Help! I Can’t Breathe!

A human being can live for several weeks without food. He can even live for several days without water. But any human being, if forced to go more than a few minutes without air, will be unable to survive.

Air – it is profoundly necessary for survival, yet breathing is something so routine that we do it every few seconds without a thought. There are many who have recognized the life-and-death implications of air. Adolph Hitler and his Nazi army killed millions of Jews, Blacks, homosexuals, and other political prisoners by forcing detainees into airtight rooms and flooding them with toxic gasses. Countless others have committed murders by strangling or suffocating victims. Without air, people die! Sadly, the World Health Organization released a 2004 report placing lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (both breathing disorders) as the third and fourth leading causes of death worldwide.1

If you live in the Middle East and North Africa, chances are you’ve already noticed that illness and even death due to bad air is on the rise. According to a 2003 report from Iraq, acute lower respiratory infections and diarrhea together account for 70% of children’s deaths.2 In Lebanon, breathing problems cause 34% of total deaths for Syrian refugees!3 Egypt also has respiratory illness challenges. Approximately 8% of Egyptian children live with asthma, and one in four of these children are unable to attend school due to poor asthma control.4 Other common problems associated with poor air intake include headaches, dizziness, forgetfulness, irregular heartbeat, reduced lung function, and heart disease.

But what can we do to bring a breath of fresh air to the discussion on respiratory illness? First, let us discover how bad air causes these breathing problems.

Causes for Respiratory Illness

Our air is dirty – seriously dirty! Often, you can see it in the gray or orange haze that floats over many cities. These hazy clouds of pollution are made up of tiny particles hanging suspended in the air. There are two main categories of these pollutants:

1. Coarse Dust Particles (PM10) are 2.5 to 10 micrometers in diameter (a micrometer is one-millionth of a meter). These particles come from duststorms, sandstorms, mining operations, and dust stirred up by vehicles on the road.

2. Fine Particles (PM2.5) are 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter – much smaller than the human eye can see! These come from vehicle exhaust fumes, smoke from burning wood or trash, power plants, cigarette smoke, and industrial operations.5

Both coarse particles and fine particles are harmful to your health, but the most dangerous are the fine particles. While most of the larger bits of dust and sand (PM10) can be trapped by your body’s defense system of nose hairs and mucous, the unfelt fine particles can enter every part of your respiratory system, contributing to disorders such as asthma, respiratory infections, dizziness, headaches, and heart problems. Not only are many of these particles toxic, but they also “plug up” the natural breathing processes of the lungs. Tiny PM2.5 particles are particularly dangerous for children, causing birth defects like low birth weight, asthma, lung cancer, general breathing problems, and early death.6

Do you want to breathe freely? The ideal solution is to live in a rural setting, far from cars, power plants, burning trash and rubber, and secondhand smoke. For many of us in the Middle East and North Africa, however, moving to a country villa high above the city smog is not an option. Here are four quick and simple tips to help you improve the quality of air you breathe, right where you are.

Four Tips for Cleaner Air

1. One of the greatest contributors to dirty air is vehicle combustion. Those puffs of smog coming out of the car in front of you end up in your lungs daily! The best thing to do is to drive with your windows up whenever possible, and set your air conditioning to circulate the inside air instead of pulling in dirty air from outside. If you must drive with your windows open, and especially if you drive all day or drive a scooter, obtain a nose-and-mouth mask that can filter fine particles. Make sure you purchase a mask that has straps fitting snugly around the back of your head; the masks that strap around the ears will only filter large particles, not the smaller ones.

2. What about the air inside your home? One of the best ways to preserve clean indoor air is to send the smoker outside! Secondhand smoke is very dangerous, especially for small children. Smoke from cigarettes contains many toxic PM2.5 particles, which enter children’s lungs and are a leading contributor to asthma, respiratory infections, and cancer. If there is a smoker in the family, insist that he or she smoke outside.

3. Even after you send the smoker outside, other small particulate matter will continue to drift inside your home – mostly from nearby traffic and fires. You can combat this by placing a houseplant in each room of your home. Any type of plant will work well. Science shows that houseplants can reduce PM10 by up to 30% and can significantly help reduce the presence of the tiny PM2.5 particles. Keep the plant near a window where it can receive light, and as it “breathes” the air in your home, it will filter out many of the things you don’t want in your own lungs!

4. One last tip to improve air quality in your home is not to fear ventilation from outdoors. Often, the air inside a home is worse than outside, unless you have air conditioning units with proper filtration systems. The only thing worse than breathing dirty air from outside is trapping dirty air inside and breathing it again and again. If you live in an urban area, your best option is to open all your windows early in the morning before car emissions begin to accumulate in the air. The outdoor air is cleanest in the early morning, so open up and let it in! After an hour or so of letting the outside air circulate through your home, shut the windows again. Changing the air in your home at the right time every day is a great way to breathe easier.

Easy Breathing

If you or someone in your family struggles with a chronic respiratory illness, or even if you simply are tired of constant headaches, dizzy spells, forgetfulness, and tiredness, you might want to try some of these tips for better breathing. After all, the air we breathe really is a life-or-death matter.

However, if you or someone you know struggles to breathe or has pain when breathing, you should see a doctor right away. Visit our website for further information on breathing well and gaining optimal health in all areas of life.

1. World Health Organization, “Injury Deaths Rise in Rank,”, accessed December 2015.

2. Ala’din Alwan, “Health in Iraq,”, accessed December 2015.

3. “UNHCR Primary Health Care Profile,” 2014 Quarter 1, January – March.

4. Mohammad Awad Tag al-Din, “Chronic Respiratory Diseases and Other Noncommunicable Diseases in Egypt,”, accessed December 2015.

5. “Particle Pollution (PM),”, accessed December 2015.

6. “Air and Health,”, accessed December 2015.

7. P.N. Pegas, et al, “Could Houseplants Improve Indoor Air Quality in Schools?” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part A (Impact Factor: 2.35). 10/2012; 75(22-23):1371-80.