I spent the week at the fabulous Hay festival this month, where brilliant authors of all nationalities and interests come to present their ideas and their findings to an audience of over 250,000 people over the course of the week. Fascinating and boundary breaking, it’s a high point of my year.
This year’s focus was hands down the environment: plastics, air pollution and global warming. I hadn’t known what I didn’t know. The facts are truly ‘stop you in your tracks’ - or would be if enough people heard the facts.
Ever since the Extinction Rebellion protestors flooded the streets of London last month and since I listened to every one of Greta Thunberg’s remarkable speeches, I have become gripped by the air pollution issue. I went to seven different lectures on the topic and listened as scientist after scientist presented the hard facts on the minuscule and invisible particulates we all ingest on a daily basis (have a read of this post and this post). Read Tim Smedley’s fact-filled book ‘Clearing the Air’; his research is thorough though the statistics make depressive reading. Globally there are, according to the World Health Organisation, around 4.2 m air pollution deaths each year and statistics state that nine out of ten of us breathe polluted air.
So what’s in our air?
Most harm is caused by:
PM 2.5 particulates - from car engines, vehicle exhaust, coal and wood smoke. Road dust, nitrates, sulphites and salts are carried by the wind, whether you live in the city or the countryside, breathed in through your nose and mouth. 62% of these come from road traffic emissions and are invisible.
The number after the letters PM refers to the specific size of a particulate; so PM 2.5 is 2.5 micrometers or below and invisible to the eye, whereas PM 10 , for example, is a larger and visible particulate of 10 micrometers and below.
NO2 or nitrogen dioxide - is a gas; mainly inhaled from traffic fumes, which causes inflammation in your lungs, as well as increased oxidative stress.
Ozone - There is good ozone and there is bad ozone, and the ozone found in city pollution and smog (and in the countryside too) is definitely the latter. It’s created when VOCs and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) combine and chemically react and is usually triggered by a combination of traffic fumes and sunshine - which is why pollution levels soar during the summer months.
Nano particles - Any particle less than 100 nm in size. The total number you inhale of these invisible particulates is what affects your health. They accumulate over time and are harmful to your body.
Volatile organic compounds or VOCs - Traffic fumes, vehicle exhausts and industrial factories are major sources and these are also found in paints, aerosols and air fresheners.
Sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide - lesser but still dangerous pollutants breathed in from traffic fumes.
How do you get rid of air pollutants?
Well, quite simply no one really knows the answer to this one. Although they don’t really say it out loud (presumably in case it causes major panic) - I believe the answer is you don’t.
I stopped several of the lecturers to ask that question, and it was clear that none of them had a clue. They mumbled stuff about how the body naturally excretes them - but I can assure you that they are incorrect - it doesn’t. You may unload certain toxins via your urine or your sweat, but toxic metals for instance (and air pollution particulates are full of them) simply build up in your body over time and sit there, creating health issues as their numbers grow.
It was definitely an elephant in the room - a giant and enormous question mark that everyone skirted delicately around. I waved my hand repeatedly in the questions parts of the sessions, but I was never chosen, and no one else asked what to me seems so fundamental a question. So there may be an official answer but I didn’t get it.
What can you do to clean up the air you breathe?
So, how do you protect your lungs, and those of your nearest and dearest, from being overwhelmed by the toxins and pollutants that now crowd the air that we breathe? I Googled when I got home. I know what I personally would do to reduce my pollution burden, and hoped I would find additional information out there that I could add to my toolbox - and share with you all in this article. But there wasn’t any; nothing at all - no obvious solution for this increasingly major global issue.
June 20th is Clean Air Day, and this article goes live today too, so here are the few things I think you can do to help yourselves and your friends and families overcome one of the most important issues facing all of us today.
With health, for me there is only one sensible way to approach any issue (as you will know if you have read my book ‘Reboot Your Health’). The same simple steps to deal with anything.
First, find your baseline; how bad is your problem in relation to normal?
Second, take steps to reduce it.
Third, then re-test again, because otherwise how do you know if whatever you are doing is working?
Alter your approach depending on any changes - whether better or worse.
Keep repeating the process.
The same applies to air pollution. Without tests to establish your current ‘air baseline’ how will you know whether the air that you are breathing is good or bad? And when you have taken action if it is much improved, or still terrible?
I cannot personally improve the air of the entire world, so let me start smaller. It is far easier to clean up a manageable amount of air, the air that you come across on a day to day basis, and ensure it is fit for purpose. That way you reduce your intake of particulates.
First, analyse the levels of pollution around you: identify how bad the problem is - for your life and habits specifically
Invest in an air monitor
This is a website that reports the overall pollution levels of any country, city or town anywhere in the world in real-time. They have an air quality app for your mobile phone, and their AirVisual Pro Monitor will give you both indoor and outdoor readings. They call it ‘The world’s smartest air quality monitor’.
Quite simply, adjust your habits according to those readings - on good days go out; on bad days stay home (as long as you’ve sorted the air there that is!).
I love this small funky white machine. Ice white and as cool as its design, it is seemingly accurate and I can’t quite work out how I got by without it in my life in the days before I found it.
Most of us spend the majority of our time sitting inside, either at work or at home. 90% of our time according to the statistics. Did you know that neither are the safe space you may have imagined them to be? A shelter from the polluted world outside? Think again. The air inside can be 2 to 5 times as toxic as the air outside, however polluted that air may be. And did you know that different rooms inside your house or workplace contain very different levels of particulates?
The uHoo works it all out for you, sitting unobtrusively and rather stylishly on your sideboard or your kitchen cabinet. It is connected via an app to your phone, and lets you track the air pollution levels in every room. It gives you each days temperature, the VOC readings, PM 2.5 levels; it reports faithfully on the humidity and the air pressure, the ozone, the Co2 and the NO2 levels. Green is good; yellow less than optimal, and red you really need to make some changes.
Did you know that those lovely smelling scented candles give off pollutants that turn the scale immediately red? Or that the same thing happens once you start cooking? It sends you the odd brief message when air flow levels change or humidity is too high, friendly, not irritating as I had feared.
And when you have taken action, in whatever form, you can check again, and see in seconds if what you have done has made a difference and got you back to green. Do you need one pot plant to clean up the air in your kitchen? What happens with two? And can you get a perfect score with three? It’s a fun way to deal with serious stuff.
This is your portable air monitor essential. Small enough to tie onto your bag or clip to a pocket, it goes wherever you go - inside, outside, to the supermarket or a restaurant, and tracks exactly what you are exposing yourself to. Its readings may give you quite a shock. Travel in the lower levels of the Underground and it shoots off the scale. Sit in a traffic jam and you realise you are sitting in a toxic fug, inhaling sky high numbers of pollutants. Walk near a main road and the readings shoot off the scale. And you are no safer in the country than the town - that one came as quite a shock to my pre-conceived healthy country air ideas. Traffic anywhere turns The Flow orange or red - and inside your car just as much as outside in the street.
But it’s good to know what levels of pollution your daily habits expose you to; it helps you work out what you can do to change them. Even walking a few feet away from the edge of the pavement seems to calm the strength of the emissions. Take a back route and they cut themselves in half.
Secondly, take steps to reduce your intake of pollution
I have written in depth before about what you can do to reduce your exposure to air pollutants - the plants, the air filters, the HEPA vacuums and simply opening your windows wide in times of low external air pollution. All these are essential steps in the attempt to reduce your daily intake load.
BUT - I recently found two new machines to sort out the traffic fumes for you. Genius.
On your bike
The R-pur is THE solution for those of us who live for and love our bikes. A Mad Max looking accessory, jet black in colour and cool as cool it kicks those feeble white anti-pollution face masks way off into the long grass. And from a practical point of view it removes 99.98% of even the finest of particulates. One day perhaps it will be as ubiquitous to our daily wardrobe as blue jeans or a t-shirt: in the days rapidly coming when protecting our lungs is seen as a necessity not a part time luxury. When the clean air issue gets taken as seriously as it should be.
In your car
Did you know that the pollution levels inside your car as you drive to work each morning, or drop your children off to school are 15 times higher than even the most polluted streets in London. And that pollution inside your car when you are moving slowly in heavy traffic is 40% higher than when you are in fast moving traffic? Worse still, pollution inside cars at a standstill is as much as another 40 percent higher than when that traffic is moving. I know that because my Flow told me! Sitting in a car for hours each day can expose you to higher levels of pollution than walking by a busy main road. You are effectively sitting in a dirty tunnel being force fed the fumes from the cars in front of you.
It’s taken environmentally aware school children to bring the topic to public attention, and force out of touch parents to switch off their idling engines at the school gates. The Times newspapers Clean Air Act initiative, alongside efforts of the Extinction Rebellion campaigners and the dawning realisation of the likely loss of their constituents votes has stirred our previously lethargic politicians into finally taking action, passing edicts, closing roads and reducing emissions at school drop off and pick up times for starters.
But don’t wait for the slow workings of government. If you want to protect yourself, and your children, from the pollutants in the car, your answer is the Airbubbl. This is a neat looking air filter, designed to sit behind the headrest of a seat, that plugs into the cigarette holder in your car. It removes Nitrogen dioxide and gases, ozone, VOC’s, bacteria, pollen, dust and PM 2.5 and 10 - everything in fact that you don’t want to be breathing in. It’s linked to an app on your phone that lets you select normal, boost or automatic settings and leave it up to the Airbubbl to do the rest. It powers up when you first start it, to rapidly filter the air, and then calms down to a steady ‘keeping on top of it’ hum for the remainder of your journey.
It’s flaw is that it doesn’t record pollution levels for you - which is why you need your Flow to double check it really is working - but it does an exemplary job on purifying the air. Drive on the motorway or sit in near stationary traffic filled roads - and I experimented with this both in the pure Welsh air at Hay, and in the middle of congested London traffic - and The Flow gasps red with toxicity. Turn on the Airbubbl and within seconds, the Flow monitor shifts through orange to green; the smell disappears from the air and you can literally breathe the difference. This is not one I will be driving without again. Any downside? It took a while to get used to having the low level hum of its filter as a background noise - but then I realised that if I moved it from behind the drivers seat to the passenger seat instead, it was less intrusive. And after a while your mind blocks it out entirely. And that’s without the radio on.
Plus what price pure air, particularly if you spend large quantities of your day driving?
And as for that elephant! I have written a bit too often about the air in the past few weeks so for fear of boring you all, I will save how exactly to get those particulates out of your body for another month. But hold strong - I think I have the answer!
Order Reboot Your Health now!
My book - Reboot Your Health - is available now.
Make this year the year you ‘Reboot Your Health’.
You have only got one body. If you don’t take care of it, who else is going to?
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health.
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