What do you think is worse: going outside for a long walk in the city or smoking a pack of cigarettes? As far as your lungs are concerned, it might not matter. More on that in a moment.
Breathing clean air certainly seems like it should be a basic human right. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.
According to a new study, air pollution kills approximately 30,000 Americans every year. They die from complications of the lung, heart and also from strokes.
You may have heard the expression, “What you can’t see won’t hurt you.” Well, it turns out, that isn’t true.
Air Pollution Particles Stay in Our Bodies
According to WebMD, there are tiny pollution particles called PM2.5. They are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
The study looked at the particles from various sources – including combustion of cars and coal-fired power plants – found in the air between 1999 to 2015.
The study’s researchers say that when a person inhales these particles, they lodge in the lungs’ small blood vessels.
Over time, they can create problems with lung function as well as your heart.
The Problem Is Everywhere
PM2.5 levels in the U.S. have actually been dropping since 1999. That’s due to stricter air pollution regulations.
But researchers believe they are still far too high. As evidenced by the 16,000 women and 15,000 men killed by air pollution in 2015.
Needless to say, air pollution is a bigger problem in urban and industrial areas than it is in rural locales.
In 1999, the highest levels of PM2.5 were found in Fresno County, California. The highest levels were in Tulare County in the same state in 2015.
Pollution Causes Changes to Lungs
Worse yet, in a recent study published in Journal of the American Medical Association, they found that air pollution may be as harmful to your lungs as smoking cigarettes.
Exposure to air pollution may lead to changes in lungs. The same changes that give rise to conditions involving wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Even among those who’ve never smoked.
Researchers discovered that people exposed to higher-than-average concentrations of ground-level ozone (smog) for years developed changes to their lungs. Changes similar to those seen in smokers.
Study Involved 7,000 Adults
Joel Kaufman is a doctor and epidemiologist at the University of Washington. He states:
“We found that an increase of about three parts per billion (of ground-level ozone) outside your home was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years.”
The study involved close to 7,000 adults in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Winston-Salem, Baltimore and St. Paul.
Those in the study were exposed to annual average concentrations of 10 to 25 parts per billion of ground-level ozone outside their homes. Each participant had up to five CT scans over a decade-plus.
Results Were Surprising
Kaufman says that elevated ozone exposure is not limited to large cities.
He said that people all over the country can be exposed to similar concentrations that vary season to season and year to year.
Ground-level ozone bakes in the sunlight after it is released from tailpipes and smokestacks. This ozone is generally highest on hot, sunny days.
Kaufman added he had not anticipated that the effects of ozone exposure would be in the same magnitude as cigarette smoking.
Condition Worsens Over Time
So, how does ozone exposure cause ill health? Emily Brigham is a pulmonologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
She says, “When airways get narrowed and damaged, it’s harder to move air out of the lungs and air gets trapped.
Brigham added that people might not notice the consequences at first. But this condition worsens over time if the exposure continues.
Worse yet, the changes are generally believed to be irreversible. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 7 million premature deaths around the world are linked to air pollution annually.
Hot Days Are the Culprit
Brigham said that a significant portion of the U.S. population that suffers from COPD were never smokers.
Air pollution could be what is creating their lung problems. Especially as the number of hot days around the country increases.
George Thurston is a professor of environmental medicine at New York University Langone Health.
He said that in the past the Environmental Protection Agency has not connected COPD to long-term, chronic air pollution. But studies are showing that cleaning the air can be helpful to lung health.
Children Affected Too
WHO recently reported that the majority of the world’s children are breathing dangerously polluted air.
And that pollution is being linked to a growing number of health problems. Graham Barr is an epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York.
He says, “As temperatures rise… ground-level ozone will continue to increase unless steps are taken to reduce this pollutant.”
But it has not yet been determine what levels of ozone are safe for humans to breathe. We do know that the number of “unhealthy air days” is increasing.
The best line of defense regardless of where you live is to choose a healthy lifestyle.
Following general good-health guidelines is the single best step you can take toward naturally keeping your immune system strong and healthy.
Because every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults and bolstered by healthy-living strategies.
Get adequate sleep, don’t smoke, eat right and supplement the nutrients you fall short in to keep your immune system strong and healthy.