Here’s a disturbing fact — 9 out of 10 people breathe air contaminated with high levels of pollutants (1).
We all begrudgingly accept air pollution as an aspect of modern life that’s as unavoidable as taxes, but what exactly are we breathing every day? How does it affect our health? And what can we do about it?
Pollutantsare incredibly diverse in terms of composition, health effects, and sources, ranging from the thick brown smoke belched out of monolithic mega-factories to invisible and insidious threats to your health and well-being.
In this article, you’ll learn about:
- The 10 most harmful types of pollutants in the air
- How they impact your health
- What you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Let’s do a deep dive into the most common and dangerous airborne pollutants that you’ll likely encounter:
1.Particulate matter (particle pollution)
Polluted air has floating particles, which cause many problems. Particulate matter (also called airborne particles, particle pollution, or PM) includes dirt, dust, smoke, and tiny drops of liquid (2). Airborne particles come in three sizes: PM10, PM2.5, and ultrafine.
PM10 (Coarse particles)
Coarse particles, or PM10, are inhalable particles with a diameter ranging between 2.5 and 10 microns.
All that dust floating around your attic or the ominous smoke billowing from a wildfire are great examples of PM10 particles that you can see. These airborne pollutants can affect your throat, eyes, and nose, and can cause serious health effects.
PM2.5 (Fine particles)
Fine particles, or PM2.5, are inhalable particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, which means they can only be seen underneath a microscope. Common sources of fine particulate matter include pet dander, dust mites, bacteria, and dust from construction and demolition sites. PM2.5 particles are small enough to potentially lodge into your lung tissue, causing respiratory illnesses like asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema.
Long-term exposure to these airborne pollutants can also reduce both your lung function and life expectancy (3).
Ultrafine Particles (UFPs)
Ultrafine particles (UFPs) are less than 0.1 microns in diameter and make up roughly 90% of all airborne pollutants (4).
But which pollutant is most dangerous – PM10, PM2.5, or UFPs?
UFPs are the most dangerous particulate matter because their tiny size makes them extremely inhalable. Once inhaled, they get deposited into your lungs and absorbed directly into your bloodstream — providing a fast-track to any organ within your body.
The health effects of these airborne pollutants are particularly serious, increasing your risk for heart attacks and strokes and reducing your life expectancy (5).
2. Pet Dander
We all love our furry friends, but for millions afflicted with pet allergies, it can be a stressful (and stuffy) friendship.
The culprit? Animal dander, the microscopic flecks of skin shed by birds, cats, dogs, rodents, and other cuddly critters with fur or feathers.
Pet dander is easily spread through your home and out to schools, hospitals, and other public places — even if there aren’t any animals present (6). Exposure to this airborne pollutant can trigger pet allergies, which can cause symptoms like (7):
- runny nose
- itchy, red, or watery eyes
- nasal congestion
Additionally, if you have asthma, exposure to pet dander can exacerbate your symptoms.
Take our quiz to find an air purifier for pollution
Pollen is one of the most notorious triggers of seasonal allergies.
Every spring, summer, and fall, plants release tiny pollen grains to fertilize other plants of the same species. Once airborne, these pesky pollen grains can infiltrate your respiratory system, where your body identifies them as invaders and releases antibodies to attack them.
Most pollens that spur allergic reactions derive from trees, grasses, and weeds, such as ragweed (8). People with pollen allergies experience symptoms that are similar to pet allergies, including sneezing, runny nose, and nasal congestion.
Simply put, molds are fungi.
Most people associate mold with that icky green fuzz on spoiled bread, but there are more than 100,000 identified species of mold.;
There are three types of mold species: allergenic, pathogenic, and toxigenic. Allergenic molds can aggravate mild allergies, and pathogenic molds can spur infection in people with compromised immune systems. Toxigenic molds such as Stachybotrus charatrum or black mold, cause a toxic response in humans and animals.
Common sources of these airborne pollutants in homes, business, and schools include (9):
- leaks through roofs, walls, and basements
- condensation on windows and in bathrooms
- standing water in drains, on floors, and in dehumidifying equipment
- wet floors and carpets
Since leaded gasoline has been phased out, airborne lead concentrations decreased in the US by 94% between 1980 and 2007; however, industrial processes such as lead-acid battery manufacturing have become a significant source of airborne lead (10).
Lead exposure has a cumulative effect on your long-term health, meaning the more you’re exposed to lead over time, the greater the likelihood that you’ll experience serious health issues later on in your life. Chronic exposure to this airborne pollutant may result in (11):
- severe damage to your blood-forming, nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems
- severe damage to your central nervous system and brain
- kidney disease
- death from lead poisoning
6. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are indoor gases emitted from solids or liquids, which significantly contribute to indoor air pollution.
VOCs are emitted from many items found in your home, including (12):
- building materials and furnishings
- paints, paint strippers, and other solvents
- cleaners and disinfectants
- air fresheners and aerosol sprays
- dry-cleaned clothing
Exposure to these airborne pollutants can have a host of short and long-term health effects, such as:
- irritation to eyes, nose, and throat
- headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea
- damage to liver, kidneys, and central nervous system
- allergic skin reaction
- cancer (the VOC formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen)
7.Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Carbon monoxide (CO), known as the “invisible killer,” is an odorless, colorless gas that frequently goes undetected, killing more than 400 people in the U.S. every year (13).
Carbon monoxide is typically created from combustion processes, like the burning of wood, oil, coal, charcoal, natural gas, and propane, but it can also be found indoors from:
- unvented kerosene and gas heaters
- leaking chimneys and fireplaces
- back-drafting from furnaces and water heaters
Mild to moderate carbon monoxide poisoning is characterized by:
- shortness of breath
Severe carbon monoxide poisoning results in:
- mental confusion
- loss of muscular coordination
- loss of consciousness
Since you cannot see or smell this dangerous airborne pollutant, it’s crucial that you install a carbon monoxide detector in the hallway near each separate sleeping area in your home.
Check or replace the batteries when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall, and replace the detector(s) every five years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also provides these tips (14):
- Have your chimney checked and cleaned every year, and make sure your fireplace damper is open before lighting a fire and well after the fire is extinguished.
- Have your furnace, water heater, and any other gas or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
- Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors.
- Never use a gas oven for heating your home.
- Never use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage, or less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent; fatal levels of carbon monoxide can be produced in just minutes, even if doors and windows are open.
- Never run a car in a garage that is attached to a house, even with the garage door open; always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a car inside.
Ozone (O3)is a naturally occurring gas found in both the Earth’s upper atmosphere, where it helps block out harmful ultraviolet light from the sun. However, when ozone is found at ground level, it’s toxic to human beings.
Ground-level ozone is formed when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, refineries, and other sources chemically react in the presence of sunlight. Ever wonder why there’s more smog during hot summer days? That’s because the hotter the day and the stronger the sun, the more ozone is formed (15).
Exposure to ozone pollution can cause a multitude of alarming health effects, including (16):
- shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing
- asthma attacks
- increased risk of respiratory infections
- increased risk of stroke
- increased risk of premature death
9. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a harsh-smelling gas formed as a result of road traffic and other fossil fuel combustion processes.
Nitrogen dioxide is also a precursor for ozone and particulate matter, and it plays a role in the formation of acid rain (17).
You’ll encounter this airborne pollutant indoors if your heater or gas stove is unvented (also carbon monoxide as previously mentioned). Nitrogen dioxide can cause such health effects as:
- irritation to lungs
- lower resistance to respiratory infections
10. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a colorless gas or liquid with a strong, pungent odor.
Unfortunately, the presence of sulfur dioxide in the air is almost exclusively man-made. Sulfur dioxide is produced when fossil fuels such as coal and oil are burned in industrial processes, and when mineral ores like aluminum are smelted.
This noxious gas is also frequently responsible for causing poor visibility and acid rain. The short-term health effects of sulfur dioxide exposure include (18):
- irritation to nose and throat
- shortness of breath
- death (short-term exposure to high levels of SO2)
Long-term health effects of sulfur dioxide exposure include:
• permanent changes to lung function
• acute respiratory illness
Explore high-performance air purifiers
How to help protect yourself from air pollution
You may not be able to singlehandedly stop airborne pollutants, but you can follow these realistic, actionable steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from being exposed to dangerous air pollutants:
- Use an air quality monitor. Lightweight, ultra-precise, and powered by the world’s largest air quality data network, the AirVisual Pro lets you know exactly how clean or hazardous your air is. Take charge of your health and use the free Air Quality app to get real-time forecast and historical air pollution data.
- Use a high-performance air purifier to remove indoor airborne pollutants. Only IQAir’s patented HyperHEPA filtration technology is certified and proven to filter harmful ultrafine particles down to 0.003 microns — that’s ten times smaller than a virus and 100 times smaller than what a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA)filter can capture.
- Properly maintain your gas appliances. Make sure your stove, heater, and other gas-powered appliances are regularly maintained by a trained professional.
- Consider switching to gas logs instead of wood. Even when properly maintained, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces produce a significant amount of combustible airborne pollutants such as CO, NO2, and ultrafine particles.
- Ditch toxic synthetic cleaners, paints, and other household chemicals. Replace them with eco-friendly, naturally-derived products to reduce your exposure to harmful VOCs.
- Remove mold and allergy sources from your home. Make sure your home is well ventilated, regularly cleaned, and has a relative humidity of 30%-60% to reduce your exposure to these biological airborne pollutants.
- Reduce your exposure to in-car pollution with a car air purifier. In-car pollution is far more hazardous than you think, with over 275 dangerous chemicals creeping around in the cabin of new cars (19). The Atem Car eliminates 99% of particle pollutants in your car cabin up to 20 times per hour.
With these seven powerful tips, you can help reduce airborne pollutants in your and your family’s lives.