Conducive Chronicle: Can We Defend Ourselves Against Particle Pollution

Written on August 9, 2010 at 7:05 PM by Elizabeth Maginnis

Have you noticed during televised news reports on this summer's heat wave that a haze hangs over the cities highlighted in the reports? It appears that there are not many areas of the country that are immune from that thick grey cloud.   The American Lung Association of New York gave a failing grade to the air quality in Western New York in its State of the Air 2010 report. Airborne particles that form smoke, haze and airborne dust cause numerous year-round health problems for the residents of many of America's cities, not just those in Western New York; the proliferation of particle pollution does not depend on humid weather conditions. (Double click on this link if you want to check the air quality in your area.) This airborne particle soup includes such ingredients as nitrates and sulfates–which are acids–organic chemicals, metals, soil or dust particles, and allergens like pollen or mold spores.

The high humidity that has, so far, distinguished this Western New York summer from the last, chases me indoors whenever the temperature and dew point rise above comfortable levels. I have noticed this year that, during muggy conditions, my lungs and throat fill with particles of something or other that I'm sure are not very good for me; I can actually feel them collecting at the back of my mouth. The last time I noticed this unpleasant sensation was on a bright summer day in Los Angeles, but I expected that. Has particle pollution taken our air quality hostage?

The smaller the particle (less than 10 micrometers in diameter), the greater the health risk, as the finer particles can travel deep into the lungs and perhaps even the bloodstream, putting lungs and hearts in danger. Larger particles will irritate the eyes, nose and throat. "Fine particles" (the prime components of smoke and haze), which are 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, and "coarse particles" (wind-blown dust), which measure between 2.5 and 10 micrometers, pose the greatest risk.

Naturally, particle pollution threatens the health of lung and heart disease sufferers, but children and older adults–especially those who engage in outdoor physical activity–are also susceptible. Active people breathe deeper and take in more particulates. Those who suffer from coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure and asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are especially vulnerable.

Particle pollution can spike dangerously. Imagine your lungs assailed for hours–even weeks–at a time with diesel exhaust, ash, soot, chemicals and aerosols. Sounds worse than cigarette smoke, doesn't it? Coughing and sneezing aren't strong enough responses to clear the lungs of these toxins. The components of particle pollution also vary from season to season and region to region. New York State, for example, tends to have more sulfate pollution from coal-fired power plants during the summer months and nitrate pollution from car exhaust during the winter.

Particle pollution can be produced either mechanically or through chemical processes. Mechanical processes can include such things as dust storms, construction, demolition, mining and agriculture and produce smaller, coarse particles from larger particles of the same material. Chemical processes that occur in the atmosphere produce the finest particles from vaporized and condensed gas particles that react with other fine matter to form a different (airborne) chemical compound entirely. Burning fossil fuels and wood create much of the raw material for fine particles.

Research shows that the human body reacts to particle pollution in the same manner as it does to cigarette smoke. Even short-term exposure can effect enough damage to cause decreased lung function, an increase in asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias, and heart attacks. Imagine that compounded by the effects of high ozone (smog) levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that any length of casual exposure to particle pollution poses serious health risks, such as early death, cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory harm. Tests are underway to determine the effects of particle pollutants on workers exposed to high levels of diesel exhaust on the job.

What can we do to insure that our children have cleaner air to breathe? For starters, we can urge our representatives in Congress to continue the legislative fight against air pollution, and we can take measures to improve the air in our homes. Gain control over the quality of the air you breathe at home by eliminating sources of contamination, like household chemicals, and ventilating your home to remove dirty air from appliances like dryers, water heaters and gas stoves. Choose electric or push lawn mowers; take the bus to work or, better yet, ride a bicycle. Despite the progress made since the Clean Air Act went into effect in 1970, we still have a long way to go to eliminate pollution from fossil fuels and vehicle exhausts. It will take nothing short of a global change in habits to begin the road to recovery. The quality of the air our children and our grandchildren will breathe depends on the actions we take NOW.