The respiratory tract is made up of large tubes which divide into smaller ones until these become finer than threads. Each tiny tube then ends in a sac where air comes in contact with thin-walled blood vessels to exchange oxygen for the carbon dioxide in the blood. Oxygen cannot be stored in the body; it has to be provided through the air that one breathes, about one-fifth of which consists of oxygen.
Oxygenation and Environment
An altitude of 300 to 600 feet is ideal for healthful oxygenation. (Altitudes above 4,000 feet have less oxygen in the air.)
A warm, dry climate permits outdoor living; it causes fewer lung infections than a rainy, damp climate that requires indoor living. Smoke, dust, fumes, odors, and gases cause fine particles of ash to deposit them on the lung mucosa and bring about an extra secretion of mucus which may become infected. Recurrent infections cause a destruction of the air sacs of the lung, a condition called pre-emphysema. This is a ballooning of the chest through air retention. The lungs lose their elasticity and cannot stretch to receive fresh air or recoil to expel stale air.
The diagnosis of pre-emphysema rests on frequent upper respiratory infections, mucus production, a history of breathlessness, wheezing after walking or playing, an X-ray finding in the lung, and a diminished breathing capacity when respiratory function tests are performed.
Preventive measures consist of avoiding upper respiratory infections, removing dust from the bedroom (with an electrostatic precipitator or a filter), and eliminating cigarette smoke from the house.
Drugs which facilitate breathing, such as adrenalin, aminophylline, steroids, antibiotics, expectorants, aerosols of mucolytic agents, saturated solution KI, all help in the treatment of pre-emphysema. Mechanical devices can be used to force oxygen into the lungs, and breathing and postural exercises can help empty the mucus accumulated in the lungs. Two mechanical devices to supplement the lack of oxygen in the lungs are a portable oxygen tank and an intermittent positive pressure machine which can push air forcefully on and off into the alveoli.
Pre-emphysema is a milder illness than emphysema because it is reversible. There are many places in the United States where the outdoor climate is ideal for the healthful breathing of a child with pre-emphysema; for example, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Texas, and Colorado.
The problem of air pollution is recognized universally now, but appropriate solutions come slowly. Air chemistry is in the early stages of scientific development, with government and industry subsidizing dozens of research projects to explore the relationship between environmental, industrial, and automotive emissions and to establish better air quality standards.