In our homes, in the streets, in towns and cities, we are surrounded by an invisible peril: pollution. Toxic chemicals in the air cause about 40,000 Britons to die each year, according to studies by the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Evidence also shows that air pollution causes more than six million sick days and costs an annual £22.6 billion in terms of ill- health and disability, such as heart disease and lung conditions including asthma.
It is also ravaging our brains. Just last week, British researchers warned that air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK. Scientists from St George’s University and King’s College
Evidence also shows that air pollution causes more than six million sick days and costs an annual £22.6 billion in terms of ill- health and disability, such as heart disease and lung conditions including asthma
Meanwhile, another shock report last week revealed that tiny soot particles breathed in by pregnant women could be found in the womb, where they could harm growing babies. Although they could not prove yet that the particles would enter the foetus itself, researchers from Queen Mary University of London noted: ‘Our evidence suggests that this is possible.’
Indeed, it would explain why previous studies have linked air pollution to lower birth weight, higher rates of infant mortality and childhood breathing difficulties.
And in the UK we are particularly under threat. More than 40 cities exceed recommended World Health Organisation air-quality levels, and studies show that our indoor air is seven times more polluted compared to homes in Scandinavia.
So how can we defend ourselves against something that we rarely see, yet which surrounds us constantly? Something that seems to seep from every aspect of modern life – from the chemicals used to coat furniture and carpets, from cars and clothes, from farmlands and factories… to even something an innocuous as a scented candle.
Science shows that small simple changes in our everyday habits can significantly cut the levels of pollutants to which we and our children are exposed.
We cannot stop it, but we can lower it to far less dangerous levels. We can even bolster our bodies against it. Here’s how…
DANGER OF AIRTIGHT HOMES
It may seem smart to draught-proof our homes as much as possible, but airtight dwellings seal in toxic fumes. These include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are blamed by numerous studies for triggering asthma in children and worsening it in adults, and raising the risk of heart disease.
VOCs can act as powerful irritants. Breathing them can inflame the eyes, nose and throat, cause difficulty breathing and nausea and damage the central nervous system. Carpets, vinyl flooring, cleaning products, cosmetics, hairsprays, paint, heating and cooking fuel all cloud household air with VOCs.
Research by Reading University shows the problem is worst in homes built in the past 20 years, thanks to ‘green’ rules that require energy-efficient impermeable glazing and insulation. Such homes do not breathe, and nor do older ones boosted to meet new standards.
Homeowners have been warned they must allow fresh air into their homes to avoid the buildup of volatile organic compounds which can trigger asthma in children
The Reading research forecasts that toxic household air may cause an 80 per cent jump in the number of people with asthma within three decades. And while we tend to worry most about fumes from traffic and factories, we spend up to 90 per cent of our time indoors, warns Professor Stephen Holgate, who is leading the Royal College of Paediatrics’ Indoor Air Quality Working Group. He says the best way for us to ventilate our homes is to open windows on the side of the home that is away from roads and other pollution sources. Do it at night, he advises, when outside pollution levels are often at their lowest.
He also recommends wooden floors rather than carpets. And avoid hanging laundry on airers and radiators. This creates a third of the moisture in homes, which fosters allergens such as mould spores and dust mites. High humidity also raises the concentration of VOCs.
Using home air purifiers fitted with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can significantly reduce levels of dust and allergens in the home, although they won’t remove toxic gases or VOCs.
TAKE CARE WHEN COOKING
When cooking, always use the stove ventilation. Natural gas used in cooking emits nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, all of which are harmful gasses. Ingredients themselves can be major polluters. A meal as innocent as steak au poivre with herbs can release harmful chemicals, according to research published last year in the journal Scientific Reports.
The fried pepper and herbs release VOCs called terpenes, which can irritate the skin and lungs. As Professor Jonathan Grigg, a paediatric respiratory consultant and a leading expert on pollution harm, explains: ‘Using the extractor fan is probably the most useful thing that you can do, given that cooking is such a major source of indoor pollutants.’
A simple steak, pictured, has the ability to release several harmful chemicals
Our homes often harbour another hidden source of debilitating air pollution – fragments of lead paint. DIY fans should be extra-cautious and use masks, air filters and ventilation when stripping paint in houses built before the 1970s. Young children and pregnant women are most at risk from lead poisoning, which can cause seizures, comas or even death.
THE PLASTIC PERIL
Our home air is increasingly filled with microplastics – tiny filaments that can be inhaled.
Health experts at the World Economic Forum warn these may induce respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as cancer. The effects on health have not yet been studied fully, but experts fear these tiny particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, carrying toxic chemicals and acting as irritants that may cause chronic inflammation and may precipitate lung disease and the formation of blood clots.
Children are most vulnerable as they are still developing – and babies crawling on floors are in particular danger of breathing in plastic filaments in dust.
The biggest, most avoidable indoor source of microplastics is synthetic clothing, such as acrylic, nylon and polyester, particularly in leggings, fleeces and outdoor gear.
The older your synthetic clothes become, the more fibres they shed. Stick with natural textiles instead.
SHUN ‘FRESHENED’ AIR
Artificial scents of pine, laundered linen and spring meadows might make our homes appear naturally fresh. But a study from Public Health England found plug-in air fresheners produce ‘considerable’ amounts of formaldehyde – a chemical that causes allergic reactions such as asthma. This compound is formed when fragrance chemicals called terpenes react with the air.
Air-freshener chemicals can react with dust and biological pollution from dust-mite droppings and bacteria around the home to produce toxic irritant compounds.
Most scented candles, meanwhile, are made with paraffin. ‘These will produce a lot of particles indoors and I avoid them at all costs,’ says Professor Frank Kelly, director of the Environmental Research Group at King’s College London.
Instead of using industrial chemicals, simply open windows whenever possible.
Studies by researchers at Oregon University in the United States show that ventilating rooms cuts levels of bacteria that cause bad smells in the first place.
TAKE A BACK ROUTE
Walking along quieter back streets rather than main roads can cut your exposure to vehicle exhaust pollution by more than half. Researchers at King’s College London discovered this last year by sending pedestrians on seven different routes through London. Some of the side roads had 60 per cent less pollution. King’s has launched a free app called City Air that helps users plan journeys using updated information on the least polluted routes through London. There are similar apps for other large cities.
CURB THE KERB
Researchers at Greenpeace recommend that at crossings you press the button then step well back from the kerb, because exhaust gases become concentrated where vehicles stop. As a rule, it is also best to walk on the inside of the pavement, which can cut your exposure to exhaust gases by up to a third.
Researchers from Greenpeace believe pedestrians should step back from the kerb when waiting at the lights to cross the road to mitigate the effects of toxic fumes
JUMP ON A BUS
Pedestrians, cyclists and car users all inhale around a third more pollution than bus passengers, according to a 2012 study of traffic in Barcelona.
The prime reason may be that the air intake on most cars is at the front and therefore right next to the exhaust pipe of the vehicle it is following, said the report in the journal Atmospheric Environment.
One answer is to turn the car’s air-conditioning system to ‘internal circulation’ so it only recirculates air inside the cabin, rather than sucking in pollution from the crowded road.
COVER UP PUSHCHAIRS
Most vehicles belch their exhaust from pipes that are 12in to 24in above the ground. That’s right in the face of a child in a pushchair. This explains why a study in the journal Environmental Pollution found that infants in prams are exposed to twice as many diesel fumes as the adults with them.
The problem has led the Surrey University urban pollution researcher Prashant Kumar to suggest that parents try to protect their youngsters by using pram covers.
BUT STILL EXERCISE OUTSIDE
You’d be forgiven for thinking that jogging or cycling in areas with moderate to high traffic pollution would be a serious no-no. But a study of more than 51,000 middle-aged Danes found that those who exercised regularly in inner-city areas reduced their overall risk of suffering heart attacks.
This is despite the fact that traffic pollution itself is a known risk for cardiovascular disease. The benefits outweigh the perils, said the University of Copenhagen researchers.
TAKE VITAMIN D
If you can’t avoid traffic pollution, taking vitamin D supplements may help to protect your body, according to a study last month led by lung specialists at King’s College London.
They report that tiny particles from vehicle exhausts can lodge in our lungs, causing the sensitive bronchial lining to become stressed and inflamed. This, in turn, can cause asthma attacks.
The study reported that vitamin D supplements appear to alter the genetic response to particulate pollution in the lungs, so that they react with lower levels of harmful inflammation and physical stress.
So are those weird-looking masks any use? …actually, yes
Scientists have found that masks, such as the one worn here by Katy Perry can protect against polution
Wearing pollution masks on the street may seem bizarre or radical unless you’re cycling – but are they any use?
In April, a study led by Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Exposure Science tested people in Beijing, where wearing masks is common. The aim was to assess the efficiency of the coverings, which all claimed to protect against fine vehicle exhaust particulate matter, also known as PM2.5.
There is a wide range of face-mask brands and their manufacturers’ claims can prove confusing for potential buyers. But the study found that one simple factor above all determined the different products’ effectiveness – how snugly they fit on your face.
In another study, British Heart Foundation (BHF) investigators working in Beijing recruited people with coronary heart disease to walk around the city hooked up to portable blood-pressure and heart-rate monitors. They discovered that if volunteers wore a pollution mask, their blood pressure was lower and their heart activity was healthier. David Newby, the BHF professor of cardiology who led the study, says that masks ‘might have a role if it’s a really bad pollution day and you have to go outdoors’.
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