Take a deep breath
Fresh air! Nothing like going outside on a lovely summer’s morning and taking in a deep invigorating breath of fresh air - except of course when the air pollution is so high that there is a danger it can cause damage.
Weather conditions known as inversions, when the air near the earth’s surface is cooler than the air above, stops a free flow of air and can trap pollutants close to the ground in the air that we breathe causing serious air pollution.
Today, even in bad conditions, this is nowhere as severe as it used to be in the past. When fossil fuels such as coal were the main source of power and heat in homes and factories, high levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide was released into the atmosphere resulting in many chronic lung problems especially among the young and elderly. Many of us will remember the “pea soupers” of our youth, or of our parents talking about the incredibly thick fogs where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
Today thank goodness these are very rare, mainly thanks to the government’s Clean Air act. Today however, we have another problem; the emissions from road vehicles. Lead in the air from leaded petrol has obviously reduced now lead free petrol is commonly used. However, both petrol and diesel motor vehicles still pump out a range of pollutants which can hang in the air which we are breathing in. Other pollutants from items such as incinerators or composting sites can also contribute to air quality depending on the region and activity within the locality.
Nitrogen dioxide can accumulate in the air in areas where there is busy traffic. Benzene and other chemicals can also be emitted into the air from motor vehicle fuel. Traffic exhaust can also pump carbon monoxide into the air, although indoors this can also come from cigarettes. Ozone can irritate the airways and is caused by the reaction of sunlight on nitrogen dioxide. Sulphur dioxide is still found from the combustion of fossil fuels.
But while we still have problems, today there are air quality levels now firmly set down reducing air pollution and these have definitely helped to improve overall air quality dramatically.
But even in the home we can sometimes contribute to causing problems in air quality. Heavy use of air fresheners, disinfectant sprays, wood burning stoves or perhaps the ducting used - often we can add to problems in the air without realizing.
It is of course a very inexact science to measure air quality because wind and weather conditions are constantly changing. You can buy home air measuring kits now on line. DEFRA have an air pollution index to help inform the public of air quality based mainly on three main levels, low, moderate and high. There is also a Very High level if necessary:
But nothing is exact. Even escaping from the traffic laden cities for a breath of bracing sea air may not be the total health benefit you are hoping for. The “bracing” smell of seaside air, so popular in Victorian days, can be caused by dimethyl sulphide which is produced by coastal bacteria. Marine exhaust fumes can react with sea salt to produce further air pollution.
The good news is that our air, despite all the pollutants, contains around 20% of oxygen which means most of us should still be able to safely take a deep breath!
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