Inhale, exhale. Simple, right?
Not if something in the air is impairing your breathing. Here are some basics about such airborne hazards, which you should discuss with your doctor or employer.
* Some particles suspended in the air -- fog, dust, fumes, mist and smoke -- may be too small to see, but they are nonetheless a problem if you inhale them. They can damage your upper respiratory tract (the nose, mouth and throat). Symptoms can include hoarseness, burning and congestion. Exposure over time may result in long-term problems in the upper respiratory tract. When substances too fine to be filtered out by your body's natural defenses reach your lungs, they can become lodged in the tissue. Health problems can mean bronchitis, emphysema, asthma or cancer.
Tasks that can expose you to these hazards include painting and plating, drilling and grinding, spraying and cleaning, and welding.
* Gases and vapors -- often invisible substances that float in the air -- can also do damage to your airway. Some can be deadly. Once they reach your lungs, they can be absorbed into the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the body, including the brain, heart and reproductive organs. Jobs that can expose you to these hazards include laboratory work, cleaning with solvents and heating certain liquids.
* Oxygen deficiency can cause sudden loss of consciousness and, in some cases, death. Tasks that can pose a threat of severe oxygen deficiency include tank cleaning or maintenance, working in manholes and firefighting. Certain situations call for respirators; which kind depends on the task at hand.
* Disposable dust masks are simple filtering devices that fit over the mouth and nose. The masks, which trap particles as you inhale, are suitable for such low- to moderate-hazard tasks as woodworking, sanding and insulating.
* Half-mask respirators cover the nose and mouth; full-face versions include the eyes. Jobs for which they are appropriate include welding, heavy-duty cleaning and painting.
* Atmosphere-supplying respirators, or air-line respirators, offer the greatest protection. They provide air through a hose attached to an outside supply and self-contained breathing apparatus that enable you to move about while carrying an air supply.