City dwellers beware - here’s what’s hiding in your air

More people are living in urban environments today than ever before. While city-dwellers tend to be more active and socially engaged than those in rural areas - other threats to one’s well-being may be hiding in plain sight.

Urban buildings are more likely to suffer dirty air with elevated levels of PM2.5, formaldehyde and asbestos, which can threaten your health and wellbeing. Awareness to the dangers and sources of these harmful pollutants, and knowledge of how to avoid them, will help to ensure a healthier, happier you while living in or visiting cities everywhere.


As city populations swell, so too do city emissions. This may be in the form of vehicular emissions as new residents crisscross the city for work and errands - industry emissions, as factories and energy plants strive to meet increased demand - or daily personal emissions, from cooking and BBQing, to smoking or wood-burning.

Most harmful among these emissions is a pollutant known for its size rather than make-up - PM2.5. PM2.5, which stands for Particulate Matter which is 2.5 micrometers or smaller, is so small that when inhaled by the lungs, it can traverse the blood barrier, and be carried to organs throughout the body - causing far-reaching health effects.

Global PM2.5 mapAirVisual Earth’s global map of PM2.5 (10/29/2018), where warmer colors indicate higher concentrations of airborne particulate matter

While relatively invisible to the naked eye, PM2.5 can be measured thanks to recent technological developments. Follow outdoor pollution data on the free and ad-free AirVisual air pollution app to know when to avoid strenuous outdoor activity and when to wear a pollution mask. Then, ensure that outdoor emissions are kept at the door, by testing indoor PM2.5 levels with an air monitor, such as the AirVisual Pro. When indoor levels are high, take action such as closing your doors and windows and running an air purifier.


Older buildings, such as those which cropped up in the 19th and early 20th century, relied on construction materials which frequently contained asbestos. At the time, asbestos was considered a miracle material for home building and industrial purposes due to its flexibility, ease of use, and corrosion resistant properties. It’s for these properties that it was once a part of nearly all insulation, plastic, tile and adhesives. In the 1970’s however, it’s toxicity and harm to human health became widely recognized and governments began regulating its use.

Historic urban homesRenovation projects on older homes should be performed with caution, as disturbed asbestos can remain in the air for long periods of time, posing great risks to one’s health

Still, asbestos is prevalent in older buildings and due to city density, can pose risks to urban residents living in, or nearby, more historic homes or buildings. While this should be cause for concern due to the high health risk inhaling asbestos poses - health risks which include: the development of several aggressive cancers, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung, laryngeal and colon cancer - one is generally only at risk of inhaling asbestos when disturbing the materials it is contained within.

As such, advice for reducing your risk of exposure is quite simple - do not disturb it. Avoid drilling, hammering, cutting, sawing, sanding, or damaging materials which may contain asbestos. When renovation projects or repairs are necessary, get the help of professionals, be sure to wear the proper protection and clean up dust not by sweeping, but rather by using a wet rag or type H vacuum cleaner.


While asbestos is an airborne threat to older homes, formaldehyde is a threat to newer homes. This is because formaldehyde is a common precursor ingredient to resins, particle boards, paints, coatings, adhesives and synthetic fabrics - used in new construction. Fortunately, formaldehyde emissions decrease over time as the materials slowly lose their surface toxins.

New urban constructionNewly built homes are much more likely to contain high levels of formaldehyde, as new materials emit their surface formaldehyde content

Short term effects of formaldehyde can include burning eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation. While long term risks include cancer, brain tumors and death.

Fortunately, there are a range of easy steps you can take to reduce your risk of exposure. Firstly, ensure your new home maintains adequate ventilation, moderate temperatures (higher temperatures increase the emissions of formaldehyde), and reduced humidity levels. Meanwhile, carefully choose your adhesive, paint/toner, and cleaning products for ones with reduced concentrations of formaldehyde by referencing product labels.

While city residents are more likely to be exposed to some of these harmful air pollutants, due to increased density of renovation, demolition, new construction and emissions, it is possible to avoid these airborne risks by taking the proper precautions. Don’t let the air be a scare this Halloween. Breathing clean air is in your hands!

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