Deaths Increase as Air Pollution Levels Rise
EPA officials recognize the threat of particulate pollution. With an annual budget of $62 million, Vandenberg says the National Research Program for Particulate Matter is the agency's "single largest health research project," and that within the EPA, this project receives more funds than do drinking water programs.
Jane Q. Koenig, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, as well as Samet and other experts interviewed by WebMD say that people who need or want to protect themselves from particulate matter pollution can follow the same guidelines that are commonly issued on days when ozone levels are elevated. These include staying indoors when possible and avoiding strenuous outdoor activities, which bring pollutants deeper into the lungs.
People with asthma and other breathing disorders should check with their doctor about using their inhalants and other medications more frequently on days when particulate pollution is high.
Avoiding areas of congested traffic, shunning wood-burning devices, stopping smoking, and buying a good air-filtering system using a HEPA filter for home use may also help. A diet with fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants may thwart the effects of air pollution.
But these efforts, unfortunately, are likely to be of limited benefit. "There's not much you can do," says Lippmann. "You can retreat indoors [from] ozone. But fine particles follow you indoors. They come in through cracks. You are getting 80% of the particles indoors that you are getting outdoors. All you can do is press for greater action on the part of the EPA to get the sources of air pollution under control." He adds that people could cut down their use of electricity and use more mass transportation.
The EPA is not yet advising people to take any precautions to reduce their risk from particulates based on research available today. But that is likely to change. "In the next year or two, we are going to have much more data on monitoring of particles in the air than we have now," Vandenberg tells WebMD. "We are trying to understand who is affected, why and how."