Chances are you're sucking a terrible cocktail of contaminants into your lungs...
This summer, smoke from wildfires in Canada choked folks throughout parts of the U.S. Here at our Baltimore headquarters, the air was thick with the smell of smoke, and people were warned not to go outside for fear of damaging their lungs.
A lot of the danger comes from one pollutant – particulate matter ("PM"). Ambient PM pollution contains liquid droplets that mix with dust, smoke, soot, dirt, or minerals that are all suspended in the air.
This type of pollution spans pretty much the whole globe... It's estimated that 99% of the world's population was exposed to unsafe levels of PM2.5 (particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter) from 2000 to 2019.
PM2.5 pollution shaves more years off of the average person's life than smoking or communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. In the U.S., PM2.5 cuts short the lives of tens of thousands of folks each year.
But PM isn't the only danger... Remember all the buzz about the hole in the ozone layer discovered back in the mid-'80s?
The stratospheric ozone is the good stuff that protects us from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. But the kind around us, or "ground-level ozone," doesn't play nice. Breathing in ground-level ozone causes the muscles in your airways to tighten and narrow, triggering asthma attacks. Ozone levels typically spike when it's hot and sunny out.
Some other pollutants (that you don't often find in dangerous levels outdoors), include...
Carbon monoxide: This is an odorless gas that can quickly kill someone in an enclosed space. It's why you can't run a portable generator in your home. But you can find it outdoors as well, especially in areas where fossil-fuel burning occurs or high concentrations of vehicles use gas.
Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide causes breathing problems because carbon monoxide binds 250 times more strongly to red blood cells than oxygen does. Folks with certain types of heart conditions are especially vulnerable to high outdoor levels of carbon monoxide.
Nitrogen oxides: This gas also causes respiratory problems and worsens existing respiratory diseases, too. It comes from burning fossil fuels, so, like carbon monoxide, examples of sources include emissions from power plants and vehicles.
Sulfur dioxide: This gas can come from nature in the form of volcanoes, but burning fossil fuels generates the majority of the amount outside.
How to Protect Your Lungs
There are several ways to protect your lungs from the risks of pollution...
Exercise your lungs.
Regular exercise strengthens your muscles, heart, and lungs. The more you exercise, the more efficient your heart and lungs must become in order to deliver oxygenated blood to your muscles. And as you know, moving your body regularly can also lower inflammation. But just like targeting certain muscle groups while you're strength training, don't forget about another muscle: your diaphragm.
Just like the slow, gentle movements in this ancient Chinese martial-arts exercise, meditative deep-breathing exercises are like tai chi for your lungs. They relax you and relieve you of stress and anxiety. They can even help improve your attention span and help with pain tolerance.
Deep-breathing exercises also improve lung capacity, which declines as we age. Tai chi on its own is terrific for your heart and lungs, too. It's safe for folks who have coronary heart disease and even helps alleviate symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD".
Avoid walking and exercising near heavy-traffic areas.
I'll always remember the first run I took in London when I worked there for Goldman Sachs. I was training for the NYC Marathon and freaked out when I blew my nose post-run and black particles from diesel exhaust filled my Kleenex – yes, gross!
The exhaust that cars, trucks, and buses leave behind can be harmful for your lungs. If you need proof, just go to a city and look at the trees. In polluted areas, the trees' bark changes to a blackish-brown color. That's not at all healthy for them... or for your delicate lung tissue.
Instead, find a local park or patch of woods for your outdoor excursions. The woods offer the purest form of air because the trees act like gigantic air filters. They remove particle pollutants like soot, pollen, dust, acids, toxic hydrocarbons, and nitrogen compounds.
The trees also add fragrant vaporous substances – phytoncides – into the air. Studies show that phytoncides significantly increase immune-system function by increasing the activity of natural killer ("NK") cells. NK cells are a type of white blood cell that can rid the body of tumors and cancer cells.
In the June issue of Retirement Millionaire, we took a deep dive into what causes pollution, what bad air does to your body, and the best ways to keep you and your family safe. If you're not already a subscriber, click here to learn more and sign up today.
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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
July 18, 2023