The air we breathe can sometimes be harmful to our lungs. This page looks at some of the dangers of air pollution, and gives some suggestions for how you can avid the problem.
Is air pollution a problem?
Everyone has a right to clean air. Despite this, millions of tons of harmful gases and particles are released into the air each year. Some of this pollution reaches our lungs with every breath we take.
The black smoke emitted from many diesel engines is one obvious form of air pollution. Many other types of pollution can't be seen but are just as damaging to our health. People who already have a lung disease, the elderly and children are likely to be especially affected by high levels of pollutants.
Emissions of hydrocarbons from oil and gas refining, odours from industrial processes or intensive agriculture, and dust associated with mining and land clearing is also a problem in some pars of Western Australia.
Which pollutants cause the problems?
The majority of city smoke comes from diesel exhausts. In some areas bush fires, wood and coal burning make up a significant proportion of total smoke.
Large smoke particles are trapped in the upper airways (nose to voicebox), but smaller particles (PM10s) may travel deeper into the lungs.
High levels of PM10s cause increased breathing difficulties in people with asthma, COPD and other lung conditions. They may also cause premature death in older people with heart and lung disease. For this reason, PM10s are now thought to be the most important of the common air pollutants.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
Sulphur dioxide (SO2 ) is produced by power stations and diesel engines. Its main effect is on the lungs where it makes the airways narrow. This makes breathing difficult, particularly for people with asthma and young children.
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2 ) is one of the chemicals produced when fuel is burnt in power stations and cars. NO2 irritates the lining of the airways. Together with other pollutants, the levels of NO2 found close to busy roads may have a bad affect on some people with asthma.
Ozone (O3) is the main ingredient of modern smog. Ozone irritates the lungs, causing coughing and chest pain. It also stings the eyes, nose and throat. People with lung diseases are particularly at risk, but up to a third of normal healthy people may develop symptoms when they exercise outdoors. This can lead to a decrease in their athletic performance.
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odourless, poisonous gas that comes mainly from traffic exhaust. It stops the blood carrying oxygen to the brain, heart and other tissues. People with heart disease are particularly at risk. Cigarette smoke is a big source of carbon monoxide; smokers have much higher levels in their blood than non-smokers.
Acid air happens during modern smog when NO2 and SO2 are converted into acids; particularly nitric and sulphuric acid. These form into tiny clouds of acid droplets. It is this 'acid air' which eventually falls as acid rain, damaging plants and trees. We can breathe in fine particles of acid. This causes irritation of the airways, coughing and sometimes wheezing.
How can I protect myself against air pollution?
If you are exposed to urban pollution for any length of time you should think about protecting your lungs with a mask. Good masks keep out large particles. People with asthma and others with breathing difficulties may find this makes the air they breathe less irritating. Masks also show motorists how concerned you are about air pollution.
In Western Australia, advice on levels of air pollutants is available at http://www.health.wa.gov.au
Where levels of air pollutants are high, if you are affected you should spend less time outside, particularly in city streets.
If your asthma is affected by air pollution, follow the treatment plan that you normally use when your condition gets worse.