The world is waking up to the fact that air pollution is a big killer, responsible for seven million deaths a year. Just last month the World Health Organization warned that 90 per cent of the world’s children live in areas where the air breaches pollution guidelines. But short of moving into an oxygen tent what can we do to avoid toxic air?
The good news is there are simple steps we can all take to minimise our exposure to pollutants inside and outside.
Leave the car at home
While it may seem counter-intuitive we are exposed to less pollution walking or cycling along a busy street than in a car, says Larissa Lockwood, head of health of the charity Global Action Plan.
“Cars are toxic boxes, the pollution comes into the car via the ventilation system and it can’t get out again,” she says.
A 2014 study found that people in cars were exposed to higher levels of particulate matter – the tiny particles that can get deep into the lungs – and black carbon than those travelling along the same streets on bikes.
There’s a triple benefit to swapping the car for the bike: you’ll reduce your own exposure, reduce air pollution around you and get the health benefits of walking or cycling.
Avoid polluted streets when walking or cycling
Simply walking on quieter streets could make a big difference to the amount of pollution you’re exposed to, scientists say.
Researchers at King’s College, London put pollution monitors on people commuting into central London and found that when they took quieter routes levels of exposure fell significantly.
Ms Lockwood says even if you can’t avoid main roads, walking on the side of the pavement furthest from the traffic could help.
“We did a piece of work with Imperial College which showed that children are exposed to 30 per cent more pollution on average than adults because they’re nearer to exhaust pipes. The closer you are to the fumes the more you are going to breathe in,” she says.
Open your windows
A report by the Royal College of Physicians in 2016 warned of the pollutants inside the home. Solvents seeping from plastics, paints and furniture can clog up our lungs. The lemon and pine scents that we use to make our homes smell fresh can react chemically to generate air pollutants, and ozone-based air fresheners can also cause indoor air pollution, the report warned, adding that indoor air pollution is thought to have contributed to nearly 100,000 deaths in Europe in 2012.
Ms Lockwood says: “Levels of pollutants will vary from house to house and it depends on what’s inside. But things such as new furniture will give off toxic chemicals. They’re treated with fire retardants which give off pollutants. That ‘new house’ smell is essentially toxic chemicals.”
Personal care products such as deodorants and cleaning products can also contribute to poor air in our homes.
“Switching to more natural products and using creams rather than sprays can make a difference, as well as ventilating your home properly. So open your windows when you get new furniture,” she says.
But what if you live near a busy road? There is some concern that outdoor air pollution can seep into the home.
Jonathan Grigg, professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Queen Mary’s University, London, says a good extractor fan in the kitchen is a must.
The RCP alongside the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health are currently mapping all sources of indoor air pollution and will publish a report on the issue next year.
Prof. Grigg is leading the work.
“We’re looking to see what evidence is out there and trying to produce a hierarchy of air pollution,” he said, adding that the evidence for indoor pollution was currently poor.
“We know that outdoor air pollution is definitely a major health issue but we don’t know so much about indoor pollution. We know that nitrogen dioxide is produced from gas cookers and various chemicals come from scented products used in the home. We know they’re toxic but we don’t know if they’re worse than outdoor pollution,” he said.
Put your wood burner out to grass
Earlier this year environment secretary Michael Gove signalled that the wood burning stove may be for the chop because of the amount of pollutants they pump into the outdoor air – their emissions now make up 38 per cent of all particulate matter pollution.
But they’re also a source of air pollution inside, warns Ms Lockwood.
“They produce a lot of particulate pollution, not only outside but inside the home too,” she says.
If you can’t give up your wood burner choose well seasoned wood- it is dryer and therefore produces less smoke – and ensure that your stove is well maintained and your chimney swept, adds Ms Lockwood.
“Anything that burns contributes to indoor air pollution,” says Ms Lockwood. This includes anything from a simple candle to your gas hob to the boiler, she adds.
“The bigger things will contribute more but anything you burn adds up,” she says.
Eat your greens
Small studies have shown that a healthy diet can mitigate some of the effects of air pollution. Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States gave either fish oil or olive oil daily to 29 middle aged people for a month and then exposed them for two hours to particulate pollution.
Those who had the fish oil saw less variation in heart rate, and therefore less risk of a heart attack, than those who had the olive oil.
In a recent study, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that drinking broccoli sprout extract for four days in juice could reduce the amount of inflammation that occurred in people’s noses after exposure to diesel exhaust pollution.
“If you’re healthy and look after yourself anyway, this should mitigate the effects of air pollution,” says Ms Lockwood.