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Composition of inhaled and exhaled air

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For us to feel good, the air we breathe must have the proper composition. The components of air are crucial to respiratory health. Unfortunately, air pollution is one of the biggest civilization plagues we have to face. Remember that even low concentrations of inhalant pollutants can reduce the quality and length of our lives.

What is air?

In short, air is the mixture of gases and aerosols that forms the Earth’s atmosphere. This has changed over the centuries, but currently the concentration of air elements remains relatively constant. In the atmospheric air we can distinguish between solid particles and those whose presence varies depending on weather, environmental and civilization factors. We are talking for example about water vapour, carbon dioxide as well as the infamous sulphur dioxide (SO2) which is a suffocating and highly toxic gas. Its concentration depends on geographical location, industrial development, season of the year. It is hard not to mention here that the main source of SO2 emission into the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels.

Composition of air

Pure atmospheric air contains elements such as nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide. The most important gas is, of course, oxygen, which is involved in all physiological processes in the human body. Of course, it’s not just us humans who need cellular respiration. Without oxygen, animals and plants would not survive either. In the air, we also find further chemical compounds: hydrogen, neon, helium, methane, krypton, xenon, ozone, iodine, mineral and organic suspended solids, such as plant spores, as well as poisonous gases and dusts.

What shouldn’t be in our air?

The matter seems clear, but let’s list those components of the air that threaten our health. These are mainly industrial, economic and mineral pollution (dust, soot), and harmful products of oxidation of various combustible materials. Fuel combustion is the primary source of atmospheric contamination. As a result, we inhale:

  • sulphur dioxide
  • nitrogen dioxide
  • carbon monoxide
  • benzene
  • fine particulate matter (PM2.5 – atmospheric aerosols)
  • fine particulate matter (PM10 – atmospheric aerosols)

Fine dusts are very dangerous and equally insidious. They have such a small particle size that the human eye is not able to see it (diameter less than 2.5 micrometers). Therefore it is worth remembering that the average annual concentration of fine dust is 10 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter). Let’s be careful during grilling season too! It’s hard to defend ourselves against harmful air constituents – after all, we won’t hold our breath. However, it’s always a good idea to invest in home dust sensors, but also check the automatic measurement data available on many websites. They give you the current composition of the air, updated every hour.

Composition of inhaled and exhaled air

The percentage composition of gases in inhaled air looks like this: 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and 1% other gases. The percentage distribution of elements in exhaled air is already slightly different as the value of carbon dioxide increases: 78% nitrogen, 17% oxygen, as much as 4% carbon dioxide, and 1% of the other gases. Let us recall that the air we breathe every day is full of pathological substances, i.e. substances that should not be there. These are mainly pollutants, originating from human activity: chimneys, car exhausts, factories (see above). Dusts and harmful gases spread destruction in the tissues of living organisms. What is important, toxic substances from the outside are also transmitted indoors, so in fact it is impossible to protect against them 100%. When we inhale smog and exhaust fumes, we damage the respiratory system (especially the lungs and bronchi), the circulatory system (heart, arteries), and the nervous system (cells, brain).

Contaminated air leads to the formation of cancer, hypertension, conjunctivitis, asthma and other serious disorders. It also has a disastrous effect on the health of pregnant women, on foetal development (birth defects). Therefore, air quality is not a topic for ecologists, but an important issue for each of us. It is a matter of life and death.

How to check the air composition?

For this purpose, specialized room and outdoor measuring devices are used. The usefulness of these devices is enormous because it gives a lot of knowledge about what air components and in what amounts get into our lungs.

An interesting ecological action is also the campaign of the Polish Smog Alert under the slogan: See what you are breathing. It consists in the fact that selected towns – the most threatened by the influence of smog – will appear so called artificial lungs. It is a mobile two-meter installation, which travels around the country. It indicates the level of air pollution in the most illustrative way – mobile lungs change color over time. At first they are white, after a few days they become gray, graphite, even black. The lungs are made of translucent material. Back fans pass air through them, imitating human breathing. Through this demonstration, viewers see how polluted their towns and villages are.

What can be done to improve the quality and composition of the air we breathe?

  • Let’s remember that furnaces and boiler houses are a great field of action to improve the composition of the air.
  • Let’s give up fossil fuels.
  • Do not burn: coal waste, plastic, clothes, rubber, chipboard.
  • Plastic is a recyclable material! Instead of burning it, let’s return it to the plastic collection point.
  • Check the condition of your heating system to make sure it works efficiently.
  • Use automatic heating devices in houses, offices and hotels so that only the amount of heating fuel that is really needed is consumed.
  • Let’s insulate the house, seal the windows so that heat does not “escape” outside.
  • Use air purifiers and humidifiers in homes.
  • Grow plants that absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
  • Plant trees and bushes.

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