According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 92 percent of the world’s population breathe polluted air,1 and nearly 7 million deaths can be attributed to air pollution each year.2 An overall toxic environment is responsible for at least 25 percent of deaths reported worldwide, and poor air quality is one of the greatest contributors to this risk.3
Your body is dependent on the air you breathe. Poor quality can damage your lungs, heart and other organs’ systems. Sources of pollution take the form of emissions from factories, cars, planes and aerosol cans. Secondhand cigarette smoke pollutes indoor air, as do volatile organic compounds emitted from many household items, such as carpeting, furniture and chemical cleaners.
Indoor air pollution may be dependent on ventilation in the building, as well as insulation and construction materials. Short-term health effects can include illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis and exacerbation of asthma. Many also suffer from headaches, dizziness and nausea triggered by chemicals.4
Particulate matter (PM), is a mixture of solids and liquid droplets in a wide range of sizes. PM 2.5 — particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller — can only be seen with an electron microscope and is small enough to pass through your lungs and into your bloodstream.5
Long-term effects of this type of air pollution can last a lifetime and may even lead to death after damage to your heart, lungs, kidney, liver, brain or nervous system. Scientists also suspect air pollutants may trigger birth defects.6
Ethylene Oxide Poisons Air in Willowbrook and St. John the Baptist Parish
One such air pollutant is ethylene oxide poison belching from the stacks at Sterigenics in Willowbrook, Illinois, a small affluent suburb of Chicago in DuPage County. Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and food, and has been discharging the gas into the community for the past 34 years.7
Only after the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), a division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), assessed levels of ethylene oxide in 2016 did the surrounding neighborhood learn of the danger. Although levels had been measured in the past, the chemical’s status had been recently upgraded from “probable human carcinogen” to “carcinogenic to humans.”8,9,10
Although the levels released into the air near the plant remained roughly the same, since the IRIS had adjusted the risk level, official reflection of risk suddenly skyrocketed.
The EPA considers the “upper limit of acceptability” for cancer risk 100 cancers for every 1 million people. In the most polluted area in DuPage County, the risk of cancer was now 282 per million. However, the values set by the IRIS were not binding, leaving residents in Willowbrook with a precisely quantified threat but no obvious way to legally address it.11
Sterigenics was previously owned by a private-equity firm cofounded by then-governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner. One year later he left the firm to campaign for public office. Although unavailable to answer detailed questions, Rauner criticized officials for releasing the report, saying:12
“This is not an emergency. This is not a public health immediate crisis. This is something we are managing. We are going to work with the federal government to monitor this whole situation … and try to reduce exposures from this as much as we can.”
EPA and Legislator Response Dramatically Different Based on Location
Although the situation in Willowbrook is drastic, the air quality in St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana is deplorable. This small, mostly African-American community along the Mississippi River is 30 minutes west of New Orleans with an even bigger ethylene oxide problem from a factory making chemicals used in cosmetics.
In St. John, the cancer risk from the gas is 317 per million. But ethylene oxide is only one pollutant in the air in St. John. In the most heavily polluted tract the air contains 45 industrial pollutants known to cause cancer and other serious health problems.
One of those chemicals is chloroprene, emitted from the country’s one remaining neoprene factory.13 The combination of these chemicals raises the risk for residents in the small neighborhood from 317 per million to over 1,500 per million, making it the most dangerous neighborhood in the U.S., according to the EPA’s report.
However, while the EPA is working alongside local and state officials to address the dangerous levels of ethylene oxide in the Willowbrook neighborhood, the agency has done next to nothing in St. John the Baptist Parish.
Concurrently, St. Charles, Louisiana, located just 30 minutes from St. John, hasn’t received a visit from the EPA staff either, even though Dow Union Carbide plant spits out ethylene oxide and has raised the cancer risk in St. Charles to 710 per million, according to EPA reports.
The EPA and state legislature in Illinois have played key roles in monitoring air near the Sterigenics plant, eventually ordering the plant to shut down,14 while eight other polluted and struggling communities have received no assistance from the EPA at all. Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant, commented on the disparities between Willowbrook and other poorer communities:15
“No one has required anyone to even consider putting on control technologies here. In Illinois, EPA had ATSDR [Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] look at the risk and do air monitoring. But here in Louisiana, where we have the highest risk for ethylene oxide, they didn’t do any of that.”
Company Denies Rapidly Rising Health Problems Linked to Air Pollution
The people in St. John the Baptist Parish learned of their health risks after a 2010 assessment by IRIS showed chloroprene was far more dangerous than previously thought. However, the gas had been released into the community for the previous 40 years, increasing rates of leukemia, lung cancer, kidney cancer and liver cancer.
The plant, then owned by DuPont and now by Denka, had been spewing chloroprene at dangerous levels, but the EPA had not notified people near the factory when the assessment was published, nor did they contact residents when a new report came out in December 2015. According to the reporter at The Intercept:16
“In a written response to questions for this article, a spokesperson from Denka criticized the safety level for chloroprene calculated by IRIS as ‘based on incomplete and flawed data’ and disputed the characterization of its emissions as dangerous: ‘Scientific research shows Denka Performance Elastomer’s operations do not pose any additional health risks to the surrounding community.’
Denka’s spokesperson also cited research to back up that claim, noting in particular that ‘a published peer-reviewed study that tracked more than 15,000 workers in neoprene plants across the world, including 1,400 from the [St. John] LaPlace facility, found no increased incidence of cancer deaths among them since the 1940s.’
That study was paid for by the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers, an industry group that includes DuPont as a member. Independent studies have shown that exposure to the chloroprene increased the risk of leukemia, kidney cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer and liver cancer.”
Growing Up Green Reduces Potential for Depression and Anxiety
A lack of healthy air not only has a significant effect on physical health but also on mental health. Green space is widely understood to be health-promoting in residential environments, and has been linked to mental health benefits and reduced stress.17
Research18 from Aarhus University in Denmark also suggests access to green spaces may have a protective effect in the long term, as children growing up close to nature are less likely to develop mental health problems as adults, including depression and anxiety.
Living in a city space has been associated with higher risk of some psychiatric disorders without identification of underlying cause. In this study, green space was assessed using high resolution satellite data of the area around the participants’ place of residence from birth to age 10.19
The data show the risk for mental illness for those who had the lowest level of green space was up to 55 percent higher than those who had the highest level of green space. The effect also appeared to be cumulative, as there was a stronger association between mental health and cumulative years with access to green spaces during childhood as compared to a single year.
Indoor Air Pollution Nothing to Sneeze At
Symptoms of exposure to indoor air pollution resemble those you may experience from an allergy or a cold, such as20 worsening asthma; itchy, watery eyes; headaches; dizziness; fatigue; and runny nose. These typically disappear once you leave the problem area. Chronic exposure over a longer period of time, however, may result in more chronic and serious health conditions.
Phthalates are one common contaminant found in indoor air pollution, a chemical added to plastics to improve durability and found in literally hundreds of products in American homes. Research indicates phthalates are carcinogenic and have been linked to reproductive problems, nervous system issues and immune suppression.21
The American Academy of Pediatrics,22 a group of over 65,000 pediatricians in the U.S., is asking parents to limit children’s exposure to dangerous plastic chemicals, including phthalates, warning the chemicals may damage their children’s health for years to come.
In a panel discussion at the latest American Association for the Advancement of Science conference,23 researchers presented data demonstrating pollutants are released into your home from everyday activities such as cooking and cleaning, and from household items like furniture and carpeting.
Researchers used an uninhabited 1,200 square-foot home on the University of Texas campus. Over 30 days, they performed a variety of household activities while measuring indoor concentrations of air pollution.
To the team’s surprise, indoor concentrations were high enough that instrumentation needed to be recalibrated almost immediately. Marina Vance, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder, commented on the results:24
“Homes have never been considered an important source of outdoor air pollution and the moment is right to start exploring that. We wanted to know: How do basic activities like cooking and cleaning change the chemistry of a house? Even the simple act of making toast raised particle levels far higher than expected. We had to go adjust many of the instruments.”
Another study undertaken by Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., one of the foremost experts in the field of fire retardant chemicals, studied children in their homes, analyzing samples of dust in air, as well as blood in urine samples from the children.25
From this information they found children who lived in homes where the sofa in the main living area contained polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) had six times higher concentration of the chemicals in their blood than children whose sofa did not contain the chemicals.
What Can You Do to Reduce Your Risk From Air Pollution?
While you may not have control over the air pollution in your neighborhood, you have some control over the air quality in your home. For a discussion of action steps to consider to reduce your health risks from indoor pollution see my previous article, “Reduce Indoor Air Pollution.”
Research26 shows improving air quality also benefits your mental health by reducing “psychological distress.”27 Many of the strategies discussed in my previous article are very cost-effective in the short run and may help significantly reduce your health care costs long-term.
Health coach Luke Coutinho stresses the importance of nutritional strategies to reduce the burden air pollution has on your health. While it continues to be important to avoid air pollution as much as possible and to lower the pollution levels in your home, also consider the following strategies to support detoxification:28
• Eat a diet rich in nutritious, whole foods — Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables helps you ingest a wide range of antioxidant nutrients, many of which help your body remove toxins and reduce the effects of inflammation. Foods high in antioxidants help you meet nutritional deficiencies triggered by air pollution. Since your body uses these antioxidants to protect itself from toxins, you need a diet high in antioxidants to avoid deficiencies.
Green vegetables have chlorophyll that help rid your body of environmental toxins and pesticides. At the same time it’s important to stay hydrated to help your body with elimination and to reduce or eliminate sugar, processed foods and alcohol.
• Bromelain — If you’re faced with congestion and upper respiratory symptoms from air pollution, consider taking bromelain or pineapple extract as it helps improve respiratory function. Bromelain is a nonenzymatic ingredient known for the ability to inhibit inflammation.
• Curry — Curcumin is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound present in turmeric used in curry. In one study,29 researchers measured respiratory function in nearly 2,500 older Chinese adults and found a diet rich in curry appeared to protect lung function in smokers.