Breathing in a Polluted World: Protecting the Respiratory System
The global pollution crisis mandates that people, particularly workers, should take responsibility for mitigating the harmful impact of air pollution on their bodies, especially the respiratory system.
- By Divesh Kumar
- Nov 13, 2023
Humans invented the wheel and forever changed how they saw inventions, and then they invented the engine and forever changed how humanity saw health. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution sowed the seeds of many problems grappling humanity for ages to come. One of the major outcomes of the post-industrialized world is the menace of air pollution. Air pollution is undeniably a major health concern as it affects nine out of 10 individuals living in urban areas across the globe.
A study by WHO reveals that, though more than 6,000 leading cities of the world have a monitoring mechanism of air quality, people living in them still inhale large amounts of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. People and workers living in low and middle-income countries suffer the most.
The scope of a global pollution crisis mandates that people, particularly workers themselves, should take responsibility for mitigating the harmful impact of air pollution on their bodies. This is especially true for the respiratory system, as it is the most vulnerable part of the body that is exposed to pollution.
The Impact of Pollution on the Worker's Respiratory System
Reduced Lung Function
Research has shown a considerable decline in static lung volume and diffusion capacity in workers due to prolonged exposure to fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. Workers in harsh conditions and others with long-term exposure to air pollutants have been shown to exacerbate the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which results in irreversible airflow limitation. On a side note, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Reduced lung function often goes unnoticed for a long time and hinders the functional productivity of workers.
Recurring respiratory infections are a common and major aftereffect of exposure to pollutants. Some workers already contend with an over-polluted environment where the level of indoor air pollution—particularly PM2.5 and PM10—is quite high. It all starts with the irritation and inflammation of lung airways, cough and increased mucus production; it takes longer to recover and heal fully. In some cases, recurring infections become a lifelong phenomenon.
Risk of Lung Cancer
Air pollution has been declared a high-intensity group 1 carcinogen by WHO. After inhaling the polluted air—which is full of PM2.5 particulate matter—one develops inflammation in the lung pathways and damage to the cell lining. Long-term inflammation changes how cells function and replicate and sometimes results in the malignant growth of the cells, leading to cancer.
In elderly workers, air pollution is the chief contributor to the onset of cardiovascular disease. Prolonged exposure to fine particulate matter for a few weeks has been known to trigger heart attack and death. Workers already suffering from heart disease are even worse as they experience chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, fatigue and lightheadedness when contracting air pollutants.
Some workers operate in a space often home to industrial pollutants like lead and mercury. When combined with the already devastating effects of outside air pollution, these pollutants can deliver a major blow to the worker’s psychological and neurological well-being. Exposure to industrial pollutants can result in reduced cognitive function, mood changes and neurological disorders.
How to Guard Against the Effects of a Polluted World
The impact of air pollution is now here to stay until governments worldwide find a sustainable solution to the menace of air pollution. Workers should take responsibility on their own and adopt preventive and mitigative measures. Here are some measures workers can take to protect their respiratory health.
Developing a keen eye and foresight about the latest studies on air pollution and data from various sources will pave the way for enhanced vigilance and good adoptive measures. One needs to critically examine how one's body responds to exposure to severe pollutants and then adopt personalized ways to cope with the problem. A well-informed citizenry will supplement the efforts of government and non-governmental organizations in tackling the ill effects of pollution. Spreading the word will help make the fight against pollution a mass movement and result in society adopting novel and unique ways of mitigating the effects.
Limiting Outdoor Activity on Certain Days
When workers are aware, they will know the days of the year when the pollution levels are alarmingly high, and workers can refrain from going outside at that time of the day or year. A continuous habit of keeping track of pollutant levels daily will grow into a habit of staying indoors when conditions outside are severe. This way, workers will save themselves from exposure to potentially harmful gasses and particulate matter.
Use Air Purifiers
Though outdoor air pollution is often the focus, household and indoor pollution levels generally go unnoticed. Indoor activities like dusting and cooking can also increase the amount of particulate matter inside the houses. Using air purifiers would make a good choice as it would remove particulate matter back to safe levels. Air purifiers also come in handy in removing volatile organic compounds, bacteria, viruses, mold and various other unpleasant compounds. The use of air purifiers in the industrial setting is a part of the enhanced occupational safety measures for workers. It will often leave a person with air free from pollutants and an otherwise pungent smell of industrial ambiance.
A properly ventilated structure solves half the problems posed by air pollution. Strategic vents inside buildings or homes do not obstruct the free air flow and remove static pollutants. Vents and windows should be latched off to let the particulate matter and harmful gasses flow easily. Though the incoming air is also not free from pollutants, the circulation of the air has been proven to keep the pollutant level generally low. A well-ventilated industrial setting will keep the indoor space of the factory less polluted, much to the advantage of workers already bearing the brunt of pollutants.
Use of Masks for Workers Safety and Health
Medical device clinical trials conducted by various contract research organizations (CROs) on the usage of masks and exposure to harmful air pollutants show positive results, as wearing a good-quality mask reduces exposure to significantly lower levels. CROs in the sanitization and mask industry trials have often come with results that negatively relate to the use of masks and high exposure to harmful pollutants. So, using a mask in a high-exposure area is workers' best bet to guard against the harmful effects of pollution on health.
This is the most significant factor a worker can choose to limit exposure to pollutants, no matter where they live in the world. Smoking continuously exposes our lungs to over 400 toxins, mostly carcinogens. Smoking makes things far worse in an already highly polluted environment. Even if workers don't smoke, exposure to secondhand smoke can still make them vulnerable to the harmful pollutants of tobacco smoke. So, it’s better to guard against smoking and secondhand smoke regardless of one’s circumstances.
Since we already live in a highly polluted world, it becomes pertinent to have regular check-ups and readings of vital signs as they can show even a faint deviation from the normal. Then workers can take corrective measures. Generally, high levels of pollutants in the body often obstruct the normal working flow of a healthy body, which can be reflected in the reading of vital signs.
A worker already works in a highly pollutant-infested setting, and further exposure to the pollution outside puts him in the most disadvantageous position of all the groups. Employers should implement unique and effective occupational health and safety measures for the overall well-being of workers. Various studies published in journals of respiratory health have linked air pollution not only to many respiratory diseases but also to the worsening of the general health of the lungs in otherwise healthy individuals. So, it is better to be informed and aware to better guard against the menace of air pollution in the environment.