A study by the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom encourages doctors to make recommendations to the most vulnerable patients to mitigate the effects of air pollution.
And it is that, although we must not forget the responsibility of the public authorities in the fight against pollution and its effects, citizens also have to start making personal choices to protect their respiratory health and to avoid environmental pollution, as pointed out by the Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery (SEPAR).
Deaths caused by air pollution have been underestimated. 7 million people in the world die each year from environmental pollution. 92% of the population lives in contaminated environments.
To the health data, we must add economic data that gives a good account of the dimensions of the problem. It has been calculated that 4% of the gross domestic product of developed countries is spent on addressing the problems caused by environmental pollution.
In the case of Spain, the European Public Health Alliance has determined that the health expenditure caused by pollution is almost a thousand euros per inhabitant per year.
The main pollutants that affect our health are particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10), tropospheric ozone, SO2, nitrogen dioxide, and volatile organic compounds.
All of them penetrate the body and, depending on their size, some remain in the throat, others penetrate the pulmonary alveoli and, in the case of the smallest particles, can reach the blood.
“And the damage occurs from the beginning of life,” underlines Dr. Isabel Urrutia, coordinator of the SEPAR Environment Area. “A pregnant woman living in a polluted environment often gives birth to underweight children, with an altered immune system, with lung function below normal levels and with increased morbidity.” These children are later more likely to develop asthma. But also, as they grow, between the ages of 10 and 18, their lung capacity will be 4 times less than normal.
In the case of adults, continued exposure to pollution also causes their lungs not to function 100%, making them more vulnerable to chronic lung diseases.
Pollution aggravates respiratory diseases
It is scientifically proven that asthma is aggravated by pollution. Many patients see their symptoms get worse when pollution levels rise.
“But it is also known that healthy subjects exposed to pollutants have a higher risk of presenting with asthma in adulthood, ” says Urrutia. Exactly the same thing that happens with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
All respiratory infections are affected by pollution, including COVID-19. In fact, as stated by the SEPAR pulmonologist, it has been observed that “the areas with the highest incidence of coronavirus, and where the disease has behaved worst, are precisely the areas with the most contamination.”
There are other phenomena such as allergy that also notice the incidence of both pollution and climate change. On the one hand, allergens are increasingly aggressive because they are capable of traveling on polluting particles. On the other, climate change has modified the traditional pollen calendar.
The proposal made by the Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery to citizens to minimize environmental air pollution are the following:
• The use of masks, now that we are so used to it when the levels of environmental pollution are high or traveling to areas with high levels of pollution.
• Opt for transportation options, substituting the car for the bicycle or simply walking.
• Choose travel routes where there is less traffic to reduce exposure to pollution as much as possible. Better open space tours, avoid trips during rush hours.
• Drive with the windows closed in traffic, keep the car’s air filtration systems in good condition, and avoid idling.
• Exercise outdoors regularly, but moderately when there are high levels of air pollution.
• Be attentive to the pollution levels in our city.
Finally, Dr. Urrutia also warns about indoor contamination, especially in homes where there are wood stoves, stoves, or fireplaces.
Among the recommendations for minimizing domestic air pollution, SEPAR proposes using clean fuels and checking the stoves to verify their correct operation.
And of course, ventilation. Opening the windows for ten minutes will be enough, but if we are near a street or highway, the best time to do it when the traffic is less.
Climate change also affects health
Pollutant gases and particles are also responsible for the greenhouse effect that is causing climate change on the planet.
Global warming leads to a large number of diseases such as infections, by the spread of vectors such as mosquitoes, or outbreaks of digestive diseases, floods, or psychiatric diseases, and mortality caused by extreme temperatures in cities.
Such is the severity of the impact that the WHO estimates that, in 2030, just ten years from now, the annual mortality attributable to climate change will be around 250,000 people.
And there is a broad consensus that action against climate change is probably the greatest health opportunity of the 21st century, according to pulmonologists.