How Healthy is the Air You Breathe?

Last updated: June 2020

There is still so much we don't understand about COPD. But we do know there are some specific risk factors, both for developing COPD and for your health stability once you have it.

Risk factors to know

A small percentage of those who have COPD were born with a genetic deficiency of alpha­-1 antitrypsin (AAT for short). AAT is a protein made in the liver that helps protect the body's organs, including the lungs, from harmful proteins. People with this condition are at high risk for developing COPD, often as early as in their 40s or 50s, especially if they smoke.1

Many other people are at risk, even without this genetic disorder, if they smoke. In fact, smoking is the most common risk factor for COPD, although not all smokers get COPD. Up to 75%, or 3 out of 4 people who have COPD have smoked.2

Another important risk factor is the environment. Long-term exposure to certain irritants in the air you breathe, whether at home or at work, can damage the lungs.2 These irritants would include such substances as:

  • air pollution
  • chemical fumes
  • dust
  • secondhand smoke

After you have COPD, the quality of the air you breathe continues to be a key factor in your health status. To breathe well, you'll need good air quality. So, in this article, let's take a closer look at some of these risk factors in your environment. We'll also look at how certain places stack up, in terms of air quality.

Understanding the risks to your air quality

As I mentioned above, long-term contact with irritants in the air you breathe can not only increase your risk of getting COPD. It can also worsen COPD symptoms and trigger flare-ups of your COPD.

If you smoke, you are certainly at risk for unhealthy lungs. But even if you don't smoke, but are exposed to other people's smoking on a regular, extended basis, you are also at risk. I lived most of my first 18 years with at least 2 heavy smokers, and sometimes 4. Although I've never smoked myself, it kind of worries me that I carry that risk. The good news is that for the past 45 years, I've lived in much cleaner air!

Other risk factors can include:

  • Irritants in your workplace air, such as dust, sawdust, chemical fumes and vapors
  • Air pollution, smog, or inversions from car exhaust, manufacturing plants and forest fires
  • Fumes from cooking or heating in poorly-ventilated buildings

Depending on where you live and the type of work you do (or did), some of these irritants may be easier to avoid than others.

Are there better places to live if you have COPD?

Do you find that your COPD symptoms are frequently triggered or worsened, even once you quit smoking (if you needed to)? If so, it's easy to see that if you want to stay as healthy as possible, changes may need to be in order.

When your workplace is exposing you to irritants such as those listed above, you may need to find a new job or to retire. Or, if someone in your household smokes heavily, it's a good idea to have a conversation with them about how to limit your exposure to their tobacco smoke.

What is more troublesome is if you live in an area that contains a high level of irritants in the everyday air. You may not have the option to move. But if you do, it's wise to understand what type of place to look for.

Experts say that the best climate is a fairly cool and dry one, without a lot of temperature extremes.3 Obviously, more rural areas are less likely to suffer from air pollution or industrial fumes. But those areas may also lack access to the type of medical care you need.

For this reason, the American Lung Association has compared air quality in various urban areas throughout the U.S. They have concluded that Los Angeles has the worst pollution. Fairbanks, Alaska and Bakersfield, California are also poor candidates for people who have COPD.3

However, many cities throughout the U.S. have worked hard to improve their air quality over the last decade or so. Here are some of the cities with the best overall air quality:3

  • Bellingham, WA
  • Burlington, VT
  • Casper, WY
  • Honolulu, HI
  • Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL
  • Wilmington, NC
  • Cape Coral-Fort Myers-Naples, FL
  • Elmira-Corning, NY
  • Grand Island, NE
  • Cheyenne, WY

This page on the American Lung Association website lists a number of other "clean air" cities you may want to consider.

Awareness is key

It's important to be aware of how the quality of the air you breathe may affect your overall respiratory health. You may not be able to consider something as drastic as moving to a new city or state, but any steps you can take to find better air quality may help you breathe better.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The COPD.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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