10 Pollutants to Watch Out for When You Travel This Summer

Updated by Molekule staff 8/5/2022

Even as the world continues to open up, one of your first thoughts before summer vacation starts is likely: how can I stay safe? 

Researching how to stay safe during travel will yield information on things like car emergency kits, vaccinations, and travel insurance. Also, with the increasing presence of wildfires worldwide and concerns about virus transmission, now air quality is on most travel safety lists. Smoke and infectious particles aren’t the only airborne concerns, so being aware of potential pollutants you and your family may be exposed to during each leg of your journey can help everyone stay healthy and have a great vacation. Let’s take a look at some of the possible pollutants from the airplane flight to your final destination.

Why should I be concerned about air quality?

Though not discussed as often as other types of safety information, it’s important to be aware of the air pollutants you and your family could be exposed to. The World Health Organization estimates that 99% of people live in areas with levels of air pollution that exceed safety recommendations, and that it contributes to at least 7 million deaths each year worldwide.

Even if you’re normally healthy, poor air quality can cause problems like eye, nose, and throat irritation, as well as wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing. For people with asthma or other existing lung conditions, even short-term exposure to air pollution can make their symptoms worse. Though air pollution can affect anyone (and it does), there are two situations that should put you on high alert:

  1. If you’re traveling with children or elderly people — their immune systems are typically more sensitive, increasing their risk of developing air quality-related illnesses.
  2. If you’re traveling to majority world countries — the WHO says that low- and middle-income countries suffer the worst air pollution exposures. This is due to a variety of causes such as more lax regulations, agricultural practices, dense urban environments, older and less efficient cars, and less access to healthcare. 

Potential pollutants in an airplane

If you want to get out of town and head for a more exotic location, chances are you’ll be boarding an airplane. While flying is safer than driving in many aspects, there are air quality concerns that exist simply due to the design and operation of aircraft. Though most air quality issues on an airplane won’t make you sick, it’s important to be aware of those that can.

Oil/hydraulic fuel fumes

Airplane cabins are pressurized because the air pressure at flying altitudes is much lower than normal. The pressurization allows passengers to breathe more easily but there are hidden risks involved. The air supply system used to pressurize the cabin is redirected from the engine and can be a source of toxic fumes when contaminated. This contamination can come from one or many different sources including:

  • engine oil or exhaust
  • hydraulic fluid,
  • ground service vehicles
  • fuel
  • ozone

These fumes are said to smell musty or moldy (or, more recognizably, like dirty socks) and can contain carbon monoxide. When in-flight, the air in the cabin contains less oxygen than it does on the ground which can cause exposure to carbon monoxide and other toxins to cause severe symptoms like headache, fainting, and slowed thought processes. Waiting to take off on the tarmac may increase exposure, as well, airports are potent sources of unhealthy pollution and have negative impacts on airport workers and nearby communities.

Pesticides

You may not think of pesticides as being problematic on an airplane. The reality is that some countries require that flights coming in are treated with pesticides. The intentions are good: to prevent the spread of insects and diseases carried by them, like the Zika virus. However, the symptoms — including headaches, nausea, respiratory illness, and skin and eye irritation — are not.

Though typically this process, called disinsection, is done before or after passengers are on the plane, there is still the potential for coming into contact with these harmful pesticides because you may touch surfaces on the plane treated with them.

Pathogens

Bacteria or viruses that can cause disease are known as pathogens. Due to the enclosed space in an airplane and the recirculated air, the potential for contracting an airborne disease could increase.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, many airlines have increased air filtration by adding HEPA filters, which can help to remove respiratory particles from the air. While traveling to a different area while infected certainly poses a risk to that area, airplanes have not been significant sources of outbreaks and wearing a mask on the plane has the potential to drop infection risk to zero.

How to protect yourself from pollutants in an airplane

Most aircraft have hospital-grade HEPA filters that handle particles well, but they unfortunately may not always work on fumes, pesticides, or other gaseous chemicals.. There are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself during airplane travel:

  • Be aware of smells and alert a flight attendant if you notice foul odors
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose with unwashed hands
  • Wear a face mask 

Potential pollutants in hotels

Hotels, restaurants, and other places where people are eating or hanging out without masks are thought to be the easiest places for infections like Covid-19 to spread. But hotels, much like airplanes, are host to plenty of other airborne substances that can negatively impact your health. These, however, are usually easier to identify and prevent — sometimes even before you arrive.

Mold

Exposure to mold can ruin even the most thoughtfully planned summer vacation. For healthy people, it can cause coughing, wheezing, and respiratory irritation. For people with asthma or another lung disease, it can be even more dangerous. While you may think that because hotel rooms are cleaned daily the risk is minimal, it’s more likely that you just won’t see the mold in obvious places like the shower or mini-fridge. That being said, there are places you should always check for mold in a hotel room:

  • Windows and window sills
  • The mattress
  • Air conditioning and heating vents
  • Couches, curtains, and bedspreads

Even if you don’t see mold growing, pay attention to how your hotel room smells. A musty odor could indicate that mold is growing in places you wouldn’t expect like behind wallpaper or in the walls and floor.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Formaldehyde, benzene, acetone, and ethylene glycol are just some examples of the potential VOCs lurking in hotel rooms. Since they can be found in almost anything (from cleaning products to the very materials used to build the hotel) and are released into the air as invisible gasses, it can be hard to avoid them completely. Strong scents from cleaning products that linger in the air of your hotel room can react in the air to form unhealthy particles. Proper ventilation can help with this.

Cigarette Smoke

Even if you’re not a smoker, secondhand cigarette smoke and even the residue of it leftover from past occupants can impact your health, causing irritation and respiratory issues. Be sure to ask for a non-smoking room in a non-smoking section of the hotel. It’s also wise to avoid thirdhand smoke in smoking areas of any kind. Thirdhand smoke is the toxic residue that settles onto surfaces and can’t be removed with simple ventilation, it has to be scrubbed or otherwise washed off with a cleaning product.

Allergens

Pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and mold are four of the most common allergens. When you’re looking for a hotel room for summer vacation, check around to see if there are any hotels that offer hypo-allergenic rooms, or rooms with air purifiers. If these aren’t options, look for a pet-free hotel to eliminate pet dander.

How to protect yourself from pollutants at a hotel

  • Check for mold before and, if you find some or suspect that it’s present, ask for a different room
  • Look for hotels that consider air quality
  • Open windows
  • Get a non-smoking room
  • Ask for a room with an air purifier, if possible
  • Bring your own in-room air purifier
  • Ask if the hotel uses green cleaning products
  • Look for hotels with hypo-allergenic rooms

Potential pollutants at your destination

Where you go for summer vacation will impact the amount and types of pollutants you have to deal with. The WHO maintains a country-by-country global Covid map that can show you the rate of new Covid infections in any country you are traveling to. The US CDC has a similar county-by-county tool to figure out how cautious you will need to be. 

If you’re in a rural area, you may find that pollen from the trees and grass are more of a problem than any infections. In large cities, smog has been a concern for decades. And if you’re going to spend time in another country, you’ll have to be on the lookout for food and water contaminants. Let’s take a look at all three.

Pollen

When you think of air pollutants, you probably think of toxic chemicals, not naturally occurring allergens. While people have differing views on whether pollen is or is not a pollutant, there’s no denying that it can affect air quality. Be sure to check pollen counts at your destination. If possible, plan outdoor activities on days when pollen counts are low.

Smog

If you’re spending time in a city with a lot of traffic, smog is one pollutant you want to watch out for. Created when different pollutants combine with high temperatures and sunshine, smog is especially harmful if you have existing allergies or asthma. Even if you don’t, smog can cause respiratory illness — not exactly the souvenir you want to go home with.

Food and water contaminants

Undeniably, enjoying delicious meals is one of the best parts of summer vacation. If you’re traveling in the United States, this isn’t likely something you need to worry about. For international trips, you’ll want to be aware — the contaminants in food and water can cause health problems that range from unpleasant to serious. Raw foods including meat, fruits, and vegetables should be avoided. Street food, while risky, isn’t always unsafe but it’s important to use your best judgment and make sure that the vendor operates in a clean space and cooks all food right before you eat it. Bottled water, canned soda, and hot drinks are fine most of the time but you’ll want to avoid drinking tap water or ice that’s made from it.

How to protect yourself from pollutants at your destination

  • Check air quality reports for where you’re traveling
  • Avoid raw foods
  • Drink bottled water
  • Limit strenuous outdoor activities when pollution levels are high
  • If you have asthma, take your inhalers and medications
  • Try to find access to cool, indoor places
  • Check for travel advisories or travel health warnings before you plan a trip

Thinking about pollutants while traveling is no one’s idea of a good time. But to ensure you can actually enjoy your summer vacation, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on the types of pollutants you may encounter and decide on effective strategies for lowering your health risk. A little forethought can eliminate all kinds of health problems and ensure you have a safe, healthy, and happy vacation.

Written by

Christina is an experienced healthcare brand strategist and has had the pleasure of leading projects with Blue Shield of California, Inland Empire Health Plan and Foundation for Medical Care, the Bipartisan Policy Committee, Manifest MedEx, Elation Health, Propeller Health, Brightside, SilverCloud Health, Lightning Bolt Solutions, and dozens of other digital health brands. She is the founder of Femtech Media and can be reached at christina@femtechmedia.co.