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Air Quality & Your Health

Air pollution is something we’ve all heard and read about, mostly affecting the cities of industrial centres like in India or Beijing. For those of us living in Canada and Vancouver specifically, it may not be something we pay attention to often or take into consideration when we think about our overall quality of life. Recently however, forest fires and industrial developments have been playing a major role in how they contribute to the air quality around us. According to the WHO, “An estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to ambient air pollution, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children.”

Sources of outdoor air pollution

  • Fuel combustion from vehicles and machinery
  • Heat and Power generators (coal and oil plants)
  • Industrial manufacturing factories
  • Agricultural waste
  • Residential heating and cooking
  • Environmental impacts such as wildfires

Types of pollutants

  • Particle Matter (PM) is composed of small particles of sulphites, nitrates, carbon, ammonia and mineral dust.
    • PM2.5 (particles with a diameter of fewer than 2.5 microns) are the smallest sized particles. The smaller they are in size the more hazardous they are to our health as we can’t see them but they can start to penetrate our lungs and even enter our bloodstream. These sized particles are typically produced from emission fuels and wildfires.
    • Larger particles, like PM10, can often be seen in the form of smoke and dust and still affect our health by irritating our eyes, nose, and throats.
  • Other pollutants like ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and black carbon can be found within the air can also cause irritation and inflammation of our respiratory system.

Affect on Health

  • Symptoms of coughing, eye irritation, runny nose, headaches, chest pain and fatigue.
  • Reduced lung function and worsening of asthma symptoms like wheezing and shortness of breath
  • May lead to respiratory infections like pneumonia
  • Maternal exposure is associated with pre-term birth and low birth weight
  • Aggravation of chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD)
  • Cardiovascular deaths such as stroke and ischemic heart disease
  • May affect neurological development in children

PM2.5’s ability to enter into the lungs and bloodstream has also now classified it as a cause for lung cancer

How to interpret Air Quality Index (AQI) readings

Currently, there are 2 common AQI readings recorded throughout the world.

AQI Health Index from 0-10 (10 being the highest)

  • 0-3 is Low
  • 4-6 is Moderate = consider reducing strenuous outdoor activities if you are sensitive
  • 7-10 is High = Sensitive individuals, children and elderly people should reduce all outdoor activity
  • 10+ is Very High = Avoid outdoors activity for all groups

AQI Index 0-500 (500 being the highest)

  • 0-50 is Good
  • 51-100 is Moderate = Sensitive individuals should limit strenuous or prolonged outdoor activity
  • 101 to 150 is Unhealthy for sensitive groups = Children, elderly, and those with asthma should reduce prolonged outdoor exposure
  • 151 – 200 is Unhealthy = Children, elderly, and those with asthma should avoid prolonged outdoor exposure, all other groups should reduce outdoor exposure
  • 201 – 300 is Very Unhealthy = Children, elderly, and those with asthma should avoid any outdoor exposure, all other groups should reduce outdoor exposure
  • 301-500 is Hazardous = All groups of individuals should avoid outdoor exposure

So what can we do as a community and as individuals to help mitigate the effect of air pollution not just on our environment but also on our overall health?

Ways to reduce exposure to air pollution

  • Look at the daily AQI reading for your city, especially during wildfires season or if you live in an industrial neighbourhood, and follow the recommended guides to either reduce or avoid outdoor exposure
  • If you fall into a vulnerable category, be extra cautious to avoid prolonged and strenuous exposure during even moderate AQI levels
  • Keep windows and doors closed to prevent ambient outdoor air from entering into your home
  • Consider purchasing a high-efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter for your home. These filters have a fine mesh material that traps dirt, pollen, smoke and other particles circulating in the air. These filters can also remove small particles like those found in PM2.5
  • Walk as much as possible (on good days!), carpool or take public transit to reduce vehicle emissions.
  • Have your ducts checked in your home to ensure they are working properly and
  • Use gas or electric fireplaces instead of wood-burning ones and have them serviced regularly
  • Avoid the use of charcoal grills
  • Ensure good ventilation is used in the bathroom and kitchens to prevent mould build-up (ie: turn your fan on when you shower!)
  • Keep your house clean with regular mopping, sweeping, and vacuuming and consider removing unnecessary carpeting
  • Wear an N95 particle mask in smokey and dusty conditions

Ways to reduce air pollutions negative effect on health

  • Make sure that your body’s natural detox pathways are working well, this includes providing support for your liver, kidneys, and lungs.
    • Exercise – chemicals can be removed from the skin through sweat and exercising overall can shrink our fat cells where most chemicals tend to get stored
    • Breathe – deep breathing exercises, meditation or yoga can help improve how we breathe through our diaphragm. This helps support a healthy respiratory system and ensure adequate oxygen is getting into our cells. Try the 4,7,8 technique. Breathe in counting for 4 seconds, hold for 7, breathe out counting for 8.
    • Drink – having adequate water intake can help keep our kidneys working well but flushing them out regularly. Aim for at least half your weight in ounces, so if you’re 150lbs, half would be 75 or 75 ounces of water, which is roughly 9 cups.
    • Eat – a balanced diet full of colourful and nutrient-rich vitamins and minerals, especially ones that are good for your liver.
      • Include cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kale
      • Add fibre-rich foods like psyllium, flax seeds, chia seeds, artichokes and almonds
      • Have antioxidant-rich foods like organic green tea, spinach, beets, and berries
      • Buy organic as much as possible, esp. the dirty dozen high pesticide foods like strawberries, tomatoes and apples (check out ewg.com for a full list)
      • Avoid farmed, mercury rich, or canned fish
      • Avoid highly processed, high trans-fat and sugary foods
    • Digest – ensure your digestion is working well to allow for proper elimination through your bowels and a healthy microbiome to flourish.
      • Promote bowels with regular high fibre and probiotic-rich foods or supplements
      • Identify any food allergies or intolerances that may be contributing to poor digestive health
      • Support bowel movement with vitamin C, magnesium, and digestive bitters
  • Promote antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress, promote mitochondria function and improve overall lung health
    • Vitamin A, C, E, Selenium and Zinc
    • NAC for lung support
    • Vitamin D for immune support
    • Botanicals like Chaga mushrooms, cordyceps, and astragalus

If you are experiencing symptoms or are at risk of developing adverse effects, talk to one of your NDs about ways to improve symptoms and provide ongoing support to reduce your overall health risks.

In health,
Dr Natalia Ytsma, ND

References
WHO 2020. https://www.who.int/airpollution/ambient/en/
EPA. 2020. Guide to Air Quality and Your Health. https://www3.epa.gov/airnow/aqi_brochure_02_14.pdf
Gov of BC. 2020. Forest Fires and Air Quality. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/air-land-water/air/air-pollution/smoke-burning/forest-fires-air-quality

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