Air pollution does more than obscure a landscape with brown haze. Poor air quality can be found in workplaces and homes as well as outside. Since numerous studies have shown that polluted air has severe adverse effects on humans, taking precautions and reducing toxins in the atmosphere have become vitally important.
Through the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is charged with monitoring air quality in the United States. According to the agency's website, EPA sets up standards to protect public health, especially for people with respiratory illnesses, children and older adults. The agency also looks out for ecosystems, including plants and animals that may be harmed by polluted air. Through its AirNow pages, EPA publishes forecasts about high pollution levels around the country so that citizens can monitor air quality and take precautions.
Another government branch, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, confirms the dangers of air pollution. ATSDR cautions that increased air pollution has been linked to declines in lung function and to increases of heart attacks and asthma attacks.
EPA monitors six common air pollutants: carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), lead (Pb), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter (PM) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). In sufficient concentrations in the air, these pollutants can cause burning of the eyes, nose, mouth and throat as well as breathing problems.
Fortunately air pollution has declined in many urban areas over the past 20 years, according to the EPA. However, there are still too many cities with poor air quality, the agency says in its Air Quality Index report. People who live in cities with excess air pollution sometimes are alerted to "ozone action days," or periods when the combination of heat and air pollution can make breathing difficult for vulnerable populations. To limit adverse effects on these days, residents are encouraged to car pool, take public transportation, combine errands into single trips and take other precautions to limit the amount of harmful ozone added to the toxins in the air. Children, the elderly and those suffering from chronic diseases are urged to stay in air-conditioned buildings away from the heat and pollution.
In addition to the effects of outdoor air pollution, indoor air quality can adversely affect people's health, reports Berkeley Lab, another government agency that monitors indoor air quality. Through its studies, Berkeley Lab has found that two factors of indoor air quality vastly affect human health and performance: sufficient ventilation and removal of indoor pollutants.
Berkeley summarized the importance of good ventilation – a supply of fresh outdoor air in buildings: " … increased ventilation rates are, on average, associated, with fewer adverse health effects and with superior work and school performance. There is also some limited evidence that occupants of buildings with higher ventilation rates have lower rates of absence from work or school."
The lab also found that monitoring indoor environments for pollutants improved air quality. For example, in one study a section of 20-year-old carpet, described as "well used," was removed from a building and examined. The carpet emitted a type of indoor pollutant known as VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. Once the carpet was replaced, the study showed that workplace productivity increased by four percent, and continued to improve when the ventilation rate also was increased.
The Berkeley reports show that indoor air pollution may not harm breathing as obviously as outdoor pollution, but it apparently has a significant effect on human concentration and performance. Combined with the EPA reports, it's clear that when the air humans breathe carries pollution, both individuals and all of society suffer the ill effects.