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What’s in the air?

Categories: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Health Investigations, Toxic Substances

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April 13-19 is National Environmental Education Week. Both NCEH and ATSDR work to protect people from exposure to environmental public health hazards. The blog is featuring a series of six posts explaining exposure pathways or the ways in which people can come into contact with toxic substances. This post explains how people can be exposed to harmful substances in the air.

If you live downwind from a landfill, you know all about smelly air. If you live in a big city, you undoubtedly inhale car or bus exhaust fumes. No matter where we live, most of us have experience with unclean air. Sometimes communities where residents smell foul chemical odors from industrial or waste sites ask ATSDR to evaluate the possible health effects of breathing polluted air.

Air pollution usually refers to various gases, tiny solid particles, and liquid droplets that contain toxic substances at levels that may be unsafe for humans to breathe. Many pollutants get into the air because of human behavior, but some come from natural sources like forest fires or soil erosion.

Some particles deposit in the nose or throat and your body can remove them. Only gasses and very tiny particles can reach deep into your lungs or the membrane around the lungs. Some might damage the lungs while others can move into your bloodstream and to other parts of your body where they might cause harm.

ATSDR has conducted health evaluations in communities across the country to investigate exposures to contaminants in the air.

Asbestos is a mineral that occurs naturally, commonly in specific rocks and near fault lines. It is made up of tiny fibers inhaled easily when rocks and soil are disturbed.

Asbestos fibers can attach to lung tissue or the membrane surrounding the lung and remain there, causing irritation and frequently serious lung diseases, like asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining).

El Dorado Hills, California

ATSDR evaluated EPA air sampling data from El Dorado Hills showing that people in that area could possibly breathe in high concentrations of naturally-occurring asbestos found in rock, gravel, and soil. Running, driving, and other types of outdoor activities can release the asbestos in these materials into the air.

ATSDR scientists concluded that breathing in the asbestos in the El Dorado Hills area over a lifetime could potentially harm people’s health. However, they also concluded that reducing exposures would protect health and recommended actions the community could take.

East Liverpool, Ohio

In East Liverpool, Ohio, ATSDR scientists found that manganese concentrations in the air were a public health hazard, especially for children.

Manganese is a naturally occurring element found in many types of rocks and naturally in most foods. In fact, eating a small amount of manganese each day is important to stay healthy, but inhaling or consuming more than the recommended amount can harm your health.

People can be exposed to manganese from breathing air in locations where industry is releasing it and from drinking water and eating food containing the mineral. High enough levels of manganese exposure can damage the brain and nervous system.

A storage and packaging facility in East Liverpool was releasing manganese into the air during operations. The site team reviewed EPA air monitoring data from several locations around town to see if manganese in the air was at harmful levels. At one monitoring location in a densely populated area, manganese reached levels that could damage the brain or nervous system, especially in children.

Following ATSDR’s recommendation, the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA took action to reduce community exposures and continued to monitor air, soil, and dust to protect residents.

Asbestos and manganese are just two toxic substances in the air that can cause harmful health effects. Asbestos harms the lungs directly, while manganese can harm the brain and other parts of the nervous system. ATSDR’s evaluations indicated exposures of health concern and provided recommendations to protect people’s health.

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