How Visiting a Polluted City is Bad for Your Health.
How worried should you be about a city like Shanghai?
An air quality expert reveals the potentially damaging effects.
Sometimes, a new city greets you with breathtaking views; other times, a smog-filled descent is enough to make you wonder if you should hold your breath. With Beijing building ventilation corridors and air pollution so bad it blocks sunlight in New Delhi, it's a fair question.
Sure, the risks of calling a hazy hub home are well-documented: Long-term studies have shown that those who live in polluted cities tend to not live as long. But travelers, who may only spend a few days in polluted cities, also aren’t immune to the effects. So can short-term exposure to high levels of air pollution impact your health? “I think absolutely, yes,” says Mike Kleeman, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Davis who studies air quality and health.
There are two primary causes: High levels of ozone (otherwise known as smog) created by sunlight acting on gases emitted from cars, barbecues, power plants, or even trees, and airborne particles from anything that produces visible smoke, like old diesel trucks.
Ozone can particularly impact those with asthma or compromised immune systems. But if pollution grows bad enough, even healthy adults can suffer, and a few hours of exposure to high levels can lead some to experience respiratory issues like chest pain and a greater chance of infection. “If you go for a run in a city with high ozone, you'll likely cough if you take a deep breath," Kleeman tells Condé Nast Traveler.
In air that's jam-packed with airborne particles, even just 24 hours of breathing in it is linked with aggravated asthma and difficulty breathing—and if you have heart or lung disease, it can even contribute to premature death, says Kleeman.
And while air pollution levels in India and China are typically 10 to 100 times higher than U.S. rates, ozone routinely exceeds healthy levels throughout cities in California, Texas, and along the eastern seaboard.
Your best bet to breathing easy? Know what you’re walking into. The Air Quality Index color codes air quality by zip code in the U.S. and overseas, detailing any potential adverse effects. If levels are high, consider curbing overall exposure by exploring indoor spots like museums; or heading to a national park or green space outside of the city, which—thanks to their many plants and trees—can filter harmful pollutants from the air. And finally, smog levels vary with the level, so if you’re overseas and see visible haze, stay put indoors, says Kleeman… (Written by Cassie Shortsleeve).
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