Breathe Easy: Understanding Common Air Pollutants & Cleaning Your Air

Breathe Easy: Understanding Common Air Pollutants & Cleaning Your Air

Breathe Easy: Understanding Common Air Pollutants & Cleaning Your Air

Air quality in the US appears to have once again taken a turn for the worse. A study found that between 2016 and 2018, particulate pollution has gone up 5.5%. Worse, the researchers say that this uptick led to 9,700 additional premature deaths.

Note that these stats are only for particulate pollution. There are many other air pollutants that affect not only our health but the environment too.

Together, these harmful materials cost the US 5% of its yearly gross domestic product (GDP). In 2014, that equated to a staggering $790 billion in damages.

The question is, what exactly are these pollutants and how do they affect living things? Most importantly, is there anything you can do about them?

We’ll answer all these questions in this post, so be sure to read all the way to the end!

A Primer on Pollutants

A pollutant is any material present in concentrations that can harm living things. You may also have heard of these materials referred to as “contaminants”.

Air, land, and water pollutants are the most common, but there are also light and noise pollutants. Humans may not be as that affected by light pollution, but it’s known to harm baby sea turtles. Light pollution may also be a culprit behind the ever-worsening smog.

Air pollution, however, is the leading cause of pollution-related deaths. In 2017 alone, it caused not only 147 million years of lost “healthy life”, but also 4.9 million deaths.

What Makes Air Pollution Deadlier Than Other Types of Pollution

If your faucets produce colored or smelly water, you wouldn’t drink it, would you? If your workplace is extremely noisy, you’d likely wear ear protection, wouldn’t you?

These show that you can actively control your exposure to other types of pollution. Whereas exposure to air pollutants is harder to avoid, and in many cases, even inevitable.

What makes air pollutants even deadlier is that many of them are invisible. Some are also odorless and tasteless. Meaning, you may already be inhaling them without even knowing!

Smog and Soot: The Most Common Types of Air Pollution in the US

Ground-level ozone results from an interaction between fossil fuel emissions and sunlight. This type of air pollution is also known as “smog”.

Inhaling smog can cause symptoms including throat irritation, coughing, and chest pains. It can also worsen the symptoms of asthma, emphysema, or bronchitis.

Soot is the more common term for the above-mentioned “particulate matter”. It consists of minuscule particles of dust, allergens, smoke, and chemicals. These particles may be in solid or gas form when they mix with the air.

Studies have revealed that at least 6% of the world’s soot comes from the United States.

Soot particles can also cause the same health effects as smog, but it can also cause heart diseases. Researchers also found a link between these particles and increased lung cancer risk.

Other Air Pollutants You Should Be Careful Of

Carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide are also common air pollutants. These four, plus smog and soot, are the “criteria” or primary pollutants under the EPA standards.

Carbon Monoxide

You can’t see, taste, or smell carbon monoxide (CO). Unfortunately, it’s a toxic gas that causes asphyxiation and kills 374 people in the US each year.


Lead is also among the most common types of air pollutants. Aircraft that runs on leaded fuel and metals processing facilities are leading sources. Lead batteries can also disintegrate and release particles of the metal into the air.

Lead exposure can lead to heart ailments and nerve conditions. In children, it can contribute to learning and behavioral problems.

Sulfur Dioxide

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) comes mostly from the combustion of fossil fuels. Exposure to this gas can cause respiratory problems, such as difficulty in breathing. It also contributes to the formation of acidic rain clouds.

Nitrogen Dioxide

Vehicle emissions are a leading source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Inhaling this gas can damage the respiratory system and even cause asthma. Like SO2, NO2 also contributes to acid rain.

Improving Air Quality at Home

After reading all that, the first thing you likely thought of is that it’s safer to stay indoors. Bad news though, as the concentration of some pollutants can be two to five times greater in indoor air.

This is why you need to monitor your home’s indoor air quality so you know exactly what you’re dealing with. From there, you can then take the proper steps to boost the quality of your indoor air.

Here are a few ways to make indoor air safer and healthier.

Change HVAC Filters Regularly

Clean or change your HVAC filters every three months or as directed by the manufacturer. Go for more frequent changes if you live in more polluted areas or if you have pets at home.

Filthy filters will just recirculate all the pollutants they’ve already collected. Besides, clogged filters also reduce your HVAC system’s performance and efficiency.

Vent It Out

Make sure that your exhaust vents are also clear and free of dust and debris. Run the exhaust fans too, whenever you cook, run the dishwasher, wash your clothes, or take a shower.

Proper ventilation ensures that air — especially the harmful gases it may contain — can exit your home.

Never Allow Anyone to Smoke Indoors

If anyone in your household smokes tobacco, tell them to take their habit outside. Better yet, encourage them to quit. Tobacco smoke, after all, is more than just a pollutant — it also contains 250 harmful chemicals.

Invest in Air Purifiers

An air purifier or air cleaner can help maximize your efforts of boosting indoor air quality. These are devices that use internal fans to draw air in and then pass the air through filters. The filters trap the pollutants, so the expelled air is cleaner.

Studies back up the effectiveness of these devices — they can reduce pollutants by 50% to 80%.

Don’t Let Air Pollution Follow You Into Your Home

There you have it, your ultimate guide on air pollutants, what they are, and what they can do to living things. Now that you know how dangerous they can be, it’s time to take action.

If a family member smokes, tell them to smoke outside. If you haven’t changed your HVAC filters in a long time, don’t put off their replacement any longer. What’s important is to address the sources of pollution inside your home ASAP.

Ready for even more guides like this to keep your loved ones safe and healthy? Then be sure to check out the rest of the posts under Health & Wellness!

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