How Air Pollution Hurts Our Health—and What We Can Do about It
Breathing is one of the few fundamentals of living—and for those of us living in areas affected by high traffic, industrial pollution, and wildfires, it’s making us sick. When environmental journalist Beth Gardiner set out to investigate air pollution, she expected to learn more about the connection between dirty air and clearly air-related health issues, from asthma to lung disease. And she did. But she also found that polluted air could contribute to less obvious (and often life-endangering) health issues, like cardiovascular disease, stroke, Parkinson’s, and birth defects. And while air pollution affects all of us, the burden largely falls on the most vulnerable people: children, the elderly, pregnant women (and the babies they’re carrying), and people of low socioeconomic status.
Although air pollution might seem like a daunting, insurmountable issue, Gardiner wants us to know that it’s a fixable problem—and one that must be tackled with smart, science-based policy. There are actions we can take to reduce our own exposure, like driving along quieter roads and avoiding setting fires when possible. But at the end of the day, the biggest move we can make is advocating for climate change-fighting initiatives and tighter regulations on polluting industries. (If you’re in the United States, you can do this by calling your local, state, or federal representatives.)
A Q&A with Beth Gardiner
There’s an invisibility issue when it comes to air pollution. I don’t just mean that you can’t always see the pollution in the air, which is true. The invisibility is also that we can’t always perceive the link between cause and effect when it comes to air pollution and health problems.
We’d all be pretty ready to believe that air pollution could trigger an asthma attack or cause breathing problems or maybe even spur lung cancer—but this issue actually goes so much further than our lungs. Scientific evidence now tells us that air pollution is linked not only to breathing problems but also to heart attacks, strokes, dementia, Parkinson’s, birth defects, premature birth, and lung development deficiencies in kids, as well as things that are a bit less intuitive, like obesity, diabetes, and potentially some mental illnesses.
“One scientist I interviewed said to me that his rule of thumb for what health problems might be linked to air pollution is anything that’s linked to smoking.”
The link between dirty air and health problems includes the biggest health problem of all: early death. The current estimate is that air pollution is involved with 7 million early deaths globally per year, including 100,000 in the US alone and 40,000 in the UK, where I live.
One scientist I interviewed said to me that his rule of thumb for what health problems might be linked to air pollution is anything that’s linked to smoking. The mix of toxic substances in tobacco smoke is different from what’s in traffic exhaust or what comes out of power plants, but the principle is the same: It’s in the air that we breathe, and so it touches every part of us.
We’re all at risk, but we should be paying special attention to children, older people, and pregnant women. There’s also a lot of research now on the prenatal effects of air pollution—if you’re pregnant, the baby you’re carrying is receiving the toxicants you’re breathing in. And there’s a lot of evidence that links pollution exposure during pregnancy to a wide variety of health problems for the baby, some of which are likely to persist later in life.
Before we get into it, you don’t necessarily need to understand the chemistry or the details of which pollutants are which. What you do need to know is that this is all stuff that we as humans are creating mostly by burning fossil fuels. We should all know by now that burning fossil fuels is the largest contributor to climate change, but what we are less likely to realize and understand is that those fossil fuels are also making us sick and killing us right now.
The things that we need to be doing to confront our climate crisis—especially moving away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner energy—will help stabilize the climate, and they’re also going to make us healthier and save people’s lives right now.
With that said, here are some of the pollution types that affect us the most:
The type of pollution that has the strongest link to the most powerful health effects is this fine particulate matter called PM2.5. It’s created when we burn things, whether that’s gas in your car or coal in a power plant. The reason these tiny particles are so dangerous is that they penetrate really deeply into our body. We believe they’re able to cross out of your lungs into the bloodstream and into the internal organs. They’ve been found in the cellular structure of the heart muscle and in the tissue of the brain.
Ozone is, to some degree, naturally occurring, but we get high levels of ozone in places where traffic exhaust bakes in the sun. So if you’re in a place with a lot of traffic and a lot of sunshine, like Southern California, you’re likely exposed to a lot more ozone than you would be in other places. Ozone can cause breathing problems and other health effects, and it’s been shown that emergency room visits spike on the days when the ozone is high.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Then there’s also a group of toxic chemicals called VOCs—volatile organic compounds. These chemicals can come from different sources, including household items, like nail polish, paint removers, and things of that type. Everything we burn and everything we use goes into the air. And chemical reactions can occur that cause the pollutants to combine with one another and make new compounds.
I traveled around the world and saw the stories of progress and lack of progress in different places. What I noticed is that what it takes to clean up the air is the government stepping in and requiring companies to change their ways. Over and over again, we see that when corporate polluters are left to their own devices, they pollute more. It’s a way of cutting costs. They don’t want to spend the money that it takes to be cleaner and protect people’s health. It hurts their bottom line. Government regulation and effective use of government power is what really makes a difference.
“Over and over again, we see that when corporate polluters are left to their own devices, they pollute more.”
Air pollution doesn’t have a silver bullet, but across the board, what needs to be done is rooted in effective, science-based regulation: requiring car companies to make cleaner, more efficient engines; requiring oil companies to make cleaner fuel; requiring power companies to put better equipment into their power plants so that they’re putting fewer toxic substances into the air.
As Americans, we’re not used to thinking of ourselves as being environmentally ahead of the curve, particularly compared to Western Europe. But America does have better air quality, on average, than Europe does. That’s because of a very powerful law that was passed in 1970, the Clean Air Act, as well as the fact that we’ve invested power in the Environmental Protection Agency as an enforcer to take the steps necessary to fix this issue.
The Clean Air Act has been shown through very rigorous studies to have saved millions of Americans’ lives in the past fifty years. And—maybe this is more surprising—it’s saved trillions of dollars. We’re very used to the idea of discussing costs when it comes to environmental regulation; in the case of mitigating air pollution, it’s very well understood that the benefits to human health greatly pay out those costs.
That’s the thing that’s tricky: The cost is easier to see. If you’re requiring power plants to emit less mercury, they need to either source cleaner coal that has less mercury in it or they need to put some kind of expensive equipment in their smokestacks. That has a price tag attached to it. It’s very visible.
The benefits are very real and measurable, but they’re harder to see because they’re spread over so many millions of people and most of us don’t know that we’re reaping them. For example, we know that cleaner air means we have collectively fewer heart attacks. At a population level, we can see that reduces medical costs for individuals and for the health care system as a whole. But if I don’t have a heart attack tomorrow, I’m not going to intuitively attribute that to the cleaner air I’m breathing. And if I do have a heart attack, we can look at air pollution only as a contributing factor. It’s harder to elucidate.
There are also savings in terms of productivity, better health, and longer life. That’s the question: How much does it cost the economy when a person dies at a young age from an air-pollution-related issue? Again, that’s hard to see. We can measure it at a population level, but we as individuals don’t know or appreciate those savings.
Where the cost benefits come into play is in the political dynamic. The people who have to pay the visible costs—like the power company that’s going to have a cost imposed on it by a new mercury-emissions regulation—know it’s going to come out of their pocket, don’t want to pay it, and are good at making their voices heard. But thinking about population health, spread out over millions of people, it actually saves the economy enormous amounts of money when those regulations are enforced and those visible costs are paid.
We have done so much and come so far in the last fifty years. But now, unfortunately, we are losing that progress as the Trump administration unravels many of the rules that have been instrumental in making that progress. And they’re also undermining the capacity of the EPA to enforce the rules that protect our health and well-being.
Choose your route wisely. Whether you’re walking, running, biking, or driving, find a route that has less automotive traffic on it to reduce your exposure to exhaust and pollution. Even if you can go one block over from a busy road to a parallel, quieter street, that helps; there’s research that says that can reduce your pollution exposure by as much as half. This is especially important if you’re exercising, if you’re with a child, if you’re with an elderly person, or if you’re pregnant. Also, keep in mind the time of day, if you have a choice. Rush hour tends to be a peak time for air pollution if you’re near traffic.
Burning wood is also highly polluting. This tends to surprise a lot of people—myself included—but it’s easier to imagine when you think about the wildfires we’ve been experiencing worldwide in the past few years. It seems like wood is very natural and so it shouldn’t be dangerous or toxic, but science shows that woodsmoke is full of that tiny toxic particulate matter, PM2.5, that is really dangerous to health. Avoid lighting a fire in your fireplace in the winter or buying wood-burning ovens that replace heaters—they’re sometimes marketed as environmentally beneficial, but they’re not.
Beth Gardiner is an environmental journalist and the author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution. Gardiner spent ten years reporting for the Associated Press, and her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Time, among other publications.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.