Air Pollution and Your Lungs
Updated: Mar 9
Updated July 19, 2021
The Never-Ending Job
Your lungs work hard – all day, every day. They pull in air to fuel the oxygen needs of your bloodstream, repair muscles, allow movement and push out carbon dioxide. Their job never ends. But your lungs are at serious risk of being damaged as air pollution levels increase.
“Nothing is more vital to life than breathing: in a lifetime, about 250m litres of air passes through your lungs. Yet walk along a busy city street and you will inhale something like 20m particles in a single lungful.” The Guardian
Be forewarned: we are all at risk of suffering from air pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls air pollution the “invisible killer.” It reports a shocking “9 out of 10 people worldwide breath polluted air.”
With global air pollution levels rising dramatically, protecting the health of your lungs is critical.
Safeguarding the health of your lungs is more important than ever
The 2019 State of Global Air report says “the life expectancy of children born today will be shortened by 20 months on average by breathing the toxic air that is widespread across the globe, with the greatest toll in south Asia.”
“Toxic air is now the biggest environmental risk of early death, responsible for one in nine of all fatalities. It kills 7 million people a year, far more than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined,” says Dr Maria Neira, the World Health Organisation director with responsibility for air pollution. She is blunt: “It is a global public health emergency. Children and babies’ developing bodies are most at risk from toxic air.” The Guardian
The World Health Organization cites some staggering statistics:
“4.2 million deaths every year as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution”
“91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits”
“air pollution causes 1.4 million deaths from stroke every year”
“24% of all stroke deaths are attributable to air pollution”
In Europe alone, 500,000 deaths per year are attributed to air pollution.
While China and India account for the largest populations and some of the highest levels of pollution, a recent study found “an increasing number of Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of smog or particulate air pollution.”
The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine says that “in the UK, it I estimated that nearly 6,000 people who have never smoked die of lung cancer every year.”
The number one cause of air pollution is fossil fuel and biomass combustion. It “accounts for 85% of airborne particulate pollution and for almost all pollution by oxides of sulphur and nitrogen.” University of Chicago found “fossil fuel-driven particulate air pollution cuts global average life expectancy by 1.8 years per person.”
Traffic related air pollution (TRAP) is a major cause of pediatric asthma. New analysis has found four million children develop asthma every year as a result of air pollution, primarily NO2, from cars and trucks. That’s 11,000 new cases a day. And it’s not just China and India. Globally, Canada has the third highest rates among countries and Toronto is the #5 worst city.
Last year Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, said “the world has turned the corner on tobacco. Now it must do the same for the ‘new tobacco’ – the toxic air that billions breathe every day, No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. It is a silent public health emergency.”
Get to Know Your Lungs
How your lungs function and understanding the mechanics of breathing is an important first step. Chris Watts, Founder and CEO of Motion Dynamics Ltd,, Hong Kong, explains the musculature of lung function.
“As we draw air into our lungs, our ribs expand. The muscles at the top of the rib cage - serratus posterior superior muscles – expand the ribs to allow the lungs to increase in volume. It is a fan shaped muscle deep under the scapula at the top of your rib cage on the back side. It expands the ribs during inhalation and helps the diaphragm in the breathing cycle.
Air enters the trachea and branches into the center of the lungs through the bronchi into alveoli. These are millions of tiny grape-like sacs that operate like a mixing station to exchange gases. They have ultra-thin membranes that pass the O2 into the blood stream and CO2 out.
Down below, the mirror muscle - serratus posterior inferior - draws the rib cage down and back during exhalation. As the diaphragm contracts, it flattens and drops, pushing downward onto the abdominal organs. This allows for our lungs to expand in our thoracic cavities.”
Exercise Your Lungs
We have long known that physical exercise is good for your lungs and your overall health. But there is more you can do for your lungs.
Watts says the diaphragm needs to be exercised since it regulates the amount of air that we uptake. “Stronger abdominals not only protect the vital organs but also help strengthen the efficiency of this muscle.”
With over 25 years and tens of thousands of hours hands-on practice, he knows what he is talking about. He is Hong Kong’s leading Active Isolated Stretching practitioner and the creator of the Motion Dynamics Ltd. system.
“It starts with a good upright expansive posture that ensures the shoulders are in a retracted and centralized position and the head is sitting squarely over the cervical spine floating evenly between the front and back of the spine,” he advises.
A strong mid and upper back will help to support this upright stance, allowing the inner musculature that controls your breathing rhythm and mechanisms to work more efficiently. Lung expansion inside the thoracic cavity will be unhindered, smooth and effortless. Posture is crucial and Watts asserts “your postural form and shape effects your function and your function effects your posture.”
New research indicates that breathing exercises have several benefits. Clinical trials at the University of Colorado at Boulder have found that deep breathing exercises, known as Inspirational Muscle Strength Training (IMST), improved vascular health, boosted fitness levels, improved memory and lower blood pressure. Five minutes each day is enough.
Research by cell biologist Sundar Balasubramanian into deep breathing exercises has led to an interesting discovery. Deep breathing increases saliva production, “increasing the amount of nerve growth factor (NGF). When NGF is produced, it’s transported to the brain, where it signals nerve cells to grow or survive longer. Increased NGF could have a major impact on aging, and specifically on some of the degenerative diseases of the day like Alzheimer’s and cancer.”
Dietary Considerations to Protect Your Lungs
Diet can also be an important factor in combating the impact of air pollution. This is particularly important for youth.
According to the Lung Institute, “evidence exists that antioxidant-rich foods can benefit the lungs.”
A regular supplement of omega 3 oils, found in fatty fish, is essential. Tomatoes, broccoli, beans, apricots, apples and blueberries are go-to items. These vital fruits and vegetables have been proven to protect the cells of the linings of your lungs. Good additions to your recipes in ginger, turmeric and garlic. They can also help to remove and destroy foreign harmful substances that cause allergic reactions.
Steps to Reduce the Impact of Exposure to Air Pollution
While we can never truly be free from air pollution, there are steps to reduce exposure levels and the impact. A combination of regular exercise, better breathing techniques, and a healthy diet can help prepare your lungs for the onslaught of pollution that is inevitable.
“Don’t forget to purify your indoor air.” Watts adds. “Clients at our Hong Kong studio can tell the difference in air quality as soon as they walk through the door.”
An air purifier for your home and office will minimize the impact of poor indoor air quality.
Keeping indoor environments free of dust and mould is equally important. These microscopic particles have a negative impact on breathing and may trigger related symptoms.
The outdoor environment is more difficult to regulate. Rachel Brown of DIY Garden in the UK, say "plants can do amazing things, and one of those things is help us tackle air pollution.." Brown offers some excellent tips on how to improve the air quality in your garden in this article.
Whenever possible, limit exposure to vehicle emissions. Take a walk in the park.
Better yet, leave the city and get some exercise in nature.
About the Author: Tim Morch is a freelance writer and chronic traveller. He has tasted some of the worlds’ worst air in Lima, Shanghai, Bangkok and Delhi. His interests include the worrisome environmental impacts of air pollution on the health and wellness on ourselves, our kids and future generations.