April 14, 2011
Chronic Air Pollution Causes Inflammation

White blood cells reacting to chronic air pollutants will stoke up changes that cause cardiovascular disease and other diseases.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Chronic inhalation of polluted air appears to activate a protein that triggers the release of white blood cells, setting off events that lead to widespread inflammation, according to new research in an animal model.

This finding narrows the gap in researchers’ understanding of how prolonged exposure to pollution can increase the risk for cardiovascular problems and other diseases.

When you are thinking about where to live or work consider air quality. Too many office buildings get built near freeways because people are averse to living near freeways. Well, unless you get an employer who will shell out the bucks for a thorough air filtration system a job next to a freeway could set you up for cardiovascular problems and other diseases that can be accelerated by inflammation.

Here is what I'd like to know: Suppose you are going to live next to a freeway or near other major air pollution sources. How much of the bad stuff in the air can get scrubbed out by the right air filtration system? In particular, is a basic HEPA filter good enough against vehicle air pollution? Most discussions of air filtration seem to center around allergens because so many people know they are allergen sensitive. It is relatively harder to find informed discussions about pollutant filtration. So I'm left wondering at the utility of more powerful filtration systems that work against chemicals in the air. Know pertinent facts about pollutants and air filtration? Can air filtration systems make living next to a freeway safe?

Update: So how close to a highway is close enough to worry? The first 100 meters (about 300 feet) are the worst and by 300 meters distance there's little effect from a highway on air quality. These are approximate numbers due to different geographies and traffic loads and wind patterns. Check out a graph of particle concentration as a function of distance from a highway in LA as an example.

Unfortunately, the smallest particles are both harder to filter and quite harmful (and read that article if you want to rationally fear air pollution). I am still left wondering how well air filtration systems can work for those who dwell near major highways. My guess is they will substantially reduce harm from vehicle pollution. But can they totally eliminate the added health risk?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 April 14 11:11 PM  Aging Pollution Studies

Peter Baum said at April 15, 2011 1:38 AM:

Dear Future Pundit,

Did you consider "growing your own fresh air", as the following gentlman from india was doing?

There is an increasing body of research dedicated to the indoor airquality enhancement by plants, some of it dedicated for space applications.

spindizzy said at April 15, 2011 9:38 AM:

It would be useful to know how much proximity to a road actually matters. Is exposure also significantly affected by what floor you live/work on?

Heavier pollutants are obviously going to spread more slowly and remain concentrated close to the ground. However, I have heard that the most harmful form of air pollution is small size particulate matter typically released from combustion. Those tiny particles are so light that they do not stay localised for very long.

I also think I remember reading up on indoor air filtration and coming to the conclusion that it was ineffective.

Sorry to offer these claims without any references... I was interested enough to research this topic 5-6 years ago but nowadays, not so much.

Simfish InquilineKea said at April 15, 2011 10:21 AM:

The thing with air filters is that they're often better at filtering out bigger particles than smaller particles. A standard for HEPA respirators is that they might filter out 95% particles 0.3 micrometers in size or greater. The thing is, though, that particles on the scale of 10-100 nanometers are the most dangerous, and the hardest to filter out.

Randall Parker said at April 15, 2011 1:48 PM:

Peter Baum,

Interesting TED talk by Kamal Meattle. I wonder at its practicality for most people. The Areca Palm in that talk needs 4 per person and daily care. The "Mother-in-law's Tongue" requires 6 to 8 waist-high plants per person. Then there is the "Money plant" for removing chemicals with a few more of those needed.

The room and lighting needed for those plants would make them impractical for my own abode.


The IQAir HealthPro Compact goes down to 0.003 microns on the filtering. So in theory it is possible to filter out even the very small particles, or at least a lot of them.


See my post update for more details on road proximity.

PacRim Jim said at April 15, 2011 3:01 PM:

Once human life expectancy is extended, people are going to demand a pollution-free environment.
Good R&D opportunities await.

Bruce said at April 15, 2011 7:48 PM:

Ultra clean environments are bad for your health.

"This theory of what causes allergies and asthma is called the "hygiene hypothesis." It says that our war against germs — from detergents and chlorine to antibiotics and vaccines to antibacterial soaps and, now, antiseptic diapers — has been too successful.

We get fewer infections from the bad germs that used to kill a lot of children, but we don't encounter as many "good" bugs that are supposed to teach our immune system how to grow up."


Randall Parker said at April 16, 2011 11:46 AM:


There are different kinds of ultraclean. You need exposure to natural antigens that keep your immune system from focusing on the wrong stuff. But you do not need exposure to diesel engine particulates and other crap spewed by vehicles. They are harmful.

Engineer-Poet said at April 17, 2011 2:50 PM:

Trust Bruce to drag a red herring through the discussion.

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