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Is Your Home in an Air Pollution Danger Zone?

Most of us could survive for weeks without food and a few days without water, yet we spend hours debating over organic or conventionally grown, filtered or unfiltered. But the one thing no one can live without for more than a few minutes is air — and we spend very little time wondering whether or not the air around us is safe to breathe.

Tiny pollution particles enter our lungs and bloodstreams daily, as evidenced by higher rates of diseases like asthma, cancer, Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s in people who live near freeways, airports and power plants or in valleys, where pollution can become trapped. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, about 92 percent of the world’s population lived in areas that did not meet basic air-quality standards as of 2014.

How high is your exposure risk? Let’s take a look at how location affects exposure. If you live in higher-risk areas, think about learning how you can help your local government promote cleaner transportation options, sustainable energy generation and solid-waste reduction. Your lungs, your neighbors and Mother Earth will thank you.

Freeways: How Close Is Too Close?

Cars emit a slew of chemicals and particulate matter that is composed of nasty stuff like carbon monoxide, benzene, microscopic soot and toxic dust from tire and brake pad wear and tear. These particulates have a monumental impact on public health, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attributing more than 50,000 deaths (and many thousands more illnesses) to automobile and truck pollution annually.

The highest exposure risk comes if you live within 500 feet of a high-traffic multilane thoroughfare — though some recent research is expanding this area to 1,500 feet (more than a quarter-mile). And while some cities work to limit new construction in these zones, others blame necessity when allowing new buildings to go up in this sensitive range, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Related: Los Angeles keeps building near freeways, even though living there makes people sick.

Freeways and Your Health

Facts of Car Pollution

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Health risks of living near a freeway include respiratory problems, cancer, heart disease/stroke and Alzheimer’s/dementia. Pregnant women are also at risk for pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, preterm birth and birth defects. Higher rates of autism have also been noted.

In a recent study by Tufts and Boston University, persons who lived within 1,500 feet of a major highway had more than twice the amount of C-reactive protein — a prime indicator in heart-attack risk — circulating in their bloodstreams than those living a half-mile or more away.

Children, older adults and persons with preexisting conditions like heart disease are most at risk for additional health complications, including respiratory problems resulting from high exposure in these “near highway” zones.

Power Plants: 'Single Source' Polluters

Power plants powered by fossil fuels are stationary, so the only ways to mitigate their effects are to either better filter what comes out of them or make a clean switch to less damaging forms of power generation, such as wind or solar.

Often called “single source” polluters, power plants emit a toxic brew of particulates into the air that includes carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. One study showed hospitalization rates for respiratory diseases in New York State were significantly higher for persons living in a zip code with a power plant than for those without.

Power Plants: Can We Reduce Harmful Emissions?

The 15 Most Deadly Countries for Air Pollution

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More than 10,000 U.S. deaths each year are attributed to power-plant pollution. However, experts note those figures are likely much higher due to lifetime fossil-fuel emission exposure. They cite difficulty in attributing health events like cardiac arrest directly to pollution from energy production.

Some sources note that the rate of U.S. deaths may be dropping due to better emissions capture and switches to sustainable fuel sources like wind and solar. Energy and water conservation at individual, business and city levels also helps to reduce power consumption (and, therefore, emissions).

Airports: Jet Fuel's Deadly Cocktail

Airplanes, like automobiles and trucks, burn fossil fuels to get us from here to there. The highly refined fuel cocktail that jet planes rely on becomes a potentially deadly mix of chemicals that includes nitrogen monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, microscopic particulate matter and visible soot.

In many areas, airports are offset from densely populated areas. While this could potentially limit their impact on people who live nearby, recent research suggests that communities as far away as 10 miles from an airport can be negatively impacted by jet-fuel emissions.

Airports: Asthma Culprit?

Takeoffs and landings are a prime source of ultrafine particles that enter the lungs and bloodstream, noted a 2014 Los Angeles Times article. Asthma as well as blocked arteries and diseases that result from them, including heart attack and stroke, are the result.

The area within a few miles of airports offers the highest concentration of these particles. However, recent research shows that 10 miles out from LAX and other international airports the amount of ultrafine particles in the air is still twice what is considered normal.

Valleys: Trapping Bad Air

Valleys don’t create pollution on their own, of course. But the surrounding mountains and certain types of weather can conspire to create a hazardous environment for the people who live in them by trapping pollution from highways, airports, power plants and landfills.

The EPA Clean Air Act regulates ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. All five of these pollutants can become sequestered in valleys.

San Joaquin Valley, California, has been cited as having the poorest air quality in the nation, according to the EPA — although Salt Lake City, Utah, also often vies for the top spot, especially in winter.

Lower emissions from landfills, power plants and refineries by enforcing clean-air regulations are helping to clear the air in the San Joaquin Valley. Salt Lake City is working to reduce emissions and suggesting conservation tips to residents and visitors.