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How pollution is harming the Earth - and our health

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The skyline of downtown Los Angeles through a layer of smog is seen in the distance from a rooftop in Hollywood, California, May 31, 2006. (REUTERS/Fred Prouser/Files)

Pollution, quite literally, stinks. And as ominous images from around the world show, it is a problem that spans from China, India and Paris to California, New York and everywhere in between. Whether from vehicle emissions, coal plants, agricultural operations, forest fires, or other sources, pollutants take a toll - on the Earth, of course, but also on its inhabitants. Recent studies have linked pollution exposure to asthma, autism, heart disease, cancer, schizophrenia, migraines, and more.

In an effort to address such health problems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced back in March new fuel and automobile standards that will cut gasoline sulfur levels by more than 60 percent, and reduce tailpipe and evaporative emissions from cars and trucks. The EPA hopes these moves will prevent up to 2,000 premature deaths a year, and 50,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children.  

But will it be enough? Unfortunately, for many people, the damage has already been done. And legislating cleaner air takes time: The EPA’s new rules won’t be phased in until between 2017 and 2025, though petroleum industry groups have warned this timetable is unrealistic.  

Unlike eating unhealthy foods or not exercising enough, breathing air cannot be avoided. Limiting your exposure to pollution is tricky but possible, and though results might be intangible (it’s hard to know exactly why you didn’t contract a particular illness), it’s safe to say that avoiding toxic air probably has no downside.

The American Lung Association suggests checking air quality levels and forecasts in your area through local news sources, or the EPA’s website. The ALA also notes the importance of limiting energy use in your own home, which will decrease your carbon footprint, curb greenhouse gas emissions and save you money, too.

Breathing in polluted air is bad even when you’re simply standing outside, or taking a leisurely walk. But it’s worse if you’re playing a sport, or participating in another similarly strenuous activity. According to The Mayo Clinic, we inhale more air during exercise, and more deeply into our lungs. We also tend to breathe through our mouths during exercise, allowing polluted air to bypass the nasal passages, which normally help filter airborne pollution particles.

For most people, the potential benefits of exercise outweigh the risks of pollution-related health problems. Avoid open-air workouts during peak pollution times, usually in the afternoon, and steer clear of heavily trafficked routes and urban environments. Exercise indoors if you’re especially concerned, but make sure the air inside is not riddled with contaminants from poorly maintained air-conditioning systems, or toxic cleaning products.

As the EPA tries to purify the air in this country –  a noble if not impractical goal – it’s a good time for us all to consider not only how to protect ourselves from pollution, but how we contribute to it – because we all do.

Note: Information provided herein is not intended to treat or diagnose any health condition. As always, consult your healthcare provider with any questions or health concerns.

Deirdre Imus, Founder of the site devoted to environmental health, www.ImusEnvironmentalHealth.org, is President and Founder of The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center® at Hackensack University Medical Center and Co-Founder/Co-Director of the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer. She is a New York Times best-selling author and a frequent contributor to FoxNewsHealth.com, and Fox Business Channel. Check out her website at www.ImusEnvironmentalHealth.org  and 'Like' her Facebook page here.