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Having a Bad Air Day?

The air we breathe can endanger lives—and older people are especially susceptible to pollution-related health problems

The Dirty Air Cocktail

Ozone: This is the most widespread air pollutant and the main ingredient of smog. Lung experts liken inhaling ozone to a bad sunburn for the lungs. Breathing ozone pollution can cause wheezing, coughing and asthma attacks. About 60 percent of people in the United States live in unhealthy areas for ozone, according to the new EPA standards.

Year-round particle pollution: This toxic mix of soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals and aerosols and its tiny particles causes the haze we see over cities. Although we sneeze or cough out the larger particles, we breathe in the tiniest particles and they get trapped in our lungs. Most particle pollution comes from cars and trucks, factories, power plants and steel mills. Scientists study health problems linked to both long- and short-term particle pollution. One in six U.S. residents lives in an area with unhealthy particle pollution.

Short-term particle pollution: Twenty-four hour spikes in fine-particle pollution send more people to the emergency room for respiratory problems, and they increase the risk of death from heart attacks, strokes and lung disease. Nearly 93 million Americans live in counties with too many days of unhealthy spikes of particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association.

How to Handle Bad Air Quality Days

* Ozone levels peak in the afternoon, but particle levels can be worse in the morning. Minimize time you spend outside on Code Orange days or worse. Air conditioning and air filters help, so run the AC if it’s warm enough.

* Stay away from highways on your daily walk or run.

* Keep your lungs healthy. If you smoke, stop. Eat well and exercise regularly. Some small studies have found that vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids may be good for lung health.

* Listen to warnings. Inhaling too much ozone causes specific symptoms: chest pressure and burning in the nose, eyes and mouth. And particulates can make any underlying diseases worse.

Sources: Norman Edelman, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, and Fernando Holguin, M.D., assistant director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Asthma Institute.


Elizabeth Agnvall is a contributing editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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