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The History & Future Of Air Quality

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This issue of News For A Healthier You discusses the history and future of air pollution and the impact on your health.
  1. Outdoor Air Quality Before 1970
  2. Outdoor Air Quality After 1970
  3. How The Future Is Looking For Outdoor Air Pollution
  4. The Importance Of Indoor Air Quality
  5. Improving Air Quality Inside Homes, Schools, & Workplaces
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The History & Future Of Air Quality

Air pollution is a mixture of solid particles and gases in the air. Some components come from nature in the form of things like pollen and mold spores, and some, like car emissions and chemicals come from factories, are manmade. When ozone is a component, the result is smog. In the great "Smog Disaster" in London in 1952, 4,000 people died in a few days due to the high concentrations of pollution.

Long-term health effects can include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys. Continual exposure to air pollution affects the lungs of growing children and may aggravate or complicate medical conditions in the elderly.

Outdoor Air Quality Before 1970
Air pollution seems like a modern problem. The phrase is modern, but the problem is centuries old. There are documented complaints as early as the thirteenth century. If you think about it, as long as there has been fire, there has been air pollution.

In the United States, urban areas have been suffering from air pollution since at least as early as the 19th century. Los Angeles began seriously examining the problem in 1903 when pollution was so heavy one day that citizens thought there was an eclipse of the sun. The first legislation concerning smoke came around 1880 and identified smoke as a nuisance that was outlawed if it was dense, black, or gray.

Outdoor Air Quality After 1970
The Clean Air Act of 1970 was a turning point for the control of air quality. This legislation gave the EPA the authority to establish and enforce standards for clean air. Americans began to look at dirty air as more than a nuisance; they began to recognize air pollutants as threats to their health. The EPA has the duty of protecting the environment and our health as it is connected with the environment. Programs the EPA focuses on relate to:
  • reducing outdoor concentrations of air pollutants that cause smog, haze, acid rain, and other problems;
  • reducing emissions of toxic air pollutants that are known to, or are suspected of, causing cancer or other serious health effects; and
  • phasing out production and use of chemicals that destroy stratospheric ozone.
How The Future Is Looking For Outdoor Air Pollution
Just saying that pollution is up or down does not give the full picture. Growth of population, energy consumption, vehicle use, and industry have to be taken into account. The EPA reports that between 1980 and 2008, gross domestic product (a measure of industrial growth) increased 126 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 91 percent, energy consumption increased 29 percent, and U.S. population grew by 34 percent. During the same time period, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 54 percent. Between 1980 and 2007, CO2 emissions increased by 32%.

You can see trends where you live at this EPA site.

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The Importance Of Indoor Air Quality
Indoor air quality is often considered more important to health than outdoor air because the average American spends 80-90% of the day indoors - that's 19-21 hours out of every 24. According to the National Institutes of Health, common sources of indoor pollution include:
  • Biological contaminants like mold and pollen
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Household products including cosmetics, cleansers, and pesticides
  • Gases such as radon and carbon monoxide
  • Materials used in the building such as asbestos, formaldehyde and lead
The short-term effects include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Individuals with respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema risk aggravation of their medical conditions. Other symptoms can include headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions.

Improving Air Quality Inside Homes, Schools, & Workplaces
At Home -- Here are a few actions you can take to improve home air quality:
  1. Forbid smoking of tobacco products indoors.
  2. Control moisture and humidity to reduce mold and dust mite population.
  3. Use filtering products such as HEPA room air purifiers, allergen reduction furnace filters (disposable or permanent), and vent cover filters to remove airborne allergens and other particulates.
  4. Vacuum with a HEPA vacuum cleaner and dust often to remove pollutants from carpet, floor and furniture.
  5. Use proper ventilation for appliances. This will help to improve home air quality.
  6. Choose personal care products such as hair spray, lotions, and soaps carefully to minimize chemical fumes.
  7. Choose cleaning products such as bathroom fixture and tile cleaners, multi-purpose cleaners, and mold removers carefully to minimize chemical fumes.
  8. Use radon and carbon monoxide alarms.
  9. When building or remodeling, choose materials carefully.
  10. If you have an attached or basement garage, do not store chemicals such as gasoline in the garage and open the garage door before starting the car.
At Work -- Be watchful for problems that impact air quality:
  • Your workplace could contain mold. Urge management to repair leaks quickly and point out any signs of mold growth or musty smells.
  • Cockroaches and rodents are also sources of allergen. Be on the lookout for droppings.
  • Cleaning products could be releasing chemical fumes into the air.
  • There could also be hidden chemicals in your building such as new carpeting or paint.
  • Poorly maintained air handling systems may pour out allergens and irritants.
At School -- According to the EPA, 20% of the U.S. population (nearly 55 million people) spend their days in our elementary and secondary schools. Further studies show that 1 in 5 of our nation's 110,000 schools reported unsatisfactory indoor air quality, and 1 in 4 schools reported unsatisfactory ventilation, which also affects indoor air quality. Be aware of indoor air quality issues at your child's school such as poor ventilation, mold, and type of cleaning products. Resources are available that you could recommend to the school such as the EPA's Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools Program (click here for action kit info). The American Association of School Administrators' (AASA) has published a guide called Putting the Pieces Together: An Urban School Leader's Guide to Healthy Indoor Environments (click here to learn more or to find out how to get a free copy).

Margie Bullock, Newsletter Editor
Closing Thoughts
Getting our air clean and keeping it clean is an uphill battle since the sources of pollutants - people, industry, vehicles - are constantly increasing. We have to work at ways to decrease the amount of pollution produced by or because of each one of us in order to decrease the total amount of pollution.

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