How Air Pollution Impacts Your Health (and What to Do About It)

I make no bones about enjoying the conveniences of our modern age. As much as I esteem our beloved Grok figure, I wouldn’t opt to trade places with him. (All right, it might be fun for a day.) That said, I’ve always acknowledged that modern living comes with a price: persistent stress, rampant responsibilities, less sleep, less play, less sun, and novel environmental toxins. Pollution, in particular, is one of my central considerations in designing the Primal Blueprint well beyond a basic paleo model. Although we’re wholly Grok’s kin, let’s face it: we’re hardly in Paleolithic Kansas anymore.

Unlike some drawbacks to modern living, pollution (especially air pollution) is one downside that’s hard to avoid. Sure, you can live upwind from the industrial section of town, or you can settle in the country. Regardless, factories set up shop in new areas, highways are added to accommodate increasing sprawl, jets fly overhead, and crop dusters spread “drift” far beyond target fields. (And then there’s the next door neighbor’s daily chiminea ritual, stinky “vintage” truck, or perpetual tendency to spill gasoline in his garage while filling the lawn mower.) Not to be a killjoy, but very few of us live beyond air pollution’s reach.

Nonetheless, it’s a compromise I think most of us willingly (although discontentedly) make to have the lifestyles and opportunities we do. In an ideal world, of course, we could have all the technology and production without the accompanying toxic problem. Until that rosy notion comes to pass, however, there are the inevitable questions: what impact does air pollution have exactly, and how can we combat its effect on our personal health?

A number of studies have been published recently demonstrating the varied damage air pollution causes. Much has been made of air pollution’s impact on fetal health. A number of studies have found that prenatal exposure to toxins such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can negatively impact children’s IQ and performance on standardized tests. PAHs are produced both in high temperature cooking – particular with meats – and by the burning of fuels and other organic substances.

A key problem linked to air pollution exposure is the inflammatory effect it has on the body, but it can also sabotage our genes’ functioning itself, in essence rewriting some subtle but key physiological operations (those epigenetic changes I’m always talking about). In children with asthma, particularly, air pollution impairs T-cell function and worsens asthma symptoms.

Air pollution, however, doesn’t spare the grown-ups either. Of particular importance, air pollution has been shown to cause inflammation that hardens the arteries. Free radicals, such as those which line diesel particles, incite oxidative havoc in the body and add insidious, damaging interactions to otherwise normal physiological processes.

Do I find the research compelling? Yes. Do I find the apparent risks disconcerting? Yes. Do I think air pollution is a menacing snag that threatens to unravel our Primal efforts? No. I think it’s worth sensible consideration, but I don’t think it’s worth flying off the handle and abandoning society to live in a remote corner of Wyoming – unless that’s your sort of thing.

So, what can a modern Grok do? How does one breathe Primally in the modern age? (I’m joking with that one.) First off, there are the oft heard, common sense suggestions. Avoid heavily trafficked areas for your walks/run/bike rides/roller blading/etc. whenever possible. I think most of us prefer to do that anyway. If you’re in Chicago and have the choice of running along the lake front or along the Magnificent Mile, what would you choose? (Yes, let’s dodge a continuous swarm of people with monstrous shopping bags.) If you can help it, plan your outdoor workouts when smog is at lower levels – typically the morning or later in the evening. Those of you in larger cities know the drill. If you’re interested in learning more about the air quality in your area – or in areas you’re considering moving to, check out some specifics. Interesting reading at least.

More importantly, however, is the state of our indoor air. It’s also the easier part to control of course. Choose low to no toxic paints, stains, and other home materials when possible. Keep in mind that natural materials (rugs, flooring, upholstery, curtains, beds etc.) are treated with fewer chemicals than synthetics. Use house plants to soak up a portion of indoor pollutants. Also, if you use a basement as living space in your home, consider getting your home’s radon levels checked.

Air purifiers are an option as well. If you or your family members have asthma, it would be an especially good investment. Buy the best you can afford for bedrooms. If you can only afford one, put it in the kids’ bedroom. High quality models even remove VOCs from the air, but read the fine print. It’s generally the first layer of a filtration system to go. Although the filter might have a guaranteed life of five years, that usually doesn’t refer to the more sophisticated components. By year five, you’re probably just filtering for dust more than anything.

Just as many of us choose to “defend” from the outside by reasonably minimizing exposure, there’s much to be said for arming ourselves from the inside. By the inside, of course, I mean fortifying our bodies with the extra antioxidants to combat the ravages of pollution and the cascade of inflammation it can set off in our bodies. It’s why I choose to take (and, yes, sell) supplemental antioxidants in addition to eating a nutrient-dense diet. Our bodies are fending off free radicals in ways Grok simply never had to. Running from a snarling predator is no picnic, but after a few minutes it’s over – one way or another. In the modern world, pollution is something our bodies are dealing with 24/7, especially if we live in a large city or near toxin-related operations like sprayed fields, airports, or factories. This constant exposure puts a certain kind of continual strain on the body. In my opinion (and in the opinion of many others in this field) a broad range of dietary and/or supplemental antioxidants can likely assist in neutralizing the free radicals and combating the oxidative stress imposed by pollution sources. However you get your nutrients, know that you’re equipping yourself for a worthy fight. And isn’t it so much easier than battling that hungry predator?

Thanks for reading today. Let me know what you think, and enjoy the weekend, everyone!

TAGS:  prevention, toxins

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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24 thoughts on “How Air Pollution Impacts Your Health (and What to Do About It)”

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  1. Mark I’ve been reading your blog since July. My son sent me the link as he’s been living the lifestyle and works out at Cross Fit in S. CA.
    I’ve lowered my cholesterol dramatically by following this lifestyle. I’m up in Alaska so I wanted to comment on the air quality. Many people who live in bad air do not even notice it. We used to fly our own plane and we would see so much especially in S. CA. at time making it so would could not even see the ground from above. Here in Alaska we are blessed with few people and a huge area in which weather patterns move rapidly over the land leaving us with pristine air, well when it’s not cloudy !!
    We don’t have as much sun especially in the winter it’s very low on the horizon but now make up for that with Vit D. I really enjoy your blog and have tried to turn more onto it by way of mine.

  2. I’m just about to visit my family in the south of England and will travel in and out of London. Whenever I’m there I’m really struck by the less good air quality, simple things like the distance you can see clearly and the fact that if you blow your nose it’s full of grime!

    I’m spoiled living here in the north of Scotland where the population is low along with low industrial production although we do have two air force bases close by, or at least we did until the Government just axed one of them and left the sword hanging over the other!

    It’s such a shame that clean air is a luxury these days. However, reading this post has given me a positive spin to losing our major employer – no aeroplanes, less pollution 🙂 there’s always a silver lining you just have to look hard enough.

  3. What’s the best way to cook food (meat) in order to avoid polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)? Just don’t burn it?

    1. Slow and low cooking methods don’t produce PAH’s.

      But if you like the flavor of higher heat, I’ve read that marinating helps reduce PAH.

  4. Air quality is so important, spot on with subject choice once again. Unfortunately, it’s another factor we can have no control over, I feel greatly for people reading this living outside of the first world, Mexico City and Guayaquil, Ecuador struck me as health damagingly polluted cities.

  5. I heard someone is starting a company to sell primal hyperbaric chambers for people to sleep in to compensate for the bad modern atmosphere. They will be covered in rocks and straw, and the inside can be decorated with your choice of cave drawings.

  6. Great post. This is something I started reading up on a few years ago. The office I worked in was considered a “sick building” where air quality was poor, headaches, runny noses, congestion and coughing effected everyone. Offices use pre-fab furniture, industrial carpets and flooring and wall finishes that are designed to take a beating and all of it off-gasses like you wouldn’t believe. My boss and myself started reading up on which plants were best for cleaning the air and we set up some potted arrangements throughout the office. Not only did live fresh green plants add to the ambiance and create an inviting work environment but it made a hugely noticeable difference in the air quality and we all noticed fewer headaches and running noses.

    1. Leanne,
      I work in the same type if environment. which type of plants did you buy?

  7. I moved to Houston about ten years ago. I only live here six months out of the year, when I’m teaching school. The rest of the time I live in the country in TN.

    I can see that my partner’s children have suffered from being raised in such a polluted city. Several of them have ADHD problems; others have had life-threatening asthma; and some have both! My partner has a lot of breathing, asthma, and nose problems. He is having surgery soon to remove polyps from his nose and sinuses.

    I take Vitamin C, and I go for a walk outside early in the morning before the ozone gets bad.

    Sometimes the smell from the refineries in Houston is very noticeable. It smells like lighter fluid. Our last mayor, Bill White, took on the refineries and tried to get them to stop emitting so many toxins, but the TX state legislature made a new law that made it impossible for cities to regulate industries in neighboring municipalities.

    Right before the big Gulf oil spill, BP had a huge emission of benzene that was not reported until much later. There are a lot of people living right around these refineries who were affected by that release.

    This problem is not just personal. It’s political. Grok would have gotten mad!

  8. How about creating less pollution ourselves? Have energy efficient cars and homes, walk, bicycle, consume less, and recycle. We are part of the problem.

  9. Timely article. A friend is visiting Shanghai and said that she’d move there in a heart beat if not for the smog. China’s air quality is really suffering from their rapid industrial growth.

    Anyway, two thumbs up for indoor plants and air purifiers. The latter can be pricey, but talk about a tangible difference in the quality of air. The trick is finding ones that have affordable filters or cleanable filters, and doing so once a month or so.

    Thanks for another thought provoking article, Mark.

  10. For me, it all comes down to too many people on our planet and it is said the population will not level off until 9 million or so of us are here.

    I’m afraid our success as a species will be our demise. Possibly technology will save us but I am not depending on it.

    I do my best to live gently on the earth but know by just being here, I am part of this vast problem. Not that I am planning to check out soon, you understand.

    Me thinks eventually the earth will press the reject button. Wonder what species will rule the world next? Hope they do a better job.

  11. Mark,

    You mentioned anti-oxidants.

    What is your take on Alpha Lipoic Acid for pollution control?

    Dr Mercola (“7 reasons to eat saturated fats”) made a weird comment that saturated fats play a role in lung health, b/c they end up coating the alveoli (thingies in your lungs where the air exchange takes place).

    I take an ALA supp 1/week for nerve health. But I eat a boatload of hamburger (80/20, the greasy stuff) too.

  12. I currently live in Taipei, Taiwan, and the air quality is bloody terrible.

    With hundreds of filter-free scooters at every corner, I can actually see small tornado like flurries of gasoline during morning rush hour at busy intersections.

    I often thought it was strange why so many people wore masks, but after living here for about 6 months, I was diagnosed (misdiagnosed really) with asthma. I have never had ANY breathing problems before, but I was waking up short of breath and wheezing constantly. Since then I’ve stopped scootering to work, and started wearing a mask – maybe not 100% effective, but everywhere I walk feels like I’m trapped in a suicide garage with a running car, so it helps a little.

    I now spend the weekends in the mountains and it has changed things so much. My workouts are way better, wheezing has stopped, and my voice, which I lost for 2 months, has returned.

    Apparently it’s equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day here. YUCK!

  13. When people talk about the air in the windy city or the air in london, I am literally stunned because I’ve been to both places. I live in New Delhi, the capital of all the polluted cities of this world. I am forever concerned for my future inhaling this air. I wonder what untold toll it is taking on me. It is a case of everyone else is living it so why shouldn’t we? Getting out is an option but I always wonder what price I am paying. R&D is not exactly very high in priority in this part of the world. Whenever I visit London, upon breathing the air I kind of understand why we Indians spend 100 rupees for a single sterling when we are here. It’s in the air, it’s in your face, it’s in the lack of noise, it’s in the chirp of chirp, in the flavour of chocolate, its everywhere.

  14. What’s worse is that indoor air pollution is also a major factor in health related illnesses and diseases. External air pollutants find their way inside our homes and work places and then get trapped. Over time we breathe these particles in because they can’t escape. So much research is being done now on automobile exhausted pollutants and how it is affecting brain development, sleep cycles and respiratory organs.