We humans have a deeply embedded survival instinct honed from millions of years of evolution. The three things we need to survive are: air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat, or as David Suzuki says, soil to grow our food.
For this post, let’s talk about air.
The constituents that make up our atmosphere are changing. What we breathed in when our lungs developed was much different from what is in the air today.[i]
Coal miners brought canaries into the mines to tell them when the air was too dangerous to breathe. If a canary died, they knew it was time to leave the mine.
There are more people suffering from respiratory distress today than at any other time in history, approximately 20 percent of the population, and the largest portion of these are children, elders, and people diagnosed with sensitive airways. 44 percent of all children hospitalized are due to respiratory distress.
They are the canaries in our coal mines, letting us know that the air we’re breathing is becoming hazardous to our health. The statistic for this is everywhere, even our National Parks, of which 85 percent have hazardous air. In Shanghai, one of the most polluted cities in the world, students who don’t use air filters show damage to their blood vessels in 48 hours. It doesn’t take long. What’s being measured is nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone.[ii]
In discussing global climate change, we focus on the effects of increased carbon in the atmosphere—polar ice caps melting, sea levels rising, weather systems getting out of control leading to forest fires and floods, heatwaves and blizzards. But we don’t stop to talk the effects on the air itself and mammalian breathing. What will it be like in 25 or 50 years if the air surrounding our planet does not have enough oxygen to support life. This is incredibly frightening.
I live on Vashon Island, in Puget Sound near Seattle. Last year wildfires brought so much smoke to our area, we couldn’t see ten feet in front of us. The sun above was bright red. I knew the fires were not on our island, but on a primordial level, my animal body was terrified,
For more than 35 years, I have guided people with health challenges and those interested in breath as a doorway to personal and spiritual growth to restore healthy breathing rhythms, structural alignment, and coordinated, coherent movement, incorporating Continuum Movement, Buteyko breathing, Duggan-French Approach to Somatic Patterning Recognition, respiratory physiology, neuroanatomy, and cellular biology into my work.
When breath moves unrestricted within the body, breath and body become coherent and we live in a natural state of harmony, making choices that enhance health and provide energy to all aspects of our being.
Recently a prominent real estate agent on Vashon Island announced she was moving to the Olympic Peninsula because the air here is so unhealthy. I began to track air quality on Vashon and worldwide daily, and she was right. On most days, the air on Vashon Island is unhealthy. It’s a worldwide epidemic. People in Delhi have started wearing mini filters in their nostrils.
Particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less (PM10) are inhalable into the lungs and can induce adverse health effects. (For reference: a single human hair is 50-70 microns in diameter.) PM 2.5 causes inflammation in the vessels and increased blood pressure.
Diseases due to air pollution of particle level PM2.5 (Particulate Matter of 2.5 microns or less).
14% Lung Cancer
14% Asthma, Bronchitis and Emphysema
72% Heart Attack and Stroke
(In addition, microplastics, tiny plastic fragments less than five millimeters in length, are in the air and the oceans. The air about the Pyrenees is filled with microplastics. The newest beach in the world, on the Island of Hawaii, formed by nature last year following the eruption of Kilauea Volcano, is filled with microplastics. We haven’t even begun to calculate the damage this is causing us.)
Air pollution is the fifth leading cause of premature death. Nine out of ten of the world’s population live in places where air pollution exceeds safe limits. In 2015 long-term exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 4.2 million deaths and a loss of 103 million years of healthy life worldwide.
I offered a presentation to the residents of Vashon coordinated by the fire department and chamber of commerce, on the effects and prevention of inhaled wildfire smoke.
Understanding the science of respiration can help.
The most important filter built into our biology is our nose. Nose breathing minimizes the risks of taking in unfiltered, polluted air. The nose filters particulates larger than 0.5 microns. Smoke, unfortunately, is 0.3 micron and can damage the respiratory tract, which is why we need filtration using a mask or an air purifier.
Even though the nose can’t filter smoke, it’s still important to use the nose for breathing at all times to filter the larger particles that might go into the lungs if allowed in through the mouth. We can give ourselves the best chance of staying healthy via meaningful breathing information.
References: [i] Hazardous air is labeled that way when the Particulate Matter 2.5 rises above 35.3 parts per million. 2.5 stands for 2.5 micrometers in dimension or 3% the diameter of a human hair. or 2.5 microns. They are so small that they can only be measured with an electron microscope. That’s is powerful magnification. This size particle is considered dangerous to the lungs, heart and blood vessels when inhaled. Long term exposure can destroy the air sacs of the lungs. It causes inflammation in the heart and blood vessels. It will causing hardening of the arteries and plaque build-up. A 24 hour of a concentration of 35.5 parts per million is enough to cause damage. Cities like Delhi in Indian live with that concentration every day. Of the 3.5 million premature deaths a year worldwide due to air pollution, 14% die from cancer, 14% from respiration disease and 72% from heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure. What about all those other deaths that have misdiagnosed causes because the doctors were not thinking air pollution. [ii] Below are some of the long-term risks associated with fine particles: *
In a large prospective cohort study of adults without pre-existing cardiovascular disease, individuals with higher exposure to fine particles (measured by PM2.5 readings) experience a faster rate of thickening of the arteries compared to others living within the same city (3). This implies that higher long-term PM2.5 exposures could promote the development of vascular disease.
Long-term exposure to fine particles increases the risk of death by cardiovascular disease and reduces life expectancy by several months to a few years (4).
Living in real-world levels of PM2.5 for 10 weeks promotes liver fibrosis, also known as liver scarring, and increases the risk of metabolic disease and liver dysfunction, as suggested by this animal study.
Long-term exposure to PM2.5 pollutants may induce insulin resistance, inflammation and contribute to the development of diabetes (5, 6). A US epidemiologic study found that for every 10 μg/m3 increase of PM2.5, there could be a resulting increase of about 10,000 diagnosed cases of diabetes, or 1% increase in diabetes prevalence (7). Interestingly, an increase in diabetes risk exists even among areas that are below the US authority’s legal limits for PM2.5 (15 μg/m3). Populations living in areas that are near, but still below, the limits show a more than 20% higher diabetes prevalence compared with those in cleaner areas, an association that persisted after controlling for diabetes risk factors.
A study comparing the respiratory health of common residents and traffic policemen, who are exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 due to their duties, found that the latter are more likely to suffer from respiratory symptoms and impaired pulmonary function (8). Other studies also linked increased chronic exposures to PM2.5 to population sinusitis in adults (9) and respiratory illness in infants (10).
Exposure to polluted air by expecting mothers has also been associated with spontaneous abortion, under-weight infants, birth defects and infant death (11).
A US study published in 2015 found that exposure to air pollution can make the brain age faster. Researchers found that for every 3.49 ug/cm3 increase in cumulative exposure to PM2.5, there is a 6.23 cm3 decrease in white matter. This is equivalent to about 1 ‐ 2 years of brain aging.