Air Quality and Your Health

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May 3, 2016


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This post is available in: Spanish

It’s no secret that the warmer temperatures of the spring have arrived in South Florida. Add to that the seasonal influx of vacationers, and more automobiles on the road along with their subsequent emissions, and you have a recipe for poor air quality.

Ozone

Indeed, that recipe – sunlight mixed with too many pollutants and warmer temperatures – forms a bubble around the earth’s lower atmosphere, trapping ozone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That ozone, when in the upper atmosphere, protects us from the harmful rays of the sun. But, when it’s close to where we breathe, it can wreak havoc on our lungs and our health in general, much like smog and smoke from brush fires.

Who’s at Risk?

Michael Hernandez, M.D., a pulmonologist with South Miami Hospital’s Lung Health Program, says that individuals most at risk for breathing problems when ozone levels near the ground are high include children, the elderly and those with asthma, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease and lung diseases such as COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“When ozone levels are high, or when we experience brush fires here in South Florida, we see an increase in emergency room visits from these at-risk populations and those with these underlying conditions,” he said.

Effects on Lungs

Luckily for most people, the effects of ozone and other common pollutants seem to be short-term, according to the most recent studies cited by the EPA. They irritate the airways and lungs during exposure and for up to a few hours afterward before breathing returns to normal. In the airways, research has shown that cells affected by ozone and pollution shed, much like sunburned skin, and are replaced by new cells. But for individuals with the underlying conditions discussed above, that process may be slower and they may need medical attention or medications to restore their breathing to normal.

Researchers remain concerned about the long-term effects of such exposures. So far, though, the existing scientific literature has been inconclusive. Still, doctors and environmental specialists warn that until more is learned about how repeated exposure to poor air quality affects our health, we should avoid any exposure and protect young children, whose lung function may be reduced as adults after long-term exposure.

Effects on Circulation

In addition to the ill effects on our lungs, the EPA reports that medical studies indicate that poor air quality caused by air pollution can also trigger heart attacks, stroke and irregular heart rhythms. And for people with congestive heart failure, the agency notes that air pollution can affect the ability of the heart to pump blood efficiently.

Reducing Exposure

Sometimes it’s obvious that the air is polluted. It may be filled with smoke, smog or haze. But ozone is invisible. So how do you reduce your risk of exposure, especially if you’re sensitive to air quality?

Dr. Hernandez recommends paying close attention to the EPA’s Air Quality Index, updated according to your geographic location. If that index shows elevated levels of ozone or other pollutants, indicated by an orange or red color on the map, he recommends limiting outdoor activities, especially exercise and work that increases your breathing, or staying indoors altogether until conditions improve. For those who must stay outside because of their job, he suggests wearing a standard protective mask that can filter the air that makes its way to your lungs.

Poor Indoor Air Quality

Dr. Hernandez also recommends taking measures to improve air quality indoors if you suffer from asthma, COPD or heart failure.

“Dusty or moldy environments with poor ventilation are bad for your health, too, if you have a compromised pulmonary function,” he said. High-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters can reduce the effects of poor indoor air quality if the filters are maintained. But, he warns, that those with severe illness may not be helped by these devices. Instead, he suggests for those people, removing the cause of the pollutants altogether to improve health.

The overall message regarding air quality: No matter what air you’re breathing, it’s important to your overall health to have the best air quality, so take heed and breathe easy.

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