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Air Quality

Breathing clean air is key for all Arizonans. Air filled with particulates, pollen and pollutants has health effects on all of us. Though we have made steps to improve air quality, this remains a challenging health issue that needs more work.

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Air Quality Background Information

Breathing is a fundamental activity, as humans breathe about 20,000 times each day.  The goal is to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.  Unfortunately, because of the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities, we also inhale airborne molecules that are poisonous to our bodies.  Since we rapidly absorb these chemicals, microorganisms and particulates, the quality of air is directly tied with our health.

Why poor air quality is a problem?

In the United States despite efforts to improve air quality over half our population lives in counties that fail to meet the air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.  This is a global problem as more people die from the burning of fossil fuels than from tobacco use, which we all accept as a harmful habit.  As we have seen with wildfires, our atmosphere knows no border as everyone contributes to the quality of the air we breathe.  Humans created the current state of our air and before we all have to wear masks outside everyday, there is hope as we saw some of the most polluted skies clear up during COVID from decreased human industrial activities.  Let us better understand the molecules we are talking about that enter our lungs.

What is particulate matter?

This is a waste basket term to include particles suspended in air.  They are commonly broken down into different sizes which determine how deep they penetrate into our lungs and the medical conditions they cause and worsen.  We focus on the smaller particles as those larger than 10 microns are filtered by the upper airway and rarely reach the lung.

P10:  Particles less than 10 microns in diameter, sometimes called coarse particles and arise from industrial processes like mining, farming or construction that involve a grinding or crushing mechanism.  These particles can travel up to kilometers away from the production source before residing on the ground. These particles tend to reach the upper bronchi, where there is less interface with the blood vessels and cause asthma-like symptoms of cough, shortness of breath and airway spasms.

P2.5:  Particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter: sometimes called fine particles and arise from combustion primarily from the burning of fossil fuel but also from steel production which combines hydrogen and carbon with oxygen and other gasses releasing carbon dioxide, energy and water.   These particles can stay in the atmosphere for weeks and travel thousands of kilometers before returning to the ground. These particles penetrate deep into the lungs reaching the alveoli where we absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide.  Here they are rapidly absorbed and cause the most damage by spreading via the bloodstream to other organs.  This exposure is associated with premature death in people with heart and lung disease, lung cancer, and all cause death rates. 

What is ground ozone?

Ozone is naturally formed in the upper atmosphere protecting us from UV radiation from the sun.  Ground Ozone is formed when oxygen and ground pollutants (from power plants, automobiles and industry) are hit by sunlight.  This reaction works faster in hotter ground temperatures.  A major component of “smog” is ground ozone. 

What are the health impacts of ground ozone?

Ground ozone exposure leads to inflamed lungs which may present with asthma exacerbations, trouble breathing, COPD exacerbations, increased reactions to allergens and decrease in overall lung function.  Chronic exposure can lead to increased heart disease, cancers and premature death in humans.  This led to an increase in pediatric emergency room visits, hospital admissions, more missed school days, and lost workdays.  These combined health effects and financial stressors can lead to increased mental health disorders as well.    

What can we do to protect ourselves?

Ideally, primary prevention would include decreasing production of greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels.  In Arizona, over 80% of our greenhouse gasses come from electricity production and transportation.  By transitioning to renewable energy (solar and wind) that powers electric vehicles would lead to amazing results for our health.  


Secondary prevention involves decreasing our exposure through behavior changes.  Trying to decrease heavy outdoor activity and exposure on days of high particulate matter and ozone levels will help decrease the health effects of poor air quality.  Masks may help decrease exposure from particulate matter if being outside is unavoidable. 

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