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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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Outdoor Pollution and Lung Function Effects

Experts explain air pollution's impact on health and the steps you can take to protect your lungs.

How can I protect myself and my family from the effects of pollution?

"If you live in a big city, you can reduce your exposure to air pollution by limiting time in the car, remaining indoors during the heat of the day, typically afternoon and early evening, [and] reducing time spent doing outdoor activity," says Wongtrakool of Emory.

Edward Postlethwait, PhD, of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and his colleague, Michelle Funucchi, PhD, advise exercising in the mornings, and if you have a choice, not to live within 500 feet of busy highways.

"Have a well-ventilated kitchen," Funucchi adds. "Pay attention to air quality alerts. At the highest levels, don't exercise outdoors and minimize your time outdoors."

Postlethwait points out that this can post a catch-22 situation. Riding a bicycle, for instance, is very good exercise, but not when pollution levels are high.

"Wearing masks is not the answer," he says. "In the Olympics in Beijing you saw folks riding bikes wearing facial masks that didn't fit very well. A true respiratory mask might protect you, but not some dorky kind of surgical mask."

Other suggestions for reducing pollution:

  • Don't burn wood in your fireplace.
  • Use HEPA air filters; usually these filters or electronic air cleaners trap a large amount of circulating dirty particles. 
  • Stay well nourished; there's evidence that fish oil and vitamin C can help damage caused by pollutants.
  • Carpool to work or take public transportation.
  • Lobby for schools to replace their diesel buses, or at least to prohibit them from idling while waiting to pick up children.
  • Put a fan or low-speed vent circulator in your garage.

Are there any warning signs that my lung function may be affected by pollution?

Yes. People with asthma and chronic bronchitis are prone to cough and wheeze, and they experience chest pain and shortness of breath during periods of high pollution, says Stan Fineman, MD, of the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic.

Pollution makes lungs more vulnerable to respiratory infections, causes headaches, even triggers heart attacks, says Janice Nolen of the American Lung Association.

"People with chronic diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and asthma are going to have a harder time breathing," she says. "The Atlanta study shows this clearly, when fewer kids had to go to the emergency room."

Other signs of potential problems include:

  • Increased phlegm
  • Burning, itchy eyes
  • Dizziness
  • Runny nose

 

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Reviewed on August 04, 2009

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