I’m fortunate to live in an area where it’s easy to hop on a greenway and go for a relaxing walk in the woods. The air seems just a little bit crisper and cleaner when I’m surrounded by trees and an umbrella of beautiful blue sky overhead. The air probably is a little cleaner–certainly more so than if I was walking next to a busy road–but I know that I can’t completely escape outdoor air pollution.
My initial thoughts about air pollution are usually on the impact that air quality has on our ability to breathe and how it affects asthma sufferers. These thoughts come to mind first because I can immediately feel the affect of poor air quality on my ability to breathe. Outdoor air pollution and allergens like pollen can cause coughing, sneezing, throat irritation, and trigger asthma symptoms. But air pollution also affects our health in ways we may not immediately notice.
Air pollution is “caused by small particles and ground level ozone that comes from car exhaust, smoke, road dust and factory emissions,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Not only does outdoor air pollution make it harder to breathe, it can also be hard on your heart and is the ninth most important cardiovascular risk factor for heart disease. The small particles in air pollution can cause inflammation in the lungs and blood vessels that in turn can increase the risk for clots and atherosclerosis, a disease where plaque deposits build up in the arteries. As plaque hardens, it narrows the arteries and limits blood flow. Even short periods of exposure to these particles, like driving with the windows down, can increase the risk of heart disease.
Dr. Neil Schachter, Mount Sinai Hospital, suggests checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) to monitor local air pollution levels. He recommends avoiding outdoor activities when the AQI is above 100. Running air conditioning instead of leaving the windows down in your home and car is another way to reduce your exposure to air pollution since your home’s filters will capture large particles. In the car, use the “recirculate” setting to keep 80 percent of outdoor air pollution out of the vehicle. Also, try to exercise away from roads to avoid breathing in exhaust from vehicles. See you out on the greenway!