Air pollution can have varying amounts of PM2.5; tiny particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These can penetrate into the smallest air spaces of our lungs and collect there. Research has found that exposure to these particles will increase the likelihood of death due to heart and lung problems including cancer.
Fuel combustion produces nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxides: the first can produce bronchitis and chronic lung problems like emphysema whereas the second reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of our blood. The burning of fossil fuels or mining produces sulfur dioxide which can increase asthma symptoms. It also increases hospital visits for respiratory illness especially in small children and elderly. When nitric oxide and volatile organic compounds react in the presence of heat and sunlight ozone is formed. This is the main component in smog. It can induce chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.
We should protect ourselves from air pollution, but it’s important not to lose sight of the greater foe
What can we do to avoid the harms of air pollution? The best solution is preventing the generation of air pollution in the first place. I was so happy last year when the tall coal chimney was demolished in my neighborhood and natural gas heating took its place. This made it evident to me that the government is making positive moves to reduce the sources of air pollution, but as we all know this is a very complex situation, and no doubt addressing it will take some time.
Meanwhile we should try to minimize inhaling toxic particles by using an appropriate mask outdoors when the AQI is above 200. Use an air purifier in your home. Drink more water on polluted days to help your body remove the particles that get stuck on the inner lining of your nose and upper airway, and take a spoonful of honey as soon as your throat becomes even slightly irritated to reduce throat infections. If you develop any symptoms of chest pain or difficulty breathing please see a doctor in a timely manner.
We should do our best to protect ourselves from air pollution, but it’s important not to lose sight of the greater foe and to make sure we avoid alcohol and cigarette smoke, eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, spend quality time with friends and family and exercise regularly. The good thing is that these are factors we have direct control over.
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Dr. Dorothy Dexter is a family medicine physician at Beijing United Family Hospital. She has several years of clinical experience, and speaks English and Spanish. Contact her at email@example.com
Photos: courtesy of cea+, Arthur Caranta, Enid Martindale (Flickr)
This article originally appeared on page 21 of the beijingkids March 2016 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org