The Toxic Air We Breathe

Tufts Now All Stories

When we think of health hazards, many things come to mind: bad nutrition, car accidents, addiction to drugs. But one we rarely consider is our exposure to particulate matter in the air we breathe. After all, aside from the occasional forest fire, we in the U.S. are pretty immune to that, right?Doug Brugge tells us otherwise in his new book Particles in the Air: The Deadliest Pollutant Is the One You Breathe Every Day (Springer). In fact, he points out that three of the ten top causes of ill health and death worldwide are due to particulate matter. While smoking is an obvious one, indoor solid fuel burning in developing countries and exposure to fine and ultrafine particles, which go deep into our lungs and even get into our brains, are less visible but likewise harmful.
The most hazardous particulate matter, or PM, is the result of combustion, from burning wood, coal, gasoline, and other fossil fuels. Those particles are small: they make the dust motes we see in a ray of sunshine seem like boulders by comparison, says Brugge, a professor in the Tufts School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health and Community Medicine and a Tisch Senior Fellow. They are present even when we look out and see clear blue skies. And for many millions of people around the world, such as in China and India, they are even more common, from traffic, industrial air pollution, and cooking fires.
Brugge’s short book, written with the goal of educating a general audience, details the hazards of PM and the people who are harmed by them, from women who use indoor cooking stoves in India and China to people affected by secondhand smoke. He highlights some positives—such as how the petroleum industry helped promote the use of liquid petroleum gas instead of far more polluting …

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