The BC Lung Association organizes an annual meeting of world authorities on health-damaging pollutants. At a recent meeting we spoke with visiting pollution expert Dr. Nino Künzli and asked, given we know dirty air poses risks to health, what can we advise people do to protect themselves?
According to Künzli individuals and communities would benefit from thinking of the health risks in terms of ‘susceptibility’ – in other words – in terms of an individual’s likelihood of being adversely affected by exposure to health-damaging pollutants.
How susceptible we are to pollution is affected by factors such as where we live, our medical history, genetic predisposition and whether we belong to a high risk population including children, the elderly and the chronically ill. The degree and duration of pollutant exposure is also a factor – and according to Künzli, one we have a great deal more to learn about.
Künzli cited the Southern California Children’s Health Study which explored long-term exposure to air pollution in growing children for more than a decade. The study found that by age 18, the lungs of many children who grow up in smoggy areas were underdeveloped. The study also found that asthma was more common in children who lived close to busy streets. Interestingly, the same study revealed that children from families that moved away from high traffic pollution areas resumed normal lung development.
While evidence clearly links short-term spikes in air pollution to adverse health effects explained Künzli, such as those caused by a forest fire, it is a better understanding of how everyday, accumulative, long-term low-level exposure to common pollutants over time impacts our health that would help propel discussions and public demand for action to the next level.
In the meantime, Künzli agrees individuals would be well-served to minimize exposure to air pollutants and in closing the two day workshop summarized what he felt to be three key evidence-supported areas for action:
- Addressing pollution at its source. In the case of traffic pollution, one immediate solution would be to legislate the use of low-sulphur diesel in diesel powered vehicles. This is supported by research which confirms exposure to diesel exhaust particles results in inflammation in the respiratory tracts of humans and animals.
- Minimizing pollution exposure at a community level. In our communities, examples of preventative measures include the implementation of air filtration systems in schools and workplaces; the development of public policies to ensure schools, libraries and daycare facilities are built away from toxic traffic corridors and the development of bike routes away from main traffic arteries.
- Educating individuals to protect themselves from health-damaging pollutants. In our everyday lives, preventative measures include altering activity patterns to limit pollution exposure during poor air quality days and wearing air filter masks when travelling by foot or bike through high traffic areas.