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The holiday season is finally here – along with increased risks of asthma attacks and other lung diseases. What causes such rise in air pollution levels, and what effects does it have on our respiratory system?

Our first breath of air marks the moment we’re born. From that day on, your average human inhales about 11,000 liters of air every day. Besides oxygen, a gas we really need to be able to breathe, air naturally features nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. We’re also exposed to surging rates of other airborne substances — a direct consequence of air pollution.

For the last few decades, air pollution has been one of the 10 most important global health concerns. The World Health Organization estimates, in fact, that air pollution directly costs nearly five million people their lives annually, though some years have an even higher death toll. By 2050, air pollution is predicted to become the leading environmental cause of death.

We traditionally celebrate the holiday season with our friends and family — usually by having parties, preparing big meals, exchanging Christmas gifts, and watching the midnight fireworks as we welcome the New Year.

While everyone is having a good time, it’s all too easy to forget how our holiday traditions impact the environment, and specifically air quality, which already suffers during winter.

Poor air quality can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath or coughing, but it also turns the holiday season into a living nightmare for people who suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases. Alongside people with chronic illnesses, skyrocketing air pollution levels can have a profound effect on young children, pregnant women, and the senior population.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution has become a problem of breathtaking proportions in modern society. The main natural sources of air pollution are wind-blown dust, volcanoes, and wildfires. By the time you add man-made pollution sources like power plants, factories, industrial facilities, wood burning fireplaces, and vehicles powered by fossil fuels, such as gasoline to the mix, a rather choking picture emerges. 

These polluters emit gases like carbon-monoxide, sulphur-dioxide, nitrous oxides, ammonia, which irritate your respiratory-related mucus membranes — but also tiny particles like ash and soot, along with toxic metals.

These microscopic particles (known as particulate matter – PM) are categorized by their size into ones smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) and between 2.5 and 10 micrometers (PM10). There are even smaller, ultrafine particles, even smaller than 0,1 micrometers. For comparison, a human hair is 50 to 70 micrometers thick.

If these particles are combined with ozone in the atmosphere, they create smog. The name comes from the words smoke and fog, and besides reducing visibility, it can cause a whole lot of different respiratory problems.

When these particles are inhaled, instead of being filtered in your nose and throat, they go straight into the lungs, cursing people with all kinds of health issues, such as asthma, respiratory diseases, and even lung cancer. Smaller particles can even pass through the lungs and enter the blood flow, wreaking havoc on blood vessels and other organs.

Though the World Health Organization tolerates maximum PM10 levels of 50 micrograms per cubic  meter, many studies have measured up to triple that amount in crowded urban environments.

Why is air pollution more common during winter?

During winter, climate conditions allow pollution particles to pile up in the lower parts of the atmosphere. Low pressure and less wind mean these particles spend more time practically trapped in the air we breathe. This episodic pollution typically plagues us from October to March.

Besides natural phenomena, the human factor is increasingly relevant. Cold weather boosts the need for indoor heating, causing power plants and private citizens to burn solid fuels that create large amounts of smoke. People tend to drive more during winter, as well, so vehicle exhaust emissions become an even bigger challenge. In rural areas, crop burning is the major cause of air pollution.

How do holidays affect air pollution?

Air pollution during the Christmas holidays is not a new phenomenon. London, for example, has a long history of air pollution events, dating all the way back to the 13th century and perhaps even before. For example, during “The Fog of Christmas Day” in 1879, the daytime sky turned completely black. “The Great Smog of 1952” was said to have killed more than 4,000 people.

Who is it to blame? Industrialization was once the main culprit, but thanks to alternative energy sources, factories are no longer the main polluters. However, our ever-growing consumerism may take over as one of the greatest air pollution causes. As we mostly shop online today, delivery vans bringing us our gifts emit pollutants like carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides.

Other cultural tendencies tend to make the Christmas holidays even more environmentally unfriendly. Wood-burning fireplaces, gas cooking (associated with an increased risk of asthma), and even scented candles and party poppers release toxic compounds that can stick around for quite a long time. Indoor pollution may be even more harmful to individuals than outdoor pollution.

And can you imagine a New Year’s celebration without a massive fireworks display? A truly breathtaking scene, isn’t it? Well, actually, yes. Not only can fireworks cause lethal and disabling injuries, they also have an enormous impact on air quality. 

A group of scientists in the Netherlands analyzed the PM10 concentrations on New Year’s Eve for eight years in a row, and found the concentration of PM10 to be 10 to 30 times greater during the first few hours of the year than the last few days of December. This presents a global problem. Phoenix, AZ, for example, saw extremely high levels of PM2.5 on New Year’s Eve in 2017.

How are people affected by polluted air?

Cold weather can trigger asthma symptoms on its own, because your airways go into spasm, inducing coughing and shortness of breath. Then, count the fact that winter is also “rush hour” for flu and other viruses. Finally, add seasonal air pollution to this mix, and you’ll see why respiratory patients aren’t so merry during the holidays.

But even if you’re healthy, you can still feel the effects of this holiday pollution, specifically if you belong to the part of a population more sensitive to these changes. Vulnerable groups include infants and young children, pregnant women, and the older population.

There is firm scientific evidence that even childhood leukemia can be caused by polluted air, whether we’re talking about pregnant mothers exposed to toxins in the air, or toddlers whose bodies just started developing. Pregnant women exposed to air pollution have virtually the same risk of having a premature labor, or having an underweight baby as women who smoke during their pregnancy.

For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), polluted air can worsen existing symptoms. A few studies even describe Christmas season as a risk factor for COPD exacerbations.

One of them included 71 patients with a history of COPD, who kept a journal of their symptoms from December 2006 to April 2007. Of 114 submitted symptoms, 109 were deemed COPD exacerbations, which peaked during the second half of December. While air pollution wasn’t specifically found to be responsible, no more viruses were detected during the holiday season than the rest of the winter.

How can we prepare for this?

The steps you can take to lower your carbon footprint can truly be a breath of fresh air. Share a ride, use public transportation, and try not to waste things such as food, or wrapping paper (one of the most-wasted materials at Christmas time). Your holidays don’t have to be extravagant to capture the spirit of the season.

If you suffer from chronic lung disorders, try to avoid all those potential triggers, and stock up on your medicines before pharmacies close for the holidays. Inform yourself about ways to protect your lungs from air pollution — like checking the pollution forecast and avoiding outdoor workouts. Maybe do a checkup with your doctor. The key is to be prepared in all situations. Unlike fireworks, don’t let your holiday enthusiasm go up in smoke!

Let’s hope that Santa’s sleigh will be eco-friendly, so that the good kids can get their presents on time. The bad children shouldn’t get anything, meanwhile, because air pollution from coal burning presents a very serious public health issue.