From your daily commute to your wood-burning stove, you’re unwittingly inhaling a variety of toxic substances. But you can take action to reduce their impact, reveals Clare Thorp
When it comes to our health, there are plenty of things where we have a choice – what we eat, how much we exercise and whether we smoke, drink or take drugs. Most of us, though, don’t have a choice about the air we breathe and the hidden toxins in our surroundings.
A cocktail of pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other chemical vapours, can originate from such things as traffic fumes to household products, and even scented candles. ‘Pollution is without doubt a major public health concern,’ says Dr Audrey de Nazelle, a lecturer in air pollution management at Imperial College London.
She cites the connection between rising pollution levels and related asthma and bronchial problems, and has identified robust evidence linking poor air quality to an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease. But there are simple steps you can take from today to limit the damage. Here’s how.
According to a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 47 UK towns and cities exceed air pollution limits, including Manchester, Plymouth, London and Swansea. Surprisingly, even towns set in picturesque countryside, such as Chepstow in Monmouthshire and Royal Leamington Spa, have dirtier air than London.
What you can do
Take a side street: A 2017 study by King’s College London revealed that walking in quieter streets (traffic wise) can reduce average exposure to air pollution by 53 per cent. When using a busy road, stay as far away from the traffic as possible and don’t stand near traffic lights, as cars emit more fumes when they’re pulling away.
Use an app: Air pollution apps give you a real-time map of air quality in your area, down to street-level accuracy. AirVisual combines data from satellite imagery, government agencies and crowd-sourced information to help users track air pollution.
Go for an early-morning run: Pollution triggers inflammation in the body, whereas exercising reduces it and fights the effects of pollution. If you can’t beat the traffic, it’s still better to exercise than not. ‘The benefits from physical activity far outweigh any of the risks associated with increased inhalation of air pollution,’ says Dr de Nazelle. She recommends exercising before the rush hour rather than right afterwards, so early morning may be the best time. If you can, opt for laps of your local park.
Be a mindful driver: You are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of pollution in a car than a pedestrian or cyclist, as airborne pollutants are sucked in and become trapped inside. Switch your car’s air vents to ‘recirculate’ when you’re in traffic or tunnels.
Ditch your wood-burning stove: A wood stove emits more harmful particulates than a diesel truck. Wood smoke is thick with the particulate matter known as PM2.5, which is arguably the most health-hazardous air pollutant (it’s thinner than a human hair and can pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream) and is linked to heart attacks, strokes, cancer and dementia.
A study commissioned by the Clean Air Day campaign claims that many UK homes are ‘toxic boxes’, with indoor air pollution over three times worse than outdoor air pollution. Cooking and heating with polluting fuels, poor ventilation, chemicals in cleaning products and polluted air from traffic in the street outside are mostly to blame.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are airborne chemicals found in many household products. Long-term exposure can lead to damage to organs and the central nervous system. And scented candles can be harmful too, since burning them can release toxic chemicals and particles.
What you can do
Open your windows: ‘Keep these and doors open, especially when cooking or cleaning,’ says Dr Kirsty Smallbone, head of the School of Environment and Technology at the University of Brighton If you live on a busy road, open back windows, or ventilate your home at night when pollution levels are lower.’
If you must keep your wood-burning stove: Ensure the wood is dry, as this emits fewer particles. It’s recommended that wood is at least two years old – look for the ‘ready to burn’ label.
Install an air purifier: These can reduce particle pollutants by trapping them in a filter, though they won’t remove all airborne gases and chemicals. In reality, not all air purifiers necessarily live up to the marketing hype. Look out for the CADR (clean air delivery rate) rating. This measures the cleaning speed of the purifier for removing smoke, dust and pollen. Pick a CADR of at least 300 – above 350 is even better.
Buy anti-allergy cleaning products: As part of its clean air strategy, the government wants companies to label VOC-heavy goods, but until then, look for products that specify anti-allergy, as these usually have lower levels of volatile chemicals. Choose pump sprays over aerosols or switch from airborne sprays to creams.
Go retro: All you need for an easy and quick bathroom/kitchen deep clean is baking soda, white vinegar, a scrubbing brush and a spray bottle. Add a few drops of lemon juice for fragrance and a good dose of elbow grease. Also, white vinegar and water cleans glass and windows brilliantly.
Wise up on your wicks: Many scented candles are made from paraffin wax, which emits harmful particulates – opt for soy, coconut or beeswax instead.
Invest in houseplants: NASA’s clean air study discovered a number of air-purifying plants that can help detoxify your home, and found the spider plant to be the most effective. In two days, a plant will eliminate close to 90 per cent of toxins in a room. Its leaves absorb mould and other allergens. Chrysanthemums also filter out toxins, including ammonia and benzene, found in plastics, paints, detergents and glue.
Fight back with food
Scientific research has found a link with what we eat and our body’s ability to effectively hit back at the effects of pollution. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, wholegrains and olive oil can help pollution-proof yourself, and may also help repair any damage already done. How? Antioxidants from the food we eat help protect us from harmful pollutants by neutralising the free radicals so they can’t damage cells.
What you can do
Eat two portions of oily fish a week: Researchers at Harvard Medical School in the US discovered that omega-3 fatty acids could help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress – an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage – from air pollution by between 30 to 50 per cent.
Increase your vitamin intake: Vitamin E is an immunity-boosting antioxidant. Scientists at King’s College London discovered that high levels of the vitamin – found in avocado, spinach and olive oil – may minimise the effects of air pollution. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant – get your daily fix with berries, grapefruit or any green veg – while vitamin B loves your heart. A study by Columbia University in the US found that B vitamins in broccoli protected the heart from air pollution.