With each breath, our lungs bring healthy oxygen in to replenish our cells; while at the same time, ridding our bodies of air pollutants. In many places around the world, our current air quality is poor due to automobiles, green house gases, and other various pollutants which we encounter every day. Air pollution causes direct harm to lung tissues. It can make your eyes water, irritate your nose and mouth, and cause you to cough or wheeze. If continued exposure to pollutants are left untreated, your minor irritation can lead to major health problems, such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and even death.
Everyone Needs Good Lungs!
Breathing feeds every cell within the body. If the cells are not receiving enough oxygen, catastrophic events can arise such as respiratory illness, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and even heart disease. The air that comes into the body is moved through the bloodstream and carried throughout. The cells exchange the oxygen for carbon dioxide waste, and then the lungs remove this waste from the body. The process of “gas exchange” happens automatically, and lungs play a vital role in this exchange. The lungs are responsible for bringing air to proper breathing temperature, moisturizing the air to the correct humidity, and protecting the body from harmful air pollutants.
Lungs are made up of lobes, two on the left and three on the right. Each of the bronchial tubes is lined with small hairs called cilia, which hold mucus and are responsible for catching irritants. When dust, germs, or other unwanted matter reaches these cilia, your body causes you to cough, sneeze or clear your throat in order to rid the body of the unwanted particles. Without healthy lungs, this process would not be efficient. Harmful particles would remain in the lungs, making them less effective in the gas exchange process. Healthy lungs are crucial to your survival! When damage occurs, it can cause a lot of issues with other organs and significantly decrease your overall quality of life.
Protecting Lungs From Pollutants
The importance of lung health is clear, so how do we protect our lungs on a daily basis to ensure that our two very prized organs are staying in tip-top shape.
The first step to lung health is avoiding irritants that could potentially harm them. Keeping air pollutants out of your home is the first line of defense. According to the American Lung Association, there are some important steps to do within your own home:
- Make sure no one smokes indoors
- Keep rain, groundwater, and humid air outside
- Protect against radon, a leading cause of lung cancer
- Make sure anything that burns gas is vented to the outdoors
During constructions and remodeling, avoid products that add or keep pollution indoors, and most importantly leave old lead paint and asbestos alone if possible. If these substances must be removed, consult experienced professionals for help.
Protection from unhealthy air continues while we are outdoors as well as in our own homes. In April of 2014, the American Lung Association released the “State of the Air 2014” report.
This report showed that more than “147 million live in counties in the U.S. where ozone or particle pollution levels make the air unhealthy to breathe.” Cities such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago have more high ozone days on average (when compared to the 2013 report), with Los Angeles being the metropolitan area with the worst ozone pollution.
The overwhelming results from the State of the Air 2014 report explain the need to protect ourselves and our families from unhealthy air. Here are some effective and easy steps to take:
- Check daily air quality levels and air pollution forecasts in your area.
- Use less energy in your home to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high.
- Encourage your child’s school to reduce school bus emissions
- Walk, bike, or carpool to work. Using commuter trains and subways can also help to reduce emissions.
- Fill up your gas tank after dark. This eliminates the emissions from evaporating and turning into ozone and air pollution while you are filling up.
- Don’t burn wood or trash. This is one of the highest forms of particle pollution (soot) in many parts of the country. If using a wood stove or fireplace for heating your home, look into converting to natural gas to produce less emission.
- Electric or hand-powered lawn equipment can help reduce the emissions from two-stroke engines of leaf blowers and lawnmowers. This equipment can produce even more harmful emissions than automobiles; so limit the usage if you can.
- Avoid cigarette smoke and do not allow anyone to smoke indoors. More cities than ever ban indoor smoking, but not all. Join the fight to eliminate smoking from public places.
Avoid irritants whenever possible. The worst types of irritants in the air that can trigger asthma symptoms or contribute to lung diseases are cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, strong perfumes, cleaning products, paint/varnish, dust, pollen, and pet dander. Extreme weather conditions can also trigger irritation to the lungs.
These actions will help to eliminate your exposure to unhealthy air pollutants, but the fight is far from over to reduce the damage done by greenhouse gases and air pollutant exposure during our daily lives.
Occupations Most At Risk
Nearly 23,000 workers developed job-related lung disease in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Many jobs can increase the risk of air pollution exposure, but lung disease due to occupational hazard is mostly preventable. The most common type of occupational lung disease is asthma, contributing to 15-23 percent of all new adult cases. Knowing the effects of these pollutants and protecting yourself against them is a great strategy for lung health.
Construction is a high-risk occupation; both for hazardous conditions and air pollutant exposure. Building renovations can expose workers to asbestos, old lead-based paint, and dangerous mold. General construction activities can kick up sawdust that can be highly irritating to the lungs. Wearing protective masks, or a respirator, will help to avoid large amounts of lung irritants from entering your system.
Factory Workers are also among the top employees at risk for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Exposure to dust, toxic chemicals, and gases including diacetyl can cause devastating diseases. Diacetyl is found in food plants and used as a flavoring agent in microwave popcorn, wines, and fast food. Take necessary safety precautions when coming in contact with such chemicals. Following procedure for safety gear and being knowledgeable about exposure at work is key.
Another type of industry that can be detrimental to your lung health is textile manufacturing. Byssinosis is a common disease for employees that work with upholstery, towels, socks, bed linens, and clothes. Particles released from the materials create huge amounts of dust. Proper ventilation in factories and wearing the appropriate safety masks can decrease exposure and risk.
Bartending and waitressing might put you at high risk for second-hand smoke exposure if the establishment has not yet banned indoor smoking. Regular exposure can lead to developing asthma, and can contribute to lung cancer. Proper ventilation in bars that have indoor smoking may improve conditions. However, the best way to avoid this type of exposure is to get behind local legislation in banning indoor smoking throughout your town or city.
Another category having many high-risk jobs is the automotive industry. Specifically, auto-body repair can lead to exposure of air pollutants. Spray-on paint such as isocyanant and polyurethane products can not only irritate skin, but it can also create major lung issues such as chest tightness and breathing trouble. Gloves, goggles, and respirators should be used at all times when handling these chemicals. Ventilation is necessary to help reduce risks involved.
Other high-risk occupations include jobs within the mining, transportation, and firefighting sectors, from exposure to airborne chemicals. Dust exposure and airborne silica (quartz) can lead to silicosis which scars the lungs and affects miners, while emissions and exhaust can harm transportation and road construction crew lungs. Firefighters are at risk for smoke inhalation and other harmful chemicals that may be caused by the burning of a building.
In all of these occupations, always wear the recommended safety equipment, masks, and respirators to reduce the amount of irritants affecting lung tissue. Follow safety protocol and know the potential dangers associated with your employment.
Checking the Health of Your Lungs
Due to the sometimes-unavoidable nature of air pollution, you should get in tune with your lung health. This doesn’t always require a trip to the doctor. Plenty of ways are available to easily test lung health. Using these methods will help you look for signs of dysfunction. There are even apps that you can use now to measure your lung health!
- Look for strained breathing such as the overuse of a neck muscle or labored inhalation. Obvious signs are purple or blue lips/fingernails or audibly stressed breathing.
- Feel the ribcage during a breath. Your hands should move the same amount during an inhalation. If your hands move at different rates, this might indicate fluid or air in the space between chest wall and lungs.
- Tap on the chest wall to listen for anything that may be behind chest wall. Similar to finding a stud in a wall, the chest cavity will sound either hollow for where there is air, and a deadening sound where there is something behind the chest wall. The abnormal area could indicate fluid associated with inflammation.
These tips make for a good way to test family members and yourself on a regular basis. Here’s another test for you: Try walking a few flights of stairs to see how you feel afterwards. Are you strained after a few steps, or do you feel like you could do some more? Finding your comfort level is a good indication to where you are now, and potential for improvement. Working up to more and more physical exercise will strengthen lung health. Be mindful of your breathing during activity and if you feel abnormalities, it may be time to consult a doctor for help.
Strengthening Your Lungs
Ordinary, everyday breathing isn’t enough to keep oxygen flowing through the body at peak levels according to Rush University Medical Center experts. “Lungs at rest and during most daily activity are only 50 percent of their capacity,” says Jennifer M. Ryan, PT, MS, DPT, CCS, a certified specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy. Getting at least 20 minutes of consistent, moderately intense movement daily can help to “counteract the build-up of toxins and tar in the lungs caused by environmental pollutants, allergens, dust, and cigarette smoke.” This exercise and function allows the lungs to cleanse themselves. Performing breathing exercises can also strengthen lung muscles and increase overall health.
Diaphragmatic breathing – focusing on your diaphragm and lowering it as you breath in, will help you get a deeper breath and increase lung capacity.
Deep breathing – slow inhalations and consciously expanding your belly will expand your ribs and help take advantage of your lungs’ full capacity. Allow your upper chest to open and lift. After this full inhalation, exhale as completely as possible and expel every last bit of air. Many yoga practices teach this technique to promote lung health.
Counting on your breath – increase the length of your inhalations by counting how long each of your natural breaths take. You should have equal inhale and exhale lengths (for example; three seconds in, three second out). Once you’ve determined the count of your average breath, try to increase each inhale and exhale by one more count. This method can increase lung capacity and tone muscle strength. Avoid straining or being uncomfortable. This exercise should be gradual and not cause any pain.
Posture – making room for your lungs and breath is another concept to consider. Sitting back and stretching to increase your shoulder posture and chest capacity are good ways to fix poor posture.
Reduce stress – stress can lead to shallow breathing and bad posture overall. Be mindful of your emotional state. Stop periodically throughout the day to take meaningful, mindful breaths and reconnect with your body.
These breathing activities, coupled with daily regular exercise, will build strength in your lungs. Increasing lung capacity promotes overall wellness by increasing blood flow and cell oxygenation. Practicing these techniques can also reduce the risk of life threatening and dangerous lung conditions.
What Your Doctor Can Do
Seek professional help from your physician if you’re feeling short of breath or experiencing other pain in the chest or lungs. Chronic coughing or prolonged sickness usually means it’s time to see a doctor. It’s best to get checked out before any condition affecting the lungs worsens. Sometimes our lungs need help from medications in order to rid the body of irritants, infection, or to open up airways. A chest X-ray is often done in an effort to visualize the problem.
Doctors can perform lung function tests (or pulmonary function tests) to measure how well your lungs work and to look for causes of breathing problems. They measure the following:
- Body Plethysmography – How much air you take into your lungs compared against a normal range for your age, height and sex.
- Spirometry – How much air you can blow out of your lungs and how fast you can do it.
- Lung Diffusion Capacity – How well your lungs deliver oxygen to your blood.
- Strength of your breathing muscles
If these tests do not show what is causing your breathing problems, the doctor might also perform an exercise stress test to measure how well your lungs and heart are working during exercise.