Outdoor Air Quality

Poor outdoor air quality can cause or contribute to the development of infections, lung cancer, and chronic lung diseases such as asthma. In addition, it can cause headaches, dry eyes, nasal congestion, nausea and fatigue. People who already have lung disease are at greater risk.

Outdoor air pollution comes from power plants, factories, cars, trucks, and buses. It also comes from off-road vehicles such as farm and construction equipment, and recreational vehicles. Individuals are directly responsible through their use of sources in their homes such as paints, consumer products and lawn mowers.

Air pollution costs us billions of dollars every year in health care and lost productivity. So all Americans, even those who are fortunate to be healthy and not breathe polluted air, pay a price for it.

Major Air Pollutants & Their Effects

Ozone (O3)

A highly reactive gas that is a form of oxygen, which results primarily from the action of sunlight on hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted in fuel combustion. Exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone sears the lungs. It can produce significant decreases in lung function, inflammation of the lung lining and pain when breathing, and is associated with hospital admissions and emergency room visits for respiratory problems.

Particulate Matter Air Pollution (PM)

A complex and varying mixture of substances that includes carbon-based particles, dust, and airborne acid droplets. It is associated with increased premature deaths. PM is especially harmful to people with lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, as well as people with heart disease. Exposure to particulate air pollution can trigger asthma attacks and cause wheezing, coughing, and respiratory irritation in individuals with sensitive airways.

Nitrogen Oxide (NOx)

Forms when fuel is burned at high temperatures. In addition to being involved in the formation of ozone and PM, NOx can irritate the lungs and lower resistance to respiratory infections such as influenza.

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)

Formed when fuel containing sulfur (mainly coal and oil) is burned, and during other industrial processes. Major health concerns associated with exposure to high concentrations of SO2 include effects on breathing, respiratory illness, changes in the lung’s defenses, and aggravation of existing heart disease. Major sources of SO2 are electric utilities and industrial fuel combustion.

Common Air Pollutants & How To Control Them

  • Motor vehicles create more dirty air nationwide than any other source—about one-third of all air pollution in the United States. To reduce auto pollution:
    • When you can, walk, ride a bike, car pool, or use public transportation; consolidate errands into a single trip.
    • Keep your car in tune; have its air pollution controls checked at least once a year.
    • Especially on high ozone days, refuel after 7 p.m., and avoid fuel spillage by not topping off your tank.
    • Avoid quick starts and engine revving; minimize air conditioning use.
    • Turn your motor off if you expect to idle for more than a minute.
  • Heating homes and buildings causes air pollution. You can reduce air pollution and conserve resources:
    • Insulate and weatherize your home.
    • Keep windows closed when the heat is on.
    • Keep the thermostat down and wear warm clothing; turn the heat down at night or when you are away for an extended period of time.
    • Have your heating system checked and serviced annually.
    • Power plants are major source of air pollution. If you reduce your energy use, you will reduce air pollution and save money:
    • Use fluorescent lights rather than incandescent bulbs.
    • Run your dishwasher only when it is full.
    • Use the air conditioner only when someone is home and only when it is very hot.
    • Select energy-efficient models when replacing appliances.

Other ways to control outdoor air pollution

  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle waste materials.
  • Don’t burn leaves or trash.
  • Use manual or electric lawn and garden equipment if possible.
  • Choose paints, household and personal care products that contain no or very low levels of ozone-forming VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
  • Avoid using wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
  • Finally, to protect the air we breathe, fight for strong policies, laws, and regulations, and for their strict enforcement.

What's the State of Your Air? 2012 State of the Air Report