Air pollution is one of the biggest issues we face today, with levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter shortening the lives of us all. A recent study has found that a child living in Birmingham, England, has his or her life reduced by approximately 7 months due to exposure to toxic air! The detrimental effects of air pollution are far-reaching and include increased rates of lung aging, reduced female fertility, and poor mental health among others. But now, there’s a new one on the table caused by the interaction of ground level ozone and the oil on our skin: the aptly-named “Pig-Pen” Effect.
The ozone layer is a marvelous thing that protects us from the majority of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Ozone also has many applied industrial uses as an antibacterial and antiviral agent. But in high enough concentrations floating around at ground level, it is toxic to human health and thus best avoided. Levels are on the rise though and it’s time to take action.
Ozone is formed as a result of the reaction between Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen in the atmosphere. VOCs are emitted from sources ranging from paint to pesticides; cleaning products to craft glue and other adhesives. The group includes things like formaldehyde and benzene that are unfortunately all-too prevalent from our many industries including those powered by fossil fuels—the combustion of which also releases oxides of nitrogen like nitrogen dioxide. This is a known toxin and reacts with the aforementioned VOCs to form ozone.
Atmospheric ozone does something quite interesting when it comes into contact with our skin. Specifically, the squalene, fatty acids and waxy esters on our skin. A variety of organic compounds are produced as a result, which can irritate the skin and lungs. The immunosuppressed such as those living with asthma are most at risk of serious health conditions, according to a brand new study from Penn State.
The higher the concentration of oils on your skin, the more at risk you are of producing your own personal pollution cloud, particularly in urban environments (which I imagine includes most of us). So, if you’re not washing your hair or clothes every day, you’re likely to be affected. How tragic.
Now, before you start panicking and hop in the shower for a good scrub, I think we need to remind ourselves that doing so is akin to putting a bandaid on a gaping, open wound. Rather, the solution needs to tackle the source: the precursors like the VOCs and the oxides of nitrogen that create the ozone in the first place. It’s perfectly natural for our skin to secrete oil and actually, overwashing can damage our skin and clothes. What isn’t natural is the elevated levels of toxins in our atmosphere.
The issue runs deeper, though, highlighting an issue we’re simply not talking about: environmental racism. Did you know that people of color on the American East Coast are 66% more likely to be subject to air pollution? Evidence shows that a disproportionate number of people who live in environmentally hazardous areas are considered part of a minority group and/or low socioeconomic status. This has been demonstrated with Native American reservations used as dumping grounds for nuclear waste and Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ —a community of mostly poor, African-American residents.
Discrimination is systemic, not only in the United States but the world over and it is entirely unacceptable. And we need to talk about it, because at the moment it feels like a silent epidemic.
It can feel overwhelming and all too abstract to try to wrap your head around how to resolve such injustice and something so deeply embedded in our societal structure, so start small. What changes can you make in your own life? Below are some examples:
1. Stay away from aerosol hair and body sprays
2. Switch to natural (and often cheaper!) cleaning products
3. Switch to an electric car
4. Cycle or take public transport if available
4. Power your home with renewable sources of energy
5. Carbon offset your air travel
6. Choose natural paints and adhesives
7. Look for wooden furniture made with solid cuts of timber rather than MDF or plywood (buy second hand for high quality at a low price)
8. Introduce some house plants into your home
9. Join a community garden and try growing your own produce
10. Buy organic where you can
There’s no denying that the change we need must be implemented by the top-down: banning the use of fossil fuels and the plethora of chemicals currently on the shelves, but in the meantime, do what you can, learn as much as you can and spread the word. What can you do today?
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