6 Common Myths About Air Pollution and What You Can Do About Them

As wildfires become worse every year and smog continues to affect the globe, you may find that the problem of air pollution and its health effects are beginning to impact everyone.

Fortunately, more attention is now brought to poor air quality, even in places you would not expect—like rural areas and national parks—to indoor places like homes, schools and office buildings. Your home does not need to be in a city, near a forest fire, or be visibly polluted for the air to contain pollutants. Many living far away from highly polluted areas and forest fires have a false sense of security when it comes to air quality, especially when it comes to air quality inside their homes.

It is difficult to address hidden problems like these, especially when they are disguised by leading misconceptions. This article will go through six of the most common myths around air pollution, both indoors and outdoors, which people across the world are beginning to confront. You will also learn about the steps that you can take to improve the quality of the air you breathe and protect your health.

Myth #1: Air pollution in China always exceeds that of the US

You have probably heard stories about the serious air pollution problem in China, especially on the news. Major cities in China, including Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu suffer from poor to dangerous air quality most days of the year. Even the most polluted cities in the US cannot compare, right?

Effects of wildfires

Actually, during this past summer of 2018, wildfire smoke caused air pollution in major North American cities to become worse than that of Chinese cities. In August of 2018, the air quality of Seattle was reported as being five times worse than that of Beijing. What was even more surprising was that during the same period of time, Beijing’s air quality was not only better, but much better than Seattle. Seattle reached Air Quality Index (AQI) levels of 150 to 200 (which means “moderately polluted”), while Beijing’s AQI levels stayed within the 30s (which means “excellent” air quality).

Reduced visibility at sunset due to wildfire smoke near Seattle, WA

This downturn in air quality was in large part due to the forest fires which engulfed the northeast during this hot and dry summer of 2018. Unfortunately, many scientists think that these forest fires are becoming the new normal. These days of low air quality may well become a regular occurrence in Seattle and other west-coast cities such as Vancouver.

Air pollution drifts from the east to west

The problem is compounded because air pollution is drifting into the US from China. The US may be reducing the amount of air pollution it creates, but its efforts are negated by winds pushing polluted air from Asia into US airspace (Lin et al., 2017). As a result, air pollution continues to rise. The same polluted air that is causing hazardous air quality in Beijing is wafting over from the Pacific ocean into the United States.

Myth #2: Air pollution is present only if you can see it

When food is bad, you might see mold. When water is dirty, it may look that way or smell unusual. But how do you know that the air is contaminated?

If you can see smog or wildfire smoke on the horizon, then you know that the air is contaminated. However, air pollution is not always visible to the eye or any other sense. Even visible smoke or smog can contain microscopic particles (much smaller than the width of a human hair) that you cannot see, or contain invisible gases like ozone and carbon monoxide.

Biological pollutants in the air

You may encounter another type of air pollution, especially during certain times of the year like pollen season: biological pollutants. You can see a mold colony with your eyes, as well as large pollen grains. However, mold spores and tiny pollen particles are microscopic allergens that can trigger allergic reactions, though you cannot see them.

Invisible biological pollutants from living organisms that can contaminate the air you breathe include:

  • Mold and fungal spores
  • Bacteria and viruses
  • House dust mite allergens
  • Pollen

Gaseous pollutants in the air 

Chemical pollutants in the form of gases, vapors and particles that can be found hiding inside your home, as well as outside, may include:

  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2): When found indoors, this gas is generated from appliances like water heaters and gas stoves. Nitrogen oxide is also a common outdoor air pollutant found in vehicle and power plant emissions.
  • Carbon monoxide (CO): This is a very harmful gas generated from burning any substance, including natural gas.
  • Formaldehyde: This is an airborne chemical compound found in many household products, as well as generated from burning any substance, including natural gas.
  • Lead: This element is commonly released into the air from consumer products such as costume jewelry, air supplies, and paint.
  • Ozone (O3): This gas exists in the upper atmosphere and at ground level. It only comes indoors from sources outside.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): These are a large group of chemicals that are present in the indoor and outdoor air. They can come from products such as paint or cigarettes, or can be emitted into the air from outdoor sources.
  • Dust or particles: Some particulate matter is less than 2.5 microns (µm) in diameter and cannot be seen. These particles are especially harmful, as they can be easily inhaled and travel into the lungs.

Many of these elements are present in outdoor and indoor air. And despite the fact that they are invisible, these compounds can trigger reactions like allergies and may cause respiratory health effects.

Myth #3: The air quality is always better indoors vs. outdoors

Indoor air quality generally seems better than the quality of the air outside, where visible clouds of dark smoke are seen leaving cars, factories and homes.

The opposite can be the case when you consider the concentration levels of pollutants in an enclosed space.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that air quality inside could be 2-5x worse than outside, based on their studies assessing indoor concentrations of airborne chemicals. More information about common indoor air pollutants is mentioned above, though here is a quick list of the different types of indoor air pollution:

  1. Biological pollutants like mold, pet dander, pollen and dust mite allergens
  2. Combustion pollutants like carbon monoxide and tobacco smoke
  3. Chemical pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), lead and radon
  4. Particle pollution like dust and other inorganic particles

What you can do to improve indoor air quality

Since you spend most of your time indoors, this information is particularly important for those who are concerned with taking steps to improve overall health. The good news is that indoor air quality can be improved. Here are some simple, low-cost steps to improve indoor air quality :

  • Ventilation: Ventilation is about bringing in clean, outside air and venting out polluted indoor air. Many homes have built-in air ventilation systems and offices typically have minimum ventilation requirements. You can choose to ventilate your home by opening windows if conditions permit, especially when using household products that contain chemicals or during house cleaning. Please be careful of opening windows, or generally keep them closed, during times of heavy outdoor air pollution or during pollen season if you have seasonal allergies.
  • Source control: The best medicine is prevention. Preventing sources of indoor air pollution is an easy and effective way to improve indoor air quality. Examples of indoor source control include not smoking and controlling humidity levels to prevent mold growth. You can also opt for consumer products that emit low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Avoiding products such as candles and deodorizers is also helpful.
  • Regular cleaning: This can prevent the growth of mold and remove dust from surfaces, keeping it from being released into the air.

An additional way to help improve indoor air quality is to use an air purifier. The Molekule PECO technology can help remove and destroy many indoor air pollutants including dust, mold particles and VOCs.

Myth #4: Seasonal allergens can only be found outside of the home

As discussed in myth #3, indoor air pollution levels could be worse than outdoor levels. The same goes for pollen levels: they were found to be  2-5x worse inside in one study, most likely because pollen grains can travel inside on your clothes or hair, or through an open window.

Common allergens that can be found inside the home’s air include pollen, pet dander, dust mites and mold. Most homes contain these common allergens: 90 percent of homes have three or more detectable allergens.

If you suffer from allergies, taking steps to protect your indoor air quality can provide relief from allergy symptoms. Steps include:

  • Regular cleaning to prevent the growth of mold and reduce levels of pet dander, dust and pollen.
  • Keeping windows shut during allergy season.
  • If you have seasonal allergies, make sure you wash your clothing after coming inside during allergy season.
  • Keep pets off your furniture and do not let them sleep on the bed with you.

Myth #5: The air quality of natural areas always exceeds that of cities

The great outdoors may not always be the place to get a breath of fresh air. Even great national parks miles away from any major city can still have polluted air. A study published in 2018 found that the air pollution of the US’s 33 biggest national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, was only slightly better than the air in cities. The study found that ozone levels in many of these parks were close to or even exceeded that in cities.

A view of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park clouded by nearby wildfire smoke

The reason for this is mainly because air pollution drifts out from cities into rural and natural areas. This air pollution often gets trapped within mountain ranges and steep slopes, preventing the air from cleaning out as quickly as it can in cities. Additionally, the increase in forest fires has decreased air quality in many parks.

Myth #6: There is not much you can individually do about air pollution

You may be feeling as though nowhere is safe—not the city, not the forest, not even the comfort of your own home. But there is much you can do to improve the air quality in your home and beyond.

Reducing airborne chemicals, both inside and outside

You can consider what kinds of products you bring into your home. Airborne chemicals (specifically volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) from personal care products can contribute as much to air pollution as cars. A study released in 2018 found that consumer and industrial products, including personal care products, household cleaners, paints, and pesticides, produced around half of the VOC emissions measured in Los Angeles during the study period. This amount is similar to the amounts of VOCs released by cars in this notoriously traffic jammed city.

Choosing to minimize the number of personal care products you use and sticking to personal care products made from natural ingredients can limit this problem. Not only will this help with outdoor air quality in your community, reducing household products that contain VOCs can improve your indoor air quality as well. There are several other ways to reduce the levels of indoor air pollution, as discussed in this article.

Steps for better air quality in your community

Taking steps in your personal life to reduce car emissions, including opting for public transit, biking, and walking, can also have an impact on air pollution. Taking steps alongside your neighbors can make a big difference. For instance, India recently completed a project where over 1.5 million citizens planted over 66 million trees in only 12 hours.

You breathe 3000 gallons of air every day. The air you breathe is as important as what you eat and drink. It is crucial that you know the truth about what is in the air you breathe, and this article can help illuminate many myths surrounding air quality.

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