Take a deep breath. Now, exhale slowly.
What you just experienced is a fascinating process. When you breathe in, or inhale, your lungs expand. Your chest moves both upward and outward. As your lungs expand, air is sucked in through your nose and/or mouth.
It travels down your windpipe and into your lungs. Here, the air passes through bronchial tubes and into bubble-like air sacs called the alveoli.
Oxygen then passes through the thin walls of the alveoli into capillaries. A barter system exists as the oxygen is transported by red blood cells to other parts of the body while carbon dioxide moves from the capillaries into the air sacs.
As we breathe out, our lungs compress and carbon dioxide-filled air is pushed out through the same channels but in reverse order.
Our lungs are soft, elastic, spongy lobes in our chest that are protected by the ribcage. Together with the trachea (windpipe), bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli and thorax (chest), they form our respiratory system.
What’s in the air you’re breathing?
Cigarette smoke, the clogged monsoon drain, the roasting satay, the fresh bread from the bakery, car fumes and rotting rubbish.
Unless you are somewhere remote away from industrialised and urbanised areas, chances are high that the air you are breathing in contains high levels of dust particles, pollen, gases, viruses and bacteria and chemical compounds.
Air is polluted if the particulates in the atmosphere are detrimental to human health and the environment, causing diseases, damage or death.
In Malaysia, the Air Pollutant Index (API) is the standard index to measure the quality of air. The API is calculated based on five major air pollutants, namely Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Ground Level Ozone (O3), Carbon Monoxide (CO) and particulate matter with a diameter below ten micrometers (PM10).
Most of these pollutants come from various sources such as industries, motor vehicles, open burning and power generation.
The concentration of each of these 5 pollutants is measured in 52 automatic air quality stations throughout Malaysia, mainly located in industrial and urban areas.
Developed areas have higher levels of pollutants in the air due to human activity. Air in less developed areas contains lower levels of pollutants although it still carries foreign matter such as soil particles and pollen.
However, air pollution does not discriminate and can affect even the most remote and cleanest of areas, as the pollutants are airborne and carried away thousands of kilometers from the source.
The yearly haze that afflicts our country is just one example. During one of the worst haze episodes in 1997, smoke and ash from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan reached Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and right up to Thailand.
Similiarly, the ash plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcanic eruption in 2010, spread over western and northern Europe disrupting air travel for six days. The Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 injected such high levels of particles into the atmosphere, that global temperature temporarily dropped by about 0.5 Celsius.
Filtering Out The Pollutants
Our noses act as filters. When we breathe in, the fine hairs in our noses keep out dust and larger particles or microorganisms. Sticky mucus traps microbes and particles, which are then carried away by cilia — the tiny hairs on the cells that line the gaseous, exchange tract. White blood cells are also quick to kill any harmful particles, which we may have breathed in.
The human body does a wonderful job of filtering and neutralising the most harmful particles and microbes but middle to long-term exposure to pollutants can affect our health in the long run.
According to Dr. Anbarasu Ramalingam, a medical officer in Sabah’s Hospital Likas Emergency Department, those who are sick, children or the elderly are more susceptible to illnesses that are caused by air pollution.
“Air pollution has more detrimental effects on people who already have some form of lung or cardiac (heart) condition. Those who are most affected are the ones with a condition called Bronchial Asthma and COAD (chronic obstructive airway disease), where the pollutants will worsen the episodes of shortness of breath,” Dr. Anbarasu explains.
He said that if these patients do no receive immediate medical attention, the condition can lead to death.“Repeated exposures to high levels of air contaminants such as when the haze occurs, can lead to lung infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia,” he adds. “In terms of occupational hazards, prolonged exposure to air contaminants can lead to acquiring chronic obstructive airway disease as well.”
Common diseases of the lungs include bronchial asthma, Chronic Obstructive Airway (COAD), pneumonia (Lung Infection), lung cancer and pulmonary tuberculosis.
Dr. Anbarasu points out that smoking tobacco is a key pollutant that is identifiable because of its prevalence. He is a strict advocate against smoking due to the harmful effects.
“Don’t smoke. Smoking causes nine out of 10 lung cancer cases,” says Dr. Anbarasu. “Passive smokers have increased risk of lung cancer as well.”
Last year, an article by Bernama stated that an average of 10,000 Malaysians die from tobacco smoking each year. Founding member of Universiti Malaya’s Centre of Addiction Sciences, Dr. Amer Siddiq Amer Nordin believes the number is much higher because “for one person identified, probably nine cases remain unidentified or unreported.”
Keep your lungs healthy
Dr. Anbarasu says it is important to keep your lungs healthy because its condition affects your heart health too and vice versa. “Of course, a healthy respiratory system can only improve your overall well-being.” he adds. “It’s important to practice a healthy lifestyle so eat right and exercise.”
He advises those exposed to pollutants as an occupational hazard, should always wear protective gear such as goggles and filtered masks. When the annual haze comes back around, Dr. Anbarasu says children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems should stay indoors or wear masks when they venture out.
Break The Habit.
Unlike polluted air, tobacco smoke is a prevalent pollutant that you have the power to get rid of. If you are a smoker, stop the habit because you are harming not only yourself but the people around you.
There are approximately 600 ingredients in cigarettes. When burned, they create more than 7,000 chemicals. At least 69 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, and many are poisonous
These ingredients include:
- Acetone – found in nail polish remover
- Acetic Acid – an ingredient in hair dye
- Ammonia – a common household cleaner
- Arsenic – used in rat poison
- Benzene – found in rubber cement
- Butane – used in lighter fluid
- Cadmium – active component in battery acid
- Carbon Monoxide – released in car exhaust fumes
- Formaldehyde – embalming fluid
- Hexamine – found in barbecue lighter fluid
- Lead – used in batteries
- Naphthalene – an ingredient in moth balls
- Methanol – a main component in rocket fuel
- Nicotine – used as insecticide
- Tar – material for paving roads
- Toluene – used to manufacture paint
Source: American Lung Association
Caring For Those Tired Lungs
As with most things related to our health, preventive medicine is the best strategy according to Dr. Anbarasu Ramalingam. He advises everyone to take care of their health when they are young as an ‘investment’ for when they are older.
- Eat right. Avoid processed food and those with high level of sugar and fat. You can never go wrong with vegetables and fruits.
- Exercise. A healthy heart helps keep your lungs healthy and vice versa.
- Wear a mask. Children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems should wear a mask when venturing into polluted environments.
- Head to the doctor. If you feel any discomfort or have trouble breathing, make sure you head to the doctor immediately. People assume that it is normal for the elderly to have shortness of breath but Dr. Anbarasu recommends that you check with your doctor just to be sure.