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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.

Are there certain parts of the country where pollution is worse than others?

Without doubt, Jerrett says. He says his recent study examined 18 years' worth of data from 96 metropolitan areas and nearly 450,000 people. The highest concentrations of ozone and highest death rates due to ozone are in southern California; the lowest in the Northwest and parts of the Great Plains. In general, cities in the Northeast had lower ozone than California, though some have dangerously dirty air. People in New York had a 25% increased risk of dying from lung disease, compared to 43% in Los Angeles. Among the most ozone-rich cities were Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Va.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Charlotte, N.C. Low concentrations were recorded in places like San Francisco, where dirty air is blown away by ocean winds.

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.

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