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Air quality is one area of your health where being informed might not be the biggest help. Sometimes the quality of our air and the pollutants present are beyond our immediate control. That’s why it’s nice to know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is keeping an eye on our outdoor air quality. The Clean Air Act is a way of maintaining federal, state and even local air quality and to ensure a relatively healthy quality to the air we breathe. The EPA monitors six different pollutants that are present in the atmosphere:

  • Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas caused when fuel is not burned properly. Many automobiles are being made that burn fuel more efficiently and this is cutting back on the presence of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide also comes from construction vehicles and boats.
  • Nitrogen dioxide is the most common form of nitrogen oxide in our environment, and it is the most common pollutant in general. If you look at the skyline of a big city, ever notice the reddish haze surrounding it? That’s caused by nitrogen dioxide, which can also be an odorless and colorless gas. Nitrogen dioxide is emitted when fuel is burned.
  • Lead used to be much more of a problem, but now it isn’t emitted from trucks or cars. Instead, lead comes from metal production plants.
  • Ground level ozone (ozone present higher up in the atmosphere is a helpful protection from the sun) is a harmful substance that causes health problems, can kill vegetation and is a major component of smog.
  • Particulate matter refers to all sorts of pollutants that float around in the air and originate in factories, cars, construction sites, tilled fields, fires and more. Particulate matter includes dust, dirt, smoke, soot and liquid droplets.
  • Sulfur dioxide reacts with other substances present in the environment and can be harmful. Sulfur dioxide is produced when oil and coal are burned or when gasoline is extracted from oil.
    All of these pollutants are present to some degree in your environment. The EPA closely monitors the levels to make sure the environment remains relatively safe, and to keep levels from increasing. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, all of these pollutants have decreased significantly except for nitrogen dioxide. Air pollution is generally worse in and around big metropolitan centers, but rural areas have their own sources of pollution including windblown dust or dust from tractors, trucks and cars, driving on dirt roads, smoke from crop, wood or brush fires and rock quarries.

Air pollution might irritate your eyes, throat and lungs, and you may experience burning eyes, a cough or breathlessness if you aren’t used to the pollution in a certain area. Air pollution in the outdoor environment has been linked with stroke, heart disease, increased blood pressure and asthma. Studies are currently looking to determine long-term health effects of air pollution on health. It may be difficult to completely control the environment—especially because many forms of pollution are invisible.

However, you can, take extra precautions to protect yourself by:

  • Checking the Pollution Standard Index (PSI) for your area every day to determine how much time you will spend outside. The PSI is listed on the weather channel, and you can find it online with the local forecast as well.
  • Trying to go outside in the early morning or evening. The sun is low then, so you can limit exposure to certain pollutants that react with sunlight and thus become more harmful.
  • If the air-quality report says today is going to be a high day for pollutants, go to an indoor gym to get your exercise and limit your time outdoors.
  • If you live close to a big source of pollution, such as a factory, a power plant or a rock quarry, talk to your provider about other options you have to take preventive measures against harmful pollutants.

Unfortunately, you’re not completely safe indoors either. Indoor air quality has pollutants as well. However, you have slightly more control about the indoor environment of your home than you have over the outside environment of your town, state or country. Unfortunately, some studies suggest that the air pollution we experience indoors may be even worse than it is outdoors.

The most common forms of possible indoor air pollution include:

  • Oil, gas, kerosene
  • Coal and wood stoves
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Asbestos
  • Wet or damp carpet
  • Household cleaning products
  • Personal care products
  • Heating or cooling systems
  • Radon
  • Pesticides

With some pollutants such as radon and asbestos, it’s best to have your home tested and to get rid of the source immediately. If you move into a new home, you should check for these levels and talk to an expert about eliminating any potential hazards before moving in. Other indoor air pollutants can be maintained with the proper ventilation system. Make sure enough outdoor air enters your home, unless your home has a special ventilation system. Being aware of the potential risks of certain substances, such as smoke and harsh chemicals, is the first step to making a healthy environment in your home.

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