Breathe Deeply (But Not Too Deeply)

by Ann Shum on February 20, 2014

A hazy view of New York City due to the amount of air pollution. (Matthias Hawker Photography)

You’re walking down Madison Avenue. Go ahead, take a deep breath.

Inhale the crisp cool and refreshing air of the concrete jungle.

Just kidding.

It’s more likely that you will inhale the hot, damp air as you find yourself walking over a fuming subway vent.

That probably wasn’t the best breath you’ve ever taken.  In fact, it was probably one of the worst if you’re not a usual city dweller. If you reside in a more rural part of the country and you’re just here to visit, you’re probably doing yourself a huge favor. The air you breathe daily is probably far cleaner than the air that you just inhaled moments ago in my beloved hometown, New York City.

Air pollution is a prominent problem in the world, and it has much higher prevalence in urban cities; namely New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

But where on Earth is all this pollution coming from?

Cars, buildings, industry, and perhaps even the vast population all contribute to the air pollution that city-dwellers inhale on a day-to-day basis. The greatest source of air pollution comes from transportation, more specifically, our very own cars and trucks. Industries and households also contribute to the air pollution since many still depend on the burning of fossil fuels.

Air pollution is made up of a few different components. For starters, a good portion of the air we breathe contains sulfur dioxide, which is usually released into the air as a result of work in power plants and industrial facilities. But you probably already knew that. A component that you probably didn’t know about is fine particulate matter. These small airborne particles are invisible to the naked eye because they’re less than (you guessed it!) 2.5 micrometers. Surely something so miniscule couldn’t have any impact on us right?


Their microscopic size allows them to travel through our bodies and cause inflammation in our airways. They’re mostly produced as a byproduct of car emissions, which also release nitrogen oxides, elemental carbon, and ozone that contribute to the pollution. Elemental Carbon is frequently linked to lung cancer, which is probably not something you want to be getting anytime soon.

Fun fact: Have you ever wondered why it’s so common for photos of city skylines like those of New York City or those of Los Angeles to appear hazy? The hazy appearance is a direct result of poor air quality, mainly because of the smog due to the increased concentration of ozone.

Another contributor to the fine quality air that we breathe in the city would have to be tobacco smoke. Smoking is so commonplace in society today that it probably isn’t a big deal for most. But people forget that they’re not the only ones smoking outside and that all of that smoke adds up. Even though it’s not a major factor, it’s still doing far more harm than good.

The Air pollution in urban areas causes about 2 – 3% deaths every year. Although the number doesn’t seem very large it seems like a ridiculously silly way to end your life. I’m sure you’ll agree that there are much better ways to go.

How does the air pollution affect our bodies?

The PM 2.5 particulates cause the most serious health effects because they are so small that they pass directly into our bloodstreams. They also seem to be linked to cardiovascular disease, especially for the elderly. And, just like the carbon, it’s also been linked to lung cancer!  The particulate pollutants, as well as ozone and sulfates increase your risk of the death the most out of all the components of air pollution. Overall, air pollution reduces the life expectancy of the average person more than any other environmental risk factor.

I don’t know about you, but I want to live for a really long time. I don’t want to worry about decreasing my life expectancy just from breathing.

Luckily, steps have been taken to combat this issue.

The Clean Air Act was put in place in 1970 to ensure that the states were keeping track of the amount of air pollution they’re inhabitants were breathing in and to make sure that annual emission reduction goals were being followed. The National Ambient Air Quality Standards were added so that the EPA could provide a set standard for the levels of pollutants in the air that the states could follow in order to protect everyone’s overall health.

Although Air pollution is an increasingly prevalent problem, there have been significant advances in improving it. In 2007, New York City created a plan of action to combat the pollution problem and coined it PlaNYC. The plan has been working pretty well so far. It’s reduced the sulfur content in the air that came from heating oil by switching to the use of 2% diesel and allocated money for cleaner boilers in public buildings so fewer emissions are released. Indoor filters have been added for bus cabins and over 430 thousand more trees have been planted within the city.

Overall, New York City is experiencing the cleanest air that it’s had in the past 50 years. And that’s something that I can say I’m pretty pleased to hear. So if you’re visiting the city or planning to go in the near future, go ahead and take a deep breath. This is the cleanest air that’s been here in awhile.


Works Cited:

Nadakavukaren, Anne. Our Global Environment: A Health Perspective. 7th ed. Long Grove: Waveland, 2011.



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