Air Pollution Facts and Prevention Tips
While we can choose what we eat and drink, we cannot choose the air we are breathing. Thus any of us can be exposed to pollutants at one time or another, simply through the air we inhale. The effects of our exposure to air contaminants may vary based on the exposure dose: some may appear immediately, while others could develop over a long time after the exposure started. This is why it is always a good idea to evaluate possible past exposures (at home, work, etc.)
Additionally, similar with traveling via airplane vs. any other form of transport, pollutants travel in the air fast and are easily spread around over large areas, affecting many people even in their homes. This means that, while a toxic release/spill to the water and/or soil may be contained and treated, a release of toxic compounds into the air cannot be contained. It may spread quickly over large areas and pollute even remote areas with little or no human activity.
Indoor air poses more health risks than the outdoor air. While polluted air may diffuse everywhere and the ambient air may pose an overall health risk, various pollutants concentrate in enclosed spaces with poor or no air circulation, such as indoors. This is why exposure to various air pollutants usually happens indoors. This is also why good air circulation between indoors and outdoors is essential to reduce the health risks of breathing the air indoors. Thus, the main preventive measure to avoid exposure to air pollution is to keep the spaces you are in well ventilated (opening windows or having a system that circulates outdoor air continuously).
In many cases, exposure to polluted air is not perceived by any of our senses. This is because the concentrations of pollutants in the air that may create health risks are usually much below what we can smell, see, or taste. This is why, for example, the butane gas from cooking stoves or the natural gas coming from pipelines has some additives (substances) that give it smell. Otherwise, we would not be able to smell dangerous amounts of gas escaping from stoves, pipelines, etc. Imagine that, apart from the gas that comes through pipelines, in nature, no one adds any smelling compounds to the gas, thus if in certain areas gas is produced naturally you will not be able to feel it and it may even kill you. Therefore, never feel safe simply because you cannot feel any contaminants in the air!
Where to Pay Attention
- Enclosed spaces may pose a serious health threat even in the absence of any toxic chemical in the air. Think of areas that have been sealed off for long periods of time, such as cellars, storage areas, or warehouses that were not opened for a long time. In such cases, the hazard might come from the possible depletion of oxygen in that enclosed space. Additionally, some enclosed spaces such as those storing fruits and vegetables may have been depleted of oxygen on purpose, in order to prevent the ripening of the fruits. Thus, before stepping in any enclosed spaces that may not have been opened in a long time it is always wise to leave the door open and aerate.
- Common household products such as glues, paints, cleaning and polishing agents, perfumes, sprays, etc. constitute sources for polluting our indoor air. This is because all these products may contain one or more toxic chemicals (such as organic solvents) that could volatilize into the indoor air and thus pollute it. It is always wise to minimize their use to what is strictly necessary, while keeping such products tightly closed and in separate storage cabinets.
- Dry cleaning clothes may pollute your indoor air. This is because those clothes were treated with organic solvents (chlorinated orb petroleum solvents) to remove stains and dirt. After the cleaning ceased, small amounts of solvents usually remain impregnated in the fabric. These will keep volatilizing in the air until complete depletion and may pose a health risk despite their small amounts.
- Car Air Pollution - Keeping your car in a garage that is an integral part of the house (usually separated by a door from a family room) will pollute the indoor air unless the garage has a door or window open. This happens because various hydrocarbons that constitute gasoline are volatile and will little by little volatilize from the car tank into the surrounding air. This may happen also when the garage is straight below a family room and could be a problem if your bedroom is just above a garage which does not have a window or door open at all times.
- Shopping malls and other stores can have indoor polluted air due to the storage of various items containing volatile chemicals. Have you not noticed various smells while shopping? Those smells are due to volatilization of a series of organic chemicals (most of which may be toxic) from stored products into the store air. And since it is known that health risk concentrations usually cannot be smelled, you can just imagine that those stores' air may be quite polluted.
- Printers and copy machines may also pollute the air. While this is not an issue at home, where little usage of printers or copy machine happens, this may be an issue in offices where intensive printing and copy jobs are performed every day. This is because of the volatilization of organic chemicals from inks, due to the heating caused by intense usage.
- Markers also contain organic solvents which may pollute indoor air. Probably everyone notices the smell of markers when we uncap them. While more and more markers are used in meetings and regular office work, to draw graphs, jot ideas on a whiteboard etc., markers may not be entirely safe for the person using them and inhaling the volatile chemicals. Markers too can contribute to the overall pollution of indoor areas.
- Vapor intrusion means the intrusion in the indoor air of various toxic chemicals (in gaseous forms) volatilizing from the subsurface environment (below buildings) such as groundwater and soil. This is probably one of the most serious environmental problems confronting today’s society because it may affect houses at various distances from pollution source (contaminants travel with groundwater) and also because it is hard for inhabitants to suspect any air pollution issues and there is not much to do to avoid exposure, except to always have good air ventilation.
Tips to Avoid Air Pollution
- Keep household products such as glues, paints, cleaning and polishing products etc. in separate storage areas, away from the rooms where you spend most of your time.
- Keep dry cleaned clothes in well-aerated spaces for a few days after getting them from the cleaner.
- Keep ventilating your garage by having a ventilation shaft or keeping a window opened.
- Minimize your shopping time in shopping malls.
- Have a separate room with printers and copy machines and keep a good air ventilation in the office.
- Keep markers capped and limit usage.
- Always keep indoors areas well ventilated to prevent the accumulation of volatile chemicals either from indoors substances or from vaporized toxins in the subsurface environment.
- Minimize exposure to air in heavily industrialized areas (downtown areas with heavy traffic, areas around chemical plants, mining areas etc.)