You keep an eye on the quality of the food you’re eating and the amount of water you’re drinking. You try to get plenty of exercise and sleep, and you protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. But there’s one serious health risk factor you encounter (and probably ignore) more than any other: the air you breathe.
Between the car exhaust you inhale on your run and the possible radon gas invading your home, the hazards are everywhere. Consider that jog: If you’re running within a mile of a highway, you’re breathing in 100 times more cancer-causing toxins than you would in an unspoiled wilderness. And new research finds that pollution from cars and trucks at levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable can raise stroke risk by more than a third after exposure. Yet hunkering down at home may not be much safer. In fact, concentrations of some pollutants such as benzene can be up to five times higher indoors than out. With rates of lung diseases in women increasing—asthma now affects almost 1 in 10 of us, and lung cancer has doubled since 1974—what’s a girl to do? Follow our advice, that’s what. We’ll help you protect your lungs wherever you’re waiting to inhale. Go ahead; take that sigh of relief.
We spend most of our time inside, breathing air that can be even dirtier than the air outside. Check out the sneakiest indoor pollution sources, and learn how to scour them out.
In some homes, radon, a radioactive gas, can seep into the foundation—even if you don’t have a basement. Radon may be responsible for up to 22,000 lung cancer deaths each year and may factor into squamous cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer), too.
CLEAR THE AIR Buy a test kit (about $12). If you find a problem, the EPA suggests hiring a contractor trained in radon problems to help seal cracks in the foundation and increase ventilation. The fix costs about $1,200, but it’s a sound health investment.
“All vacuums throw dust particles into the air, but those without a HEPA filter throw more,” says allergist James Sublett, M.D., chairman of the American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology Indoor Environment Committee.
CLEAR THE AIR Go to AsthmaAndAllergyFriendly.com for brand recommendations. Whatever brand you use, don’t vacuum the bedroom for two hours pre-sleep: “Give the floating particles a chance to settle down before you spend time in the room,” Dr. Sublett says.
Up to a third of indoor particles can come from cooking, Dr. Sublett says—especially when done at high temps. It can even release formaldehyde, which can cause cancer.
CLEAR THE AIR Equip your stove with a fan that vents to the outside, and if you can’t, open a window. Both will help you rid your kitchen of pollutants and moisture.
Traditional cleaners are clearly irritating, but those advertised as green or natural may be as well. And pine and citrus oils contain chemicals called terpenes, which interact with ozone in the air to produce formaldehyde.
CLEAR THE AIR Use the minimum amount of whatever you use (we like Clorox’s Green Works, which carries the EPA’s safer-product label), and ventilate.
What are you inhaling on your morning jog? Nothing pretty. Here’s how the icky stuff makes its way to you.
Cars and trucks spew a mix of nasty chemicals, like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides and fine particles (also known as particle pollution). Factories, power plants and natural gas drilling release still more particles and other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide—in fact, coal-fired power plants in America release 386,000 tons of pollutants into the air each year, according to a report commissioned by the American Lung Association. (The EPA is working to clean up these plants with its new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, but polluters have four years to comply, so we may not see measurable effects on the environment until 2016.) The scariest part of particle pollution is its small size: Fine particles are less than 1/30 the width of a human hair and can lodge deep inside the lungs.
Your landscape can trap pollutants and keep them in your area, with hills and mountains preventing dissipation. But even flat zones may not be clear. Pollution is produced locally, and fine particles and smog can travel by wind, so air can be dirtied by pollutants from other cities, states and even countries. In fact, smog from Asia can put Western states over the ozone threshold (75 parts per billion). So we import—and export, for that matter—more than simply consumer goods!
The sun’s energy triggers a reaction between VOCs and nitrogen oxides in the air. The result? The creation of ground-level ozone, a harmful gas that can interfere with breathing. (The ozone layer, which is 10 to 30 miles above the earth, is different and protective; it absorbs the sun’s UV rays.) Scientists used to think that ground-level ozone didn’t form as much in cold weather, but in 2009, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that areas that get a lot of snow can, in certain circumstances, have high ozone levels, too. So before hitting the slopes, check the snow conditions and the air quality; visit AirNow.gov.
When you’re exposed to this toxic soup, your lungs soak it up like a sponge. Fine particles and ozone not only irritate the nose and throat as they make their way deeper into the lungs’ bronchi, but they also set off an inflammatory response and boost your odds for heart disease. Ozone can damage lung cells; even short-term exposure can cause breathing problems such as wheezing. Researchers say longer exposure may increase your risk for permanent damage and even of dying from a respiratory illness such as pneumonia. So what can you do? Limit outdoor activity at midday, when ozone is at its highest, and stay far from highways to avoid particle pollution, says Nicola Hanania, M.D., a pulmonologist at Baylor College of Medicine. When the Air Quality Index is orange or red, consider skipping outdoor workouts, says Mark Frampton, M.D., a pulmonologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Sign up for the EPA’s EnviroFlash daily email (EnviroFlash.info) with your city’s AQI—then use it to decide whether to pop out or hit the gym. You’ll breathe better.
Make your home a healthy place to be with these simple tricks for detoxing your space at Self.com.
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