The official blog of the Lung Institute.
Environment and Lung Disease
The number of Americans suffering from lung disease has increased vastly over the past decade, and lung disease has become the third leading cause of death in the United States. There are multiple reasons for this sharp increase, one of which is how the environment affects your lungs. Obviously, tobacco smoke is a huge factor in developing lung disease, but what else is in the air contributes?
Environment Affects Your Lungs
Nothing smells better than fresh air. Unfortunately for 131.8 million Americans—42 percent of the country—live in places that they cannot find fresh, clean air. The counties that these people live in have air quality that is deemed too dangerous to breathe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Unhealthy air can be categorized into three specific areas of pollution: bad ozone, year-round particles and short-term particles.
The depleting ozone is not news to Americans, but what about bad ozone? When nitrogen-oxide (NO2) and other volatile organic compounds (VOC) are emitted into the air by industrial facilities and motor vehicles, it forms a ground-layer of ozone otherwise known as bad ozone. These chemicals are extremely toxic to lung tissue when inhaled. The result is shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and inflammation of the lungs. For a person suffering from a lung disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the side effects will likely cause more frequent symptom flare-ups.
The amount of air pollutants that circulate in a given area throughout the entire year makes up year-round particle pollution. Typically, these pollutants are emitted by commercial and industrial factories and car exhaust. These particles include tiny solids and liquids, the smaller the particles are the more dangerous they become due to their ability to access hard-to-clear areas of the lungs. Periodic exposure to these pollutants can be very harmful, but living in an environment that has constant particle pollution is deadly. Lung disease symptoms can worsen and the disease can progress more quickly in such conditions.
Short-term particles refers to an occurrence of spikes in particle pollution. These spikes can last hours or even days. While the amount of year-round particle pollution has seen a drop in recent years, the amount of short-term particles has increased. These pollutants are usually from increases in fuel burning for heating purposes during the winter, and more likely than not, are comprised of burnt wood particles. If exposed to heavy amounts of short-term particle pollution, the outcome can be swift and deadly for someone with a lung disease. Heavy coughing, trouble breathing and shortness of breath are seen in even minor exposures.
Tips for Avoiding Dirty Air
There isn’t a lot an individual can do to change air pollution in the short term. Excessive amounts of air pollutants have decreased in general over the past few years, but in cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, the year-round particle pollution is holding steady. Short of moving, you can use various air purifiers in your home and make sure to steer clear of the city during hot days, when pollution is at its worse. Also, it may seem like an extreme measure, but air pollution masks can improve your air quality immediately.