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The clean air act on your lungs and mind

columns Updated: Apr 27, 2013 23:07 IST
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For my teenage son, the perfect life is having free wi-fi everywhere — not just at hotels, airports, trains and museums, but also at sidewalk cafes and cabs. Apart from keeping you connected with work and friends, it allows you to download apps on the go that make it impossible for you to get lost even in a country like the Czech Republic where street names are unpronounceable and people take a while to understand you if you ask for a “cheque” instead of a “bill”.

My needs are more basic. The good life for me is being able to walk around past midnight unmolested and breathing in crisp, clean air in the middle of town. Of course, beer being cheaper than coca-cola is yet another plus — a Czech told me he’d rather his young son had beer than cola because at least he knew what went into a beer — but we won’t go onto that just yet. We’ll stick to clean air, which helps me pack in a lot more into my day and night and still get up rested the next morning.

As much as outdoor air, it’s polluted indoor air that does us in. The biggest trouble with poor indoor air quality is that you don’t realise how bad it is till you’re breathing clean air that clears up your head faster than stimulants. Unlike Delhi’s more visible outdoor air pollution — the horror of its lung-wrecking potential hits you hardest when you spot the brown smog cloud hanging low over the city from your airplane while landing -- bad indoor air hurts you subtly.

Most of us who work in closed offices are used to unexplained headache, eye, nose, or throat irritation, dry or itchy skin, difficulty in concentrating and tiredness, all of which disappear soon after you step out. I’ve experienced this firsthand, when the headaches I thought were stress-induced magically vaporised even when leaving office meant driving through roads choked with fume-spouting traffic.

The cause for sick offices is usually poor ventilation caused by too many people cramped together in air-conditioned spaces with little fresh air. This adds to carbon dioxide and humidity levels, which make you feel tired and sluggish. Add to that dirty ventilation ducts, pest dander, mould, lead in painted surfaces, and secondhand smoke and you have a toxic mix that slows you down both mentally and physically.

Offices and schools are also the hotbeds of airborne infections, which is the reason why they are the first things shut down at the first threat of an outbreak. Influenza viruses can survive on hard surfaces such as desks, doorknobs, shared keyboards and books for two to eight hours, which means one infected person or child can infect up to a dozen others in one day.

Then there are the long-term effects of breathing in stale air. Continuously breathing in unclean air slows the normal cleansing action of the lungs and results in pollutants embedding deep inside the lungs and reducing lung capacity. Over time, pollutants also damages the immune system, making you more prone to infections and allergies. Others at higher risk are people over 65 years and pregnant women.

The solution, as usual, takes effort and time. For one, try to spend as much time as you can in open spaces, preferably near greenary and away from traffic. Next, work at building stamina and lung capacity by running, walking, swimming or simply going up and down the stairs several times a day. Quitting smoking lowers exposure to pollutants drastically -- it’s stupid to spend money to add to lung trouble. The best option to clear your airways, of course, is a break away from work and traffic, even if it’s for a weekend. And at the risk of offending your child, choose a wi-fi free destination to give your mind a break too.