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Diet, exercise, and stress management all play vital roles in heart, lung, and brain health. But a recent report from the World Health Organization suggests that the positive effects of these healthy lifestyle choices could be jeopardized by the simple act of taking a breath.

Air pollution, the WHO officials said, is now considered the world’s largest environmental health risk, taking the blame for an estimated seven million premature deaths in 2012. That equates to one in eight people worldwide, more than twice as many air pollution-related deaths as previously believed.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes. Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.” — Dr. Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health

According to the report, indoor and outdoor air pollution are both culprits, contributing to such ailments as heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. Women, children, and elderly people are at highest risk, WHO officials said. Globally, low- and middle-income countries in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific had the largest number of air pollution-related deaths.

(Related: How to detox the air in your home)

But being far removed from the worst effects doesn’t mean Americans are off the hook.

According to the American Lung Association’s 2013 “State of the Air” report, overall air quality in the United States has improved — but the number of “unhealthy air days” has risen nationwide. The report also stated that more than 131.8 million Americans, 42 percent of the nation’s population, live in locales with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution.

(Related: Protect yourself from harmful pollutants

Bakersfield, Fresno, and Los Angeles are among the areas most affected by particle pollution. L.A. also topped the list of cities with the most ozone pollution, which also included Dallas and Washington, DC. (To learn how your hometown stacks up, visit

(Related: What’s good for the planet is good for you)

The ALA offers the following advice to stay safe and minimize air pollution in your community:

  • Pay attention to forecasts for high air pollution days. (Download the “State of the Air” app to get forecasts delivered to your phone.)
  • Avoid exercising near high-traffic areas.
  • Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high, or substitute an activity that requires less exertion.
  • Do not let anyone smoke indoors.
  • Reduce the use of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves.
  • Drive less, and carpool or use public transportation when possible.
  • Turn off lights when not in use, and use energy-efficient appliances.

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