Air pollution journey through your body
Let us get personal. I live in Beijing for the simple reason that I love it. Let’s just say there’s something in the air - something addictive, like nicotine… It also turns out there is something else in the air that isn’t so addictive. On clear days, Beijing is truly magical, on polluted days, we make do. It is the latter more often than it is the former, which is why I became interested in the exact effect this had on my health.
Not unlike London or other larger cities, Beijing’s air pollution is not always visible or otherwise easily detectable through our human senses alone, although apps and gadgets now allow us to bypass this sensory inaccuracy.
So, despite my love for Beijing, I wanted to know how air pollution journey through the human body. My main take-aways from the research were this:
1. If you have a weak stomach or are prone to anxiety, don’t research how pollution travels through the human body. Pollution can go everywhere!
2. Don’t say you haven’t been warned, this is what happens when you breathe in that contaminated air, every time, with every breath you take:
It affects your Respiratory System
You may feel the urge to cough and get a weirdly irritated throat. You may experience chest tightness, a wheezing lung when you breathe and a shortness of breath. In children, growing up in a polluted environment may permanently harm lung development and lead to lifelong asthma. You may also wonder where all the phlegm comes from. No, you’re not coming down with a cold. All that phlegm is part of the dirt that you draw into your lungs with every breath you take.
After all, there is a reason for the noisy excretion of stuff from throat and nasal cavities that native Beijingers tend to engage in. The phlegm is just part of the dirt, you ask? Yes, the rest of it continues to travel through your inner organs; I will go into detail about that below.
It affects your Lungs
After the polluted air passed through your nose or mouth, it continues to your lungs. There, it will immediately get to work by actively increasing the risk of developing lung cancer. The most prominent cause of this are diesel exhaust fumes, although any kind of pollution will contribute to varying degrees. Also, the polluted air is now part of your blood stream.
Beijing on a clear day
Beijing on a polluted day
It affects your Heart
Which of our organs is essential for blood circulation? Correct, it’s the heart! As your blood is nicely infused with pollution at this point, the heart also gets its fair share of unpleasant side effects. Especially in a high-pollution environment, all that toxic material especially the very fine particulate matter that doesn’t get filtered out through your nose hairs or gets stuck in your throat continues to travel through your system and eventually into the blood stream. There, it can increase the likelihood of heart problems such as heart attacks, coronary artery disease or a stroke. The latter two, according to the WHO, are responsible for around 80% of deaths caused by air pollution.
It affects your Brain
Finally, after journeying through most of your body’s essential organs and wreaking havoc on the way, the pollution reaches the center of your conscious existence: your brain. But after the pollution has passed through so many stations of the body, it can’t be all that bad anymore at this point, right? Wrong! As research from Lancaster University has shown, magnetic crystals associated with vehicle pollution can reach the brain and lead to tissue breakdown, which is commonly associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
So, what now?
Assuming you’re still reading instead of frantically booking flights to the Swiss Alps, you’re now probably asking yourself: what can I do about it? Fortunately, there are ways to at least minimize your exposure to pollution. Obviously, staying away from obvious sources of pollution, such as busy roads and heavy industry as much as possible will help. Remember even in a vehicle you are not protected from air pollution unless your car ventilation system uses certified filters.
Sometimes avoiding air pollution is not possible. In this situation, the best way to protect ourselves from pollution in the outdoors is by using a pollution mask that is designed to filter out particles right down to the fine particular matter that penetrates most of our natural protective layers. We also recommend choosing a mask which offers protection against bacteria and viruses, as exposure to air pollution increases the risk of contracting flu or other cold like diseases. You can find these here!