It’s summertime and the living is wheezy.

The time of year when most people want to be outside is also a time when air pollution poses the greatest risk to your health. What are air pollution causes? Well, the heat and sunlight of a summer day cook up ozone, an invisible gas that at high enough levels can reduce lung function, aggravate asthma, cause coughing, throat irritation and even tightness in your chest when breathing.

But, ozone isn’t the only type of air pollution with adverse effects on your health. Other types of air pollution have been linked to stroke and heart attack, development of asthma and other lung disorders in children, the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) in adults and even cognitive decline in the elderly.

Particulates

Particulate matter, the main ingredient in hazy smog, is comprised of very tiny liquid and solid particles floating in the air. The smaller the particle, the bigger the risk to your health. Particles 10 micrometers, or microns, in diameter or smaller because pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs. Ten microns is teeny tiny – a human hair is 40 to 120 microns in diameter.

Particulate air pollution is a mix of smoke, soot, dust, salt, acids, dust and metals kicked into the air from cars, diesel-burning trucks, wood burning stoves, fireplaces, coal power plants, wildfires and windblown dust.

There is strong scientific evidence linking short-term expose to the finest particulate air pollution (2.5 microns or less) to heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular death among those with heart disease, according to a 2010 statement by the American Heart Association.

Particulate air pollution has also been linked to decreased lung function, aggravated asthma and development of chronic bronchitis.

Ozone

Ground level ozone forms when emissions from cars and power plants react chemically with sunlight and heat. Even in healthy adults, high levels of ozone can cause shortness of breath, chest pain when inhaling, wheezing and coughing.

Ozone can also trigger asthma attacks among those with the condition. Higher ozone levels can also aggravate other chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis.

Nitrogen dioxide

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment. Nitrogen dioxide may also be a major component of indoor air pollution, the byproduct of kerosene heaters or improperly vented gas stoves and heaters

Even short-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide – just 30 minutes to 24 hours – can cause inflammation of the throat and lungs in healthy people and aggravate symptoms in those with asthma. Continued exposure to high nitrogen dioxide levels may lead to the development of acute or chronic bronchitis

Sulfur dioxide

The largest sources of sulfur dioxide emissions are coal and oil burning power plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Power plants generate nearly three-quarters of sulfur dioxide emissions.

Sulfur dioxide reacts with other compounds in the atmosphere to form particulate pollution – considered the most harmful type of air pollution. Exposure to sulfur dioxide also aggravates asthma symptoms. The EPA also says there is a connection between short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, particularly among children, the elderly, and asthmatics.

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