According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the earth’s resources are being consumed at an unsustainable rate and air pollution is one of the biggest environmental health risks across the globe.
Beyond affecting the seas, wildlife and forests around the world, environmental factors take their toll on human health and wellness too. Here are some of the most common ways the environment affects your health and what you can do about them.
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According to the Environmental Protection Agency, air pollution can interfere with heart health, triggering heart attacks, stroke or an irregular heart rhythm. The risk is especially high if you already have existing heart problems or an increased risk for these conditions.
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To protect your health, keep tabs on air quality forecasts and plan indoor activities when pollution levels are higher. When walking or jogging outdoors, avoid industrial areas and busy roads. You can also reduce your overall risk of heart disease by engaging in regular exercise and adding heart-healthy foods to your diet.
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The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America suggests that air pollution is a trigger for asthmatics and can make symptoms worse. One of the most common air pollutants is ozone, which typically increases during the summer months. Another is airborne particles found in things like smoke and dust, which can also trigger hay fever.
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On hot, smoggy days, consider moving outside activities, or exercise, indoors. Listen to your body and do something less intense if you feel overexerted. For indoor air pollution, avoid using scented candles or fragrant scents, invest in a dehumidifier if you live in a humid area, and remove dust and dust mites by washing pillows and other things you never think to clean, but should.
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A common lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) causes the airways in your lungs to thicken and become inflamed. COPD is often a result of cigarette smoking, a habit that can also lead to cancer. However, long-term exposure to air pollution, fumes and dust are also significant risk factors for COPD. If you already suffer from the condition, air pollutants can worsen symptoms.
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Make your home smoke-free and avoid being exposed to secondhand smoke. Be aware of other indoor pollutants like mold, pet dander and wood-burning emissions, which can all cause respiratory problems and chronic lung diseases. Install carbon monoxide detectors, have your house tested for radon and keep an eye out for other home mistakes that could be making you sick.
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An alarming number of everyday products contain chemicals that can pose a threat to your health and cause long-term damage. According to the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (C-CHANGE), things like plastics and stain repellent coatings are made from molecules that don’t degrade, and once they’re in the environment or your body, they never leave. Those chemicals have been linked to everything from dangerous diseases and reproduction problems to a reduction of vaccine effectiveness in kids.
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While it’s next to impossible to avoid every chemical that poses a threat, the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California San Francisco offers some recommendations on how to reduce your risk. Look for non-toxic personal care products, use less plastics, buy home improvement products that don’t contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), avoid pesticides and herbicides, and clean with non-toxic products.
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If you’re one of the 50 million allergy sufferers in the U.S., you probably already know which hypoallergenic dog breeds won’t make you sneeze or which chain restaurants are allergy-friendly. What you may not know is that climate change might be part of the problem. Fewer frosts and warmer air temperatures can result in elevated production of airborne pollens, and extreme rainfall leads to an increase of indoor mold and fungus, which can worsen respiratory conditions and asthma.
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Allergy symptoms like sneezing, itching and running nose can be treated with decongestants and antihistamines, allergy shots and prescription allergy medications. You can also do your part by reducing energy use in your home, walking or riding a bike instead of driving and avoid burning firewood and trash, both sources of particle pollution.
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According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, as the earth’s temperature rises, wet regions of the world get wetter and dry regions like the Mediterranean and the U.S. Southwest get drier. Though droughts are a common natural event, they are a devastating disaster to the region and impact people’s safety and health. Economic losses caused by droughts can lead to anxiety or depression, and extreme heat can result in heatstroke and even loss of life.
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Drinking enough water is important to your health, but conserving it during a drought can help lessen the impact on the environment. Ways to scale back when water is in short supply include reducing watering of lawns and outdoor plants, checking for leaky faucets and toilets in your home, and using water-saving devices on showerheads.
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According to the EPA, in recent decades, unusually hot summer temperatures have increased in the U.S. with extreme heat events expected to become more intense and frequent in the future. Exposure can cause heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Hot temperatures also contribute to strokes, heart attacks and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
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During periods of excessive or prolonged heat, avoid strenuous activities, watch for symptoms of heat illness, drink water even if you’re not thirsty and check on neighbors and family members. If you don’t have access to air conditioning, find places in your community where you can cool down and keep your home cool by covering windows with shades or drapes.
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People often cite snowy, cold winters for a lack of global warming, when, in fact, it’s just the opposite. As the planet warms, more water is evaporated into the atmosphere, resulting in increased snowfall and more intense winter storms. Hundreds of thousands of accidents are caused by snow- and ice-covered roads each year and harsh winter weather can affect everything from your skin to cardiovascular health.
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When shoveling snow, take frequent breaks to avoid overstressing your heart. Don’t drink alcohol right before or after shoveling because it can mask the strain your body is under. If possible, avoid driving during inclement weather. If you need to go out, know the rules of the road. Make sure your tires are properly inflated, keep the gas tank half-full and don’t use cruise control on slippery surfaces.
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Crazy weather events and an increase in heavy precipitation across the U.S. have resulted in severe flooding in various regions of the country. Causing nearly 100 deaths each year, floods are the second-deadliest weather-related hazard after extreme heat. Even after water recedes, mold and other contaminants that remain can lead to indoor air quality issues and other health hazards.
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Know the flood risks in your area, never try to walk, drive or swim through floodwaters, and have a flood response plan in place before it happens. During clean up, wear gloves and boots, and never touch wet electrical equipment if you’re standing in water. To prevent mold growth, remove all wet items, use a bleach solution to clean all hard surfaces and make sure you’re giving the dirtiest places in your home a deep clean.
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Disease vectors are organisms like ticks and mosquitos that may carry pathogens, potentially transmitting them to people while they’re gardening or doing other outdoor activities. Climate change can affect where these vectors travel and as a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that they may shift to new regions in the coming years, spreading diseases like Lyme, dengue fever and West Nile virus, among others.
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Start by learning which specific vector-borne diseases are in your region in order to better protect yourself. When out hiking the trails or doing other outdoor activities, use insect repellents that contain DEET and wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.
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Recent years have given rise to disastrous wildfires and climate scientists have made a connection between the intensity of those fires and rising global temperatures. Releasing substantial amounts of volatile gases and pollutants into the air, wildfires can be harmful to the lungs, especially for older adults, children and people with conditions like heart disease, asthma and COPD.
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It’s always a good idea to check air quality reports, especially if you have any underlying conditions that might be impacted. Otherwise, during a wildfire, remain inside your home (unless you’re ordered to evacuate) and avoid breathing smoke or ash. Protect the air in your house by sealing off windows and doors, and setting air conditioners to “recirculate.” Keep car windows rolled up and vents closed if driving near or through smoky areas.
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According to C-CHANGE, rising carbon dioxide levels caused by humans can make crops like rice and wheat less nutritious by reducing levels of zinc and iron. Essential to human health, those nutrients are important for making hemoglobin and help to boost your immune system.
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You can improve your carbon footprint by eating less dairy and meat, as livestock is responsible for nearly 15% of man-made greenhouse emissions. Also, buying organic and local foods lessens the need for transportation and use of fossil fuels. Finally, if you’re able, compost food waste instead of putting it in the trash.
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While the U.S. has one of the safest public water drinking supplies in the world, contamination still occurs. Water can become contaminated by any number of things including chemicals like radon, and the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Ecosystems are hugely impacted, like some of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs, and people are too, resulting in everything from gastrointestinal problems to neurological disorders.
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The EPA is responsible for ensuring that U.S. public water supplies are safe. If you’re concerned about a public drinking water system, you can check the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), available for each state. If you have a well, the CDC recommends having it tested every spring for contaminants and making sure there are no mechanical problems.
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One of the biggest causes of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas. The pollutants they release into the air can lead to any number of significant health concerns including heart attack, respiratory illnesses and stroke. According to C-CHANGE, the pollutants released by fossil fuels may also be linked to Alzheimer’s disease and autism.
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Even though fossil fuels account for a majority of the world’s energy, there are still ways to cut back, helping to reduce the amount of pollutants in the air. Using energy-efficient appliances and vehicles can help, along with carpooling, using mass transit, biking or taking a walk outside instead of driving when possible.
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Fish is good for you, which is why so many people opt to take fish oil supplements. The American Heart Association recommends eating it at least twice a week with a hitch — avoid fish with high mercury contamination. Released through coal and gold mining, mercury permeates the environment, including the ocean, and can contaminate fish. In fact, research suggests that tuna may account for 90% of methylmercury intake in the U.S.
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Eat a variety of fish to help minimize possible effects of environmental pollutants. Avoid eating fish that are known to have levels of mercury including swordfish and king mackerel. Instead, swap them out for lower-mercury fish like shrimp, salmon and canned tuna, which, among other things, is one of the best foods for weight loss.
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