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Poor air quality affects health

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Los Angeles is well-known for its smog problem, but much smaller municipalities have their share of bad air. (Source: Wikicommons) Los Angeles is well-known for its smog problem, but much smaller municipalities have their share of bad air. (Source: Wikicommons)

(RNN) - The air we breathe can have a great impact on our health. Unfortunately, nearly half of U.S. residents live in areas with unhealthy air.

According to the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2013, more than 4 in 10 reside in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone (smog) or particle pollution (soot) — the most common air pollutants that can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks and even premature death.

However, some areas have improved greatly, according to the report. Eighteen cities had lower year-round levels of particle pollution, including 16 cities with their lowest levels recorded.

While ozone higher in the atmosphere helps protect the earth from the harmful rays of the sun, ground-level ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight.

Emissions from manmade sources, such as vehicles and industrial plants, are some of the major sources of these building blocks of smog, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Breathing ozone can trigger health problems such as chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Ground-level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs, and lung tissue may become permanently scarred if exposed to it repeatedly.

Particulate matter, also known as particle pollution, is a complex mix of very small particles and liquid. It is made of several components, including acids, organic chemicals, metals and dust.

The smaller the particle, the more likely it is to enter the respiratory system and cause distress to the heart and lungs. The EPA is particularly concerned about particulates with a diameter of 10 micrometers or smaller.

Particulate matter can be divided into two categories: inhalable coarse particles, such as those produced near roadways and dusty industries, and fine particles, which are found in smoke and haze.

Other common forms of pollution

Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas, is emitted from combustion processes. The gas can harm by cutting the amount of oxygen given to the body's organs and tissues. At extremely high levels, carbon monoxide can cause death.

Nitrogen dioxide forms quickly from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants and other equipment. In addition to contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone, and fine particle pollution, the gas is linked with a number of adverse effects on the respiratory system.

Sulfur dioxide, created from emissions from fossil-fuel combustion at power plants, is linked with many adverse effects on the respiratory system.

Lead is a metal found naturally, as well as manufactured. Because of the EPA's efforts to remove lead from gasoline, lead emissions from motor vehicles dropped by 95 percent between 1980 and 1999, leading to a marked decrease of lead in the air between 1980 and 1999. Currently, airborne lead is usually detected near lead smelters, ore and metals processing, as well as aircraft operating on leaded aviation gasoline.

How to cope

To limit adverse health effects, people should take heed of the air where they live, via the EPA or local weather forecasts.

In places where unhealthy air is expected, limit physical activities outdoors, especially in peak ozone hours during mid-afternoon or early evening.

Help reduce air pollution by conserving energy at home and in the office.

Reduce emissions produced by gas-powered motors by keeping them in peak working condition, and try to cut the amount you travel by carpooling or planning travel wisely.

Use chemicals wisely, opting for paints and solvents with low volatile organic compounds, and dispose of them properly.

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