With the haze frequently blighting our skylines and health, air pollution has become a real cause of concern for all Malaysians. However, we shouldn’t wait until there’s a blanket of smog, to raise our collective awareness about air pollution and its causes and effects on our health.
We breathe in an average of 20,000 liters of air each day and the sad fact is, more and more hazardous pollutants are being discharged into the atmosphere every year. Contributing factors such as industrial and agricultural practices, construction, rampant open burning, increased number of vehicles on our roads, as well as natural disasters like volcano eruptions, are just some of the major causes of poor air quality in our country. Of course, this means the more polluted the air, the more dangerous substances we take into our lungs each time we take a breath!
Outside vs Inside
While many of us believe that we can escape the bad air outdoors by staying inside, the opposite may be true. The fact remains that air can be polluted both indoors and outdoors. In fact, studies by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have shown that indoor levels of air pollutants may be up to 2 to 5 times — and occasionally more than 100 times — higher than outdoor pollutant levels! This is due to higher levels of chemicals, pesticides and insecticides that we use in our homes and working environments, leading to what is often called the ‘sick building syndrome.’
What does it really do?
With air pollution present both indoors and outdoors, an important question arises: what does air pollution actually do to our health? While the health risks may depend on factors such as your current health, the pollutant, its concentration, as well as the length of exposure, many of us will experience symptoms when exposed to air pollutants. These symptoms commonly include headaches, nausea, skin allergies, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, as well as eye, nose and throat irritation. The higher the level of air pollution, the more severe the health problems they can cause, as the pollutants tend to put more stress on the heart and lungs. In those who are already suffering from an illness, this may even lead to heart attacks; arrhythmias in people with heart disease, as well as aggravated asthma attacks and acute bronchitis in those with respiratory illness. There are also those who are especially susceptible to severe health problems due to air pollution, such as pregnant women, senior citizens, children, outdoor workers and athletes who exercise vigorously outdoors. Additionally, prolonged exposure to air pollutants can have serious and permanent adverse health effects on these individuals, such as decreased lung function, cell damage in the respiratory system, accelerated aging of the lungs, increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, as well as the development of chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer. Continuous exposure to high levels of air pollutants may even cause permanent damage to the brain, nerves, liver and kidneys.
Since the effects of air pollution on health can be downright alarming, we’re left wondering why it can be so dangerous. The answer is in the air pollutants themselves, which consist mainly of harmful gases and particles. But what are the most common air pollutants that we should know of? The ones most frequently found in our environment can be divided into two categories – indoor or outdoor air pollutants. Indoor air pollutants include formaldehyde, lead and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can originate from composite wood furniture, carpets, upholstery, adhesives, paints, varnishes and solvents. They are also present in cleaning and personal care products such as air fresheners, disinfectants, cosmetics, fuel and mothballs. Tobacco smoke, which is said to contain up to 4000 chemicals, including tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, heavy metals and pesticides, is also another common indoor air pollutant. Biological air pollutants, such as pet dander, mold and dust mites are also common allergens in the home. Meanwhile, pollen, bacteria and viruses aren’t the only air pollutants you should be wary of outdoors. In fact, there are many other man-made ones to keep in mind. These include Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Particulate Matter (PM) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that come from fuel combustion, chemical reactions, electric utilities, industrial processes, agricultural practices such as plowing and field burning, as well as construction.
Breath of Fresh Air
Though you may feel surrounded by air pollutants at this point and that they’re inescapable, there are actions you can take to help improve the air quality, especially within your home and office. For one, you can minimise the use of chemicals, as well as choose furniture, products and upholstery that do not contain formaldehyde, lead and VOCs. You can also invest in air purifiers to help keep the air pollutant levels in your indoor spaces in check. One of the most powerful things you can do to greatly reduce air pollution is to practice eco-friendly lifestyle habits. For example, the simple act of reusing and recycling will help to minimise the manufacture of unnecessary new materials and products. Additionally, by choosing to ride a bicycle, car pool or use public transportation, you can lessen the need for personal vehicles that produce noxious emissions. As a consumer you can also be more conscientious when using electricity, because energy is still being generated with the burning of lots of fossil fuels. Last, but not least, as members of society, we can all let ourselves be heard and help our local communities to take action against and prevent air pollution where we live. For example, you can speak to your community leaders about introducing renewable energy, recycling initiatives, conducting regular air quality checks, as well as curbing or monitoring manufacturing activities in your neighbourhood or township. Why all this effort? Well, if the haze that chokes up our cities is anything to go by, prevention is always better than cure. This is why preventative interventions are so crucial and necessary in the effort to control air pollution everywhere.
Our furry friends need to be kept safe from air pollution too, here’s what you can do to help protect them:
• Avoid using household cleaning products that contain harsh chemicals, which can be inhaled.
• Keep potentially harmful cleaning products, unused paints and pesticides safely stored away, where your pets can’t get to them.
• Don’t use chemical aerosols from pesticides, personal care products or air fresheners around your pets.
• Ban your pets from playing on carpets. New ones can contain formaldehyde, while old ones are a major source of dust, mold and allergens.
• When your pets are around, don’t burn candles or incense, as they can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.
• Repainting your home? Keep your furry friends well away from the area.
• Don’t run your car exhaust near your pets, as the emissions contain a host of toxic chemicals and gases.
• Avoid smoking near your pets, as cigarette smoke releases toxic chemicals which can also affect your four-legged friends.
• Store gasoline, other fuels and solvents in airtight containers, as the fumes they produce can be intoxicating.
• Be wary of moist and humid areas of your home, they can be a source of mold and fungi.
• When the air quality outside is poor, keep your pets indoors if possible and don’t take them out for walks.
• If you suspect that your pet is suffering from the effects of air pollution, visit your vet immediately.