Formaldehyde. Radioactive chemicals. Bug droppings. You wouldn't dare eat food laced with this stuff—heck, you'd probably alert the health department. And yet you may be sucking down these toxins, and a flurry of others, with every breath.
"Most people aren't aware of the dangers of the air they breathe. The contaminants are often invisible, and the harmful effects may not be dramatic at first," says Anne Steinemann, Ph.D., a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Washington. "But exposures add up over time, and so does the damage."
In fact, a growing body of research suggests that airborne contaminants may impair your memory, weaken your sperm, and raise your risk of heart disease and cancer. (They're not the only thing you need to watch out for.
To keep your body healthy, avoid America's Most Dangerous Workout Fads.) Worse, your body has no internal smoke alarm to signal danger. So we've identified the biggest airborne enemies and outlined strategies to help you protect your lungs—and your life.
You're not the only one making babies in bed: Dust mites may be multiplying by the millions in your mattress and pillow.
If you're allergic to them and their droppings (often found in dust) a noseful can trigger sneezing and watery eyes, says allergist James Sublett, M.D Allergic or not, there's a greater danger: In a University of Cincinnati study, mice that regularly inhaled dust mite debris had narrowed arteries in their lungs, a condition that can lead to heart failure.
To beat the bugs for good, you need to launch an all-out offensive. A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that using mite-proof mattress cases, washing bed linens weekly in hot water, and intensively vacuuming and dry steam cleaning carpets and upholstery all helped slash dust mite counts by up to 95 percent.
That takes care of the critters. Now tackle their feces and body fragments floating around the room: For an hour a day, run an air purifier with a prefilter and an electrostatic filter, such as the Ken-more Electrostatic Air Cleaner ($300, amazon.com). This can significantly lower levels of airborne mite particles, say Korean scientists.
You check your bread for mold, but how about your air? Aspergillus and Penicillium—the two most common indoor molds—fling out tiny spores and mycotoxins, which can penetrate deep into your lungs.
Even nonallergic folks can experience wheeze-inducing nasal inflammation from inhaling Aspergillus particles, according to a recent study from Finland. Worst case: Fungi can lead to a life-threatening lung infection—made even scarier by the fact that molds are increasingly drug resistant.
Clorox alone won't cut it. Even dead mold can cause allergic flare-ups, EPA experts warn, so you need to kill and remove the fungal funk. If you spot a patch—check damp, dark areas—grab gloves, an N-95 respirator mask, and a stiff brush.
Mix 1 cup of bleach into a gallon of water and scrub the area until no visible mold remains. (Mold can be found in more than just your house! Find out: Is Your Office Making You Sick? Rinse with clean water and let the area dry completely.
Bolster your internal defenses too: Scientists in South Carolina recently linked nasal mold infections to insufficient vitamin D levels. If you're on the low side (as most people are), a D3 supplement may ease your inflammatory response to mold spores, says Dr. Sublett. To determine your dose, ask your M.D. to perform a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test.
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