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Air Pollutants Damage Lungs Like Cigarette Smoke:
What Can You Do?

© 2014 Health Realizations, Inc.


It’s long been a mystery why so many non-smokers develop “smoker’s diseases” like lung cancer. Now that mystery may have been solved, thanks to research by Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge scientists.

air pollution

The average person is exposed to 300 times more free radicals a day from breathing PFRs than from smoking one cigarette, researchers found.

H. Barry Dellinger, Ph.D., the Patrick F. Taylor Chair of Environmental Chemistry at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and colleagues detected a new type of air pollutant they call persistent free radicals (PFRs). While it’s long been known that free radicals, molecules that are highly damaging to cells in your body, exist in the atmosphere, most of them only exist for less than a second, then disappear.

PFRs, on the other hand, linger in the air and can travel over great distances. They form on airborne nanoparticles and other fine particle residues as gasses from smokestacks, exhaust pipes and household chimneys cool. What makes these particles unique, and especially dangerous, is the fact that they could have effects similar to those caused by tobacco smoke.

"Free radicals from tobacco smoke have long been suspected of having extremely harmful effects on the body," Dellinger said on "Based on our work, we now know that free radicals similar to those in cigarettes are also found in airborne fine particles and potentially can cause many of the same life-threatening conditions. This is a staggering, but not unbelievable result, when one considers all of diseases in the world that cannot currently be attributed to a specific origin."

When PFRs are inhaled, it’s thought that they are absorbed into the lungs and other tissues, causing DNA and cellular damage.

How Widespread is Air Pollution in the United States?

Sadly, air pollution is now a widespread problem in the United States. It comes from multiple sources -- factories, power plants, dry cleaners, cars and trucks, wildfires and even from materials in your home.

Two out of every five people, or 42 percent of the U.S. population, actually live in counties that have unhealthful levels of ozone or particle pollution -- two types of air pollution -- according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air Report.

You can check the daily air quality in your area at, the most polluted cities that have year-round particle pollution (the most dangerous of the widespread outdoor air pollutants) are:

  1. Los Angeles, CA
  2. Bakersfield, CA
  3. Visalia, CA
  4. Houston, TX
  5. Fresno, CA
  6. Sacramento, CA
  7. Dallas, TX
  8. New York City, NY
  9. Washington D.C./Baltimore, MD
  10. Baton Rouge

The air inside of your home may actually be an even bigger threat to your health than outdoor air. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

"In the last several years, a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.

Other research indicates that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors. Thus, for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors."

Air Pollution is a Major Public Health Threat

cigarette smoke

Since cigarette smoke also contains PFRs, smokers get a double dose of the toxic particles -- from both the surrounding air and the smoke itself -- every time they light up.

When you breathe in polluted air, the pollutants reach much further than your nose, mouth and even lungs. Polluted air affects all of your body's systems, particularly your respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Think of it this way: your lungs are designed to transport oxygen you breathe in into your bloodstream, where it's carried throughout your entire body. Whatever is in that air, then, is also eventually transported, via your bloodstream, to all the organs in your body, including your heart, liver, brain and other organs.

Along with the 16 health problems, including genetic abnormalities, that were discussed in a study published by the published by the Karolinska Institute, Institute of Environmental Medicine, found that long-term exposure to air pollution, particularly that from motor traffic, increases the risk of fatal heart attacks.

Another study, published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that air pollution increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and makes respiratory problems worse, by thickening the blood and increasing inflammation, respectively.

In all, about 4 percent of deaths in the United States can be attributed to air pollution, according to the Environmental Science Engineering Program at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Alarmingly, in the most poluted cities it has been estimated that lives are shortened by an average of one to two years, according to research by the American Cancer Society and Harvard University.

Surprisingly, it's indoor air that's most dangerous--it's typically two to five times more polluted than outdoor air!

WARNING: People with diabetes may need to take extra care with their air, as air pollution is particularly dangerous for this group.

Generally speaking, air pollution affects everyone a little bit differently and can cause everything from difficulty breathing, nausea and asthma attacks to lung cancer, heart disease and genetic abnormalities in newborns.

A Warning for People With Diabetes

A study published in an issue of the journal Circulation found that people with diabetes are at an increased risk of heart problems when air pollution levels are high, a finding that's of great concern considering that over 13 million Americans have the disorder.

Specifically, the ability of the blood vessels to control blood flow was impaired among this group, and such "Impaired vascular reactivity has been associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and other heart problems," said Marie O'Neill, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and lead author of the study. She went on to say:

"We observed an 11 percent decrease in diabetics' vascular reactivity on days when sulfate particle concentrations were higher than normal ... We also noted a 13 percent decrease in their vascular reactivity on days with higher-than-normal black carbon concentrations ... We hope our study will remind people that reducing air pollution is important for everyone's health, but especially for vulnerable members of our population, including the elderly and people with chronic health problems such as diabetes."

This study was not the only one to observe such findings. "Previous studies have shown that when air pollution levels are higher, people with diabetes have higher rates of hospitalization and death related to cardiovascular problems," said David Schwartz, M.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Air Pollution a Growing Threat

Now more than ever, air pollution is threatening the health of Americans in urban, rural and, especially, indoor environments. One study published in a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and involving over 500,000 people found that long-term exposure to air pollution, in this case in metropolitan areas, not only significantly increases the risk of dying from lung cancer but is as comparably bad for your health as living with a smoker.

You may also be surprised to learn that the Environmental Protection Agency says indoor air can be anywhere from two to five times as polluted as outdoor air--and sometimes more than 100 times more polluted!

Toxins in indoor air can stem from a number of sources, including:

  • Dust--including the 20 common components that make up dust
  • Cooking and heating appliances
  • Building materials, carpets, paint and synthetic fabrics
  • Disinfectants and household cleaners
  • Air fresheners
  • Perfumes
  • Insecticides
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Mold
  • Animal dander and mouse urine
  • Radon gas

But even if you can't control the air you breathe outside your home, you can control the air inside. Here's how:

Dust often

Use Doormats

Use an Air Purification System Cleaner

What You Can do to Protect Your Health

Your exposure to air pollution outdoors is largely out of your control (unless you can relocate to an isolated island in some pristine locale), but there are some steps you can take to minimize your risks. You can also take steps to improve the quality of your indoor air and, therefore, your long-term health as well. Here are the top tips.

  • Purify your indoor air. Home Air Treatment Systems, such as those that use photocatalysis, which are designed to oxidize organic odors, germs, and fungi are stated to be air purifiers that duplicate Nature's own methods of air cleaning and revitalization.
  • When pollution is heavy, be sure to drink plenty of fluids (non-alcoholic) to keep your respiratory tract moist.
  • Avoid high levels of smog and pollution. These are typically highest during the midday and afternoon. If you're in a high-risk group, don't go outside when ozone levels are high.
  • Exercise when the air is cleaner. When you exercise (or work strenuously), you draw air more deeply into your lungs, and therefore risk more damage from air pollution. To protect yourself and get the numerous health benefits of exercise, avoid exercising near congested streets and during rush-hour traffic, and definitely if there's a wildfire burning in your area.
  • Keep dirt and dust out of your home with a few high-quality doormats. Place them strategically around your home (such as in doorways and other highly trafficked areas). This will go a long way toward reducing the amount of dirt and dust in your home in the first place. Once inside, that dirt gets circulated into the air and you breathe it in.

This is also precisely why cleaning your home properly to remove excess dust and dirt is so important to your air quality. While you can’t realistically remove every impurity from your family’s air, these steps will keep the air you breathe as clean and toxin-free as possible.


American Lung Association State of the Air

The Karolinska Institute

Occupational and Environmental Medicine; 62(3):164-71


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