climate conditions impact the air quality, too. High temperatures, a lack of wind, and low precipitation rates can all lead to air stagnation, causing high pollution concentrations to remain in an area for longer periods of time.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself Against Outdoor Air Pollution?

Environmental air pollution can sometimes be visible, in the form of smog. This is not always the case, however, and invisible, odorless, pollutants do not necessarily pose any less of a risk to your health. This is why the first thing anybody who would like to protect themselves against the effects of outdoor air pollution should first find out what the air quality in their region is like.

The easiest way to monitor the air quality near you on a daily basis is to check the AirNow.gov site and enter your zip code. An easy color-coded system immediately lets you know whether you need to be concerned, as the Air Quality Index (AQI) you find here measures the air concentration of all the major pollutants:

  • Green (0-50) indicates that your air quality is good.
  • Yellow (51-100) means that the air quality is generally acceptable for most people, but some of the most vulnerable groups may suffer respiratory symptoms.
  • Orange (101-150) is classified as “unhealthy for vulnerable groups”. People who are are in good health are unlikely to suffer from immediate symptoms, meanwhile.
  • Red (151-200) means that the outdoor air quality has deteriorated to the point where even generally healthy people may suffer short-term consequences.
  • Purple (201-300) means that the air is very unhealthy for everyone.
  • Maroon (301 and up) indicates extremely poor outdoor air quality that poses a serious threat to everyone. This is typically associated with disasters such as wildfires.


If you are in good health, you may go outdoors without significant concerns when the AQI falls into the green and yellow zones, and take special measures when it drops into the red zone and beyond. Vulnerable people with conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and severe allergies should start taking steps even when the Air Quality Index indicates yellow or orange.


You can:


  • Stay indoors as much as possible on days when the air quality is moderately poor, and follow your local authorities’ instructions when it is extremely poor (red, purple, or maroon).
  • Avoid exercising outdoors, or engaging in other outdoor activities such as gardening, when the air outside is unhealthy.
  • Wear an N95 respirator if you do have to venture outside on days when the air quality is extremely poor.
  • Make sure to have the cabin air filter in your vehicle replaced often enough, which generally means twice a year.
  • Check if the surrounding areas have a healthier air quality, as this is frequently true. Where possible, change your route.


What Causes Indoor Air Pollution?


On days when the air quality outdoors is exceedingly unhealthy, you may decide to stay inside — and your local authorities are likely to recommend that residents restrict the time they spend outside, too. Unfortunately, remaining in your home does not automatically protect you against air pollution, and in many cases, the air inside a home will be poorer than the air outside.


Outdoor air pollution that makes its way in through open windows and doors, on clothes, and through tiny cracks contributes to indoor air pollution — but many air pollutants also originate within the home. Common culprits are:


  • Tobacco smoke, which releases over 4,000 different harmful chemicals into the air.
  • Numerous Volatile Organic Compounds released by construction materials, furniture, and other common household materials such as air fresheners, cleaning agents, paint, and fuel.
  • Particles originating from cooking and heating.
  • Household dust, which rapidly accumulates in every home, no matter how diligent you are about dusting and vacuuming.
  • Pet dander is, of course, overwhelmingly present in households with pets — like cats, dogs, and small rodents. However, pet dander is detectable in many homes that do not have pets as well.
  • Dust mites. These small pests thrive in environments with high humidity levels.
  • Mold. Some, but not all, mold species are harmful to human health. A mold infestation may cause allergy symptoms like sneezing, a sore throat, and itchy eyes, but some molds are also toxic, or have the potential to cause serious respiratory and systemic infections. Mold most easily grows in humid environments.


What Can You Do to Increase Your Indoor Air Quality?


People who want to take steps to improve their indoor air quality can simultaneously take steps to reduce the risk that pollutants will appear, and to limit their exposure to pollutants that are already present. Some of the most effective ways to achieve this are to:


  • Invest in a true HEPA air purifier that also has a carbon filter. Such high-quality air purifiers will filter out the vast majority of particulate matter, as well as attracting and trapping Volatile Organic Compounds. The filters do need to be replaced frequently for the filter to perform effectively.
  • Keep the humidity levels in your home between 30 and 50 percent, the recommended healthy levels. Low humidity causes dry airways and skin, leading to associated irritations as well as a higher risk of common respiratory infections. Excessively high humidity promotes the growth of dust mites and mold, meanwhile, both of which can cause serious health complications. Using a dehumidifier is the most reliable way to lower the humidity levels in your home.
  • Open your windows often, for at least 15 minutes daily, so long as the Air Quality Index is not in the red or above and you are not an allergy sufferer during pollen season. This simple step allows indoor pollutants to exit, as well as lowering humidity levels.
  • Vacuum and dust frequently to keep dust mites, pet dander, and household dust at bay. Note that, if you have a mold infestation, this step may cause mold spores to circulate more easily, so follow up with a mold inspection if vacuuming immediately induces respiratory symptoms.
  • Consider replacing wall-to-wall carpets with tiles or wood flooring. Eliminate unnecessary fabrics like rugs from your home. Launder all household fabrics often.


Could You Benefit from a Mold Inspection?


Mold is a widespread problems in buildings, including residential homes — and this does not only apply to the “most obvious suspects”, like old, poorly-ventilated, and poorly-maintained houses. Mold can easily take hold even in newly-constructed high-rises. The problem may be painfully obvious; you may see green, gray, blue, or black mold growths in your bathroom or basement, for instance. You could also be overwhelmed by a characteristic musty mold smell.


If so, there is no question that you would benefit from a mold inspection. Even if you already know you have mold, you will want to know precisely what types of mold you are dealing with and what conditions are making it possible for mold to grow.


Even people who neither see nor smell mold may have a mold infestation, however. Anyone who has a chronically humid home, has recently had water damage, and has or suspects that they have leaky pipes or gutters should consider the possibility that mold may be growing in their home. Those people who have taken all the right steps to improve their indoor air quality but still suffer from symptoms like nasal congestion, skin rashes, a sore throat, coughs, shortness of breath, and chest tightness should also consider having a mold inspection performed.


Are you ready for a mold inspection? It may seem easy to ask the same company that could also carry out mold remediation plans to do it for you, but an independent mold inspection only company like MI&T is free from commercial biases and will only give you the facts. After our thorough visual mold inspection, we take air samples that are analyzed at an independent laboratory to inform you precisely what concentration of mold spores is present in your home, and what types of mold you are dealing with.


Armed with your detailed mold inspection report, you will be free to engage a mold remediation company as a fully-informed consumer, or to take steps to eliminate your mold infestation yourself. Once complete, an important source of indoor air pollution will be gone from your home, something you can confirm with MI&T’s clearance testing.