According to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” 2024 report, which analyzes the two most widespread types of pollution – ozone and particle pollution –nearly four in ten people in America live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution. This includes Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. 

Dr. Obaid Ashraf, M.D., a pulmonologist and critical care medicine physician with INTEGRIS Health in Oklahoma City, has seen an upward trend in patients affected by poor air quality.  

“Our environment has been playing a large role in our incoming patient populations, more so than before,” says Ashraf. “We are seeing our adolescent and younger patient populations affected more by asthma that’s not well-controlled. This can be in part due to health disparities, but the prevalence also has something to do with our air quality.”

Poor air quality can cause a multitude of respiratory problems including triggering asthma attacks, lung inflammation and increasing one’s risk of lung cancer. People most affected by poor air quality include children, older adults and individuals with chronic lung diseases, such as pulmonary fibrosis, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

When determining whether your child is being affected by poor air quality, Ashraf says it’s important to look for any noticeable respiratory changes. 

“Symptoms can be vague, but a persistent or worsening cough is often the first sign – especially a cough that’s not associated with any cold or flu,” he says. “Also wheezing, which can include a whistling or high pitch sound as a person is breathing, and shortness of breath. If your child is saying they feel out of breath or are experiencing chest tightness, then you should see a physician. It’s very uncommon for children to have chest discomfort.” 

As ongoing research examines the effects of ozone and particle pollution, Ashraf says studies increasingly show the damage caused by particulate matter. 

“While human hair can be 50 to 70 micrometers in diameter, coarse particles are between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter, and ‘fine particles’ are 2.5 or smaller micrometers and can only be seen with an electron microscope,” says Ashraf. “Regarding the lungs, the smaller the particle, the deeper it can go into your lungs, deposit in the alveoli and even be absorbed into the bloodstream. This is where the damage occurs, causing significant lung and heart issues.”

Hafiz Fakih, M.D., a pulmonologist with OU Health in Oklahoma City, says the effects of poor air quality on various systems of the body have been associated with systemic inflammation. 

“Exposure to various pollutants can cause oxidative stress, which affects the immune’s regulation system and can make people more susceptible to other infections,” says Fakih. “Long-term studies have shown exposure to pollutants, such as particulate matter, is associated with an increased risk of hypertension and a progression of coronary artery calcification, which can lead to coronary artery disease and possible heart failure exacerbations or heart attacks.”

For individuals with respiratory issues that may be triggered by air pollution, making being outdoors difficult, Fakih says the best protectant mask is a high quality N95 mask.

Air Quality in the Home

Ashraf recommends frequently changing your home’s air filter and using a HEPA filter with a grade 13 or higher.  Also, keep humidity levels between 30 and 50% and avoid and/or limit the use of indoor pollutants such as candles and wood-burning stoves.

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