Air Pollution Facts, Causes, Hazard and the Effects of Pollutants in the Air

How smog, soot, greenhouse gases, and other top air pollutants are affecting the planet—and your health.

What Is Air Pollution?

Pollution is now a commonplace term, that our ears are attuned to. We hear about the various forms of pollution and read about it through the mass media.

Air pollution is one such form that refers to the contamination of the air, irrespective of indoors or outside.

A physical, biological or chemical alteration to the air in the atmosphere can be termed as pollution. It occurs when any harmful gases, dust, smoke enters into the atmosphere and makes it difficult for plants, animals, and humans to survive as the air becomes dirty.

Air pollution can further be classified into two sections- visible air pollution and invisible air pollution.

Another way of looking at air pollution could be any substance that holds the potential to hinder the atmosphere or the well being of the living beings surviving in it.

The sustainment of all things living is due to a combination of gases that collectively form the atmosphere; the imbalance caused by the increase or decrease in the percentage of these gases can be harmful to survival.

The Ozone layer considered crucial for the existence of the ecosystems on the planet is depleting due to increased pollution.

Global warming, a direct result of the increased imbalance of gases in the atmosphere has come to be known as the biggest threat and challenge that the contemporary world has to overcome in a bid for survival.

Types of Pollutants

In order to understand the causes of Air pollution, several divisions can be made.

Primarily air pollutants can be caused by primary sources or secondary sources. The pollutants that are a direct result of the process can be called primary pollutants.

A classic example of a primary pollutant would be the sulfur-dioxide emitted from factories

Secondary pollutants are the ones that are caused by the intermingling and reactions of primary pollutants.

Smog created by the interactions of several primary pollutants is known to be as a secondary pollutant.

Different types of pollutants include:

  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Sulfur oxides (SOx)
  • Particulate matter (PM)
  • Ground level ozone (O3)
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Mercury (Hg)
  • Peroxyacyl nitrates (PANs)
Types of Pollutants
Types of Pollutants – Image Source: Energy Education

Various Causes of Air pollution

Air pollution is caused by solid and liquid particles and certain gases that are suspended in the air. These particles and gases can come from car and truck exhaust, factories, dust, pollen, mold spores, volcanoes and wildfires. The solid and liquid particles suspended in our air are called aerosols.

1. The burning of fossil fuels

Sulfur dioxide emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and other factory combustibles are one the major cause of air pollution.

Pollution emitting from vehicles including trucks, jeeps, cars, trains, airplanes cause an immense amount of pollution. We rely on them to fulfill our daily basic needs of transportation. But, their overuse is killing our environment as dangerous gases are polluting the environment.

Carbon Monoxide caused by improper or incomplete combustion and generally emitted from vehicles is another major pollutant along with Nitrogen Oxides, that is produced from both natural and man-made processes.

2. Agricultural activities

Ammonia is a very common byproduct from agriculture-related activities and is one of the most hazardous gases in the atmosphere.

Use of insecticides, pesticides, and fertilizers in agricultural activities has grown quite a lot. They emit harmful chemicals into the air and can also cause water pollution.

3. Exhaust from factories and industries

Manufacturing industries release a large amount of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, organic compounds, and chemicals into the air thereby depleting the quality of air.

Manufacturing industries can be found at every corner of the earth and there is no area that has not been affected by it.

Petroleum refineries also release hydrocarbons and various other chemicals that pollute the air and also cause land pollution.

4. Mining operations

Mining is a process wherein minerals below the earth are extracted using large equipment. During the process dust and chemicals are released in the air causing massive air pollution.

This is one of the reasons which is responsible for the deteriorating health conditions of workers and nearby residents.

5. Indoor air pollution

Household cleaning products, painting supplies emit toxic chemicals in the air and cause air pollution.

Have you ever noticed that once you paint the walls of your house, it creates some sort of smell which makes it literally impossible for you to breathe?

Suspended particulate matter popular by its acronym SPM, is another cause of pollution. Referring to the particles afloat in the air, SPM is usually caused by dust, combustion, etc.

Disastrous Effects of Air pollution

1. Respiratory and heart problems

The effects of air pollution are alarming. They are known to create several respiratory and heart conditions along with Cancer, among other threats to the body.

Several million are known to have died due to direct or indirect effects of Air pollution. Children in areas exposed to air pollutants are said to commonly suffer from pneumonia and asthma.

2. Global warming

Another direct effect is the immediate alterations that the world is witnessing due to global warming. With increased temperatures worldwide, increase in sea levels and melting of ice from colder regions and icebergs, displacement and loss of habitat have already signaled an impending disaster if actions for preservation and normalization aren’t undertaken soon.

3. Acid rain

Harmful gases like nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides are released into the atmosphere during the burning of fossil fuels. When it rains, the water droplets combine with these air pollutants, becomes acidic and then falls on the ground in the form of acid rain. Acid rain can cause great damage to human, animals, and crops.

4. Eutrophication

Eutrophication is a condition where a high amount of nitrogen present in some pollutants gets developed on sea’s surface and turns itself into algae and adversely affect fish, plants and animal species. The green-colored algae that are present on lakes and ponds is due to the presence of this chemical only.

5. Effect on wildlife

Just like humans, animals also face some devastating effects of air pollution. Toxic chemicals present in the air can force wildlife species to move to a new place and change their habitat. The toxic pollutants deposit over the surface of the water and can also affect sea animals.

6. Depletion of the ozone layer

Ozone exists in the Earth’s stratosphere and is responsible for protecting humans from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Earth’s ozone layer is depleting due to the presence of chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere.

As the ozone layer will go thin, it will emit harmful rays back on earth and can cause skin and eye related problems. UV rays also have the capability to affect crops.

When you try to study the sources of Air pollution, you enlist a series of activities and interactions that create these pollutants. There are two types of sources that we will take a look at Natural sources and Man-made sources.

Natural sources of pollution include dust carried by the wind from locations with very little or no green cover, gases released from the body processes of living beings (Carbon dioxide from humans during respiration, Methane from cattle during digestion, Oxygen from plants during Photosynthesis).

Smoke from the combustion of various inflammable objects, volcanic eruptions, etc along with the emission of polluted gases also makes it to the list of natural sources of pollution.

While looking at the man-made contributions towards air pollution, smoke again features as a prominent component.

The smoke emitted from various forms of combustion like in biomass, factories, vehicles, furnaces, etc. Waste used to create landfills generate methane, that is harmful in several ways.

The reactions of certain gases and chemicals also form harmful fumes that can be dangerous to the well being of living creatures.

Where do aerosols come from?

Any particle that gets picked up into the air or is formed from chemical reactions in the air can be an aerosol. Many aerosols enter the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels—such as coal and petroleum—and wood. These particles can come from many sources, including car exhaust, factories and even wildfires. Some of the particles and gases come directly from these sources, but others form through chemical reactions in the air.

Aerosols can come from other places, too, such as ash from an erupting volcano. Dust, pollen from plants and mold spores are also examples of aerosols.

How does air pollution affect our health?

Breathing in polluted air can be very bad for our health. Long-term exposure to air pollution has been associated with diseases of the heart and lungs, cancers and other health problems. That’s why it’s important for us to monitor air pollution.

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How does air pollution affect Earth’s climate?

Aerosols can impact how the Sun’s light hits Earth. For example, some aerosols reflect sunlight while others absorb sunlight. It depends on the color of the particle.

Dark surfaces—whether it’s a black t-shirt or a dark particle in the atmosphere—absorb the Sun’s heat. Lighter-colored surfaces reflect heat from the Sun.

A white t-shirt reflects the Sun on a hot day, making you feel cooler. In the same way, light-colored particles that reflect the Sun’s light and heat away from Earth can make the global temperature cooler. Dark-colored particles that absorb the Sun’s light can make the global temperature warmer.

Solutions For Air Pollution

Introduce Post-combustion controls

Improve Industrial emission standards

Improve Emission standards for road vehicles

Vehicle inspection and maintenance

Dust control – Suppress construction and road dust; increase green areas.

Agricultural crop residues

Residential waste burning

Prevention of forest and peatland fires

Livestock manure management

Improve the use of Nitrogen fertilizers

Improve Brick Ovens

International shipping – Require low-sulphur fuels and stricter control of particulate emissions related to shipping.

Solvent use and refineries

Go for Clean cooking and heating

Switch to renewables for power generation

Improve Energy efficiency for households

Enforce energy efficiency standards for industries

Promote Electric vehicles

Improve public transport

Solid waste Management

Agricultural Management of Rice paddies

Wastewater treatment

Improve efficiency of existing Coal mining

Improve existing Oil and gas production

Replace refrigerant fluids

1. Use public mode of transportation

Encourage people to use more and more public modes of transportation to reduce pollution. Also, try to make use of carpooling.

If you and your colleagues come from the same locality and have same timings you can explore this option to save energy and money.

2. Conserve energy

Switch off fans and lights when you are going out. A large number of fossil fuels are burnt to produce electricity. You can save the environment from degradation by reducing the number of fossil fuels to be burned.

3. Understand the concept of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

Do not throw away items that are of no use to you. In-fact reuse them for some other purpose. For e.g. you can use old jars to store cereals or pulses.

4. Emphasis on clean energy resources

Clean energy technologies like solar, wind and geothermal are on high these days.

Governments of various countries have been providing grants to consumers who are interested in installing solar panels for their home. This will go a long way to curb air pollution.

5. Use energy efficient devices

CFL lights consume less electricity as against their counterparts. They live longer, consume less electricity, lower electricity bills and also help you to reduce pollution by consuming less energy.

Several attempts are being made worldwide on a personal, industrial and governmental levels to curb the intensity at which air pollution is rising and regain a balance as far as the proportions of the foundation gases are concerned. This is a direct attempt at slacking Global warming.

We are seeing a series of innovations and experiments aimed at alternate and unconventional options to reduce pollutants. Air pollution is one of the larger mirrors of man’s follies, and a challenge we need to overcome to see a tomorrow.

Facts on Air Pollution

An average American breathe 2 gallons of air per minute which means around 3400 gallons of air each day.

Inhaling air pollution takes away at least 1-2 years of a typical human life.

It has effects as small as burning eyes and itchy throat to as large as breathing problems and death.

Pollutants that are released into the air, as opposed to land and water pollutants, are the most harmful.

Rising levels of air pollution in Beijing has brought a new disease – Beijing cough.

Air pollution is not a recent occurrence. In 1952, the Great Smog of London killed 8000 people.

Deaths caused by air pollution cost the European Union €161 billion.

Electric vehicles produce less air pollutants. They stir up dirt but without producing gases.

Producing heavy crude oil increases chances of air pollution by 40% than producing light crude oil.

According to the Lancet journal, air pollution caused by waiting in traffic increases the chances of death caused due to heart attack.

Toxic air pollution poses a greater threat to children, due to their smaller physical size and lung capacity.

Air pollution and resulting deaths are increasing fastest in Asia.

Air pollution that causes smog affects dolphins and makes them suffer from black lung diseases.

70% of the air pollution caused in Chinese cities is due to tailpipes.

5,000 premature deaths in Southern California are caused due to pollution from diesel trucks.

Travels at Grand Canyon are unable to see the other side due to air pollution, is 1000 miles away.

The most hazardous pollutants are released from the air and less from the water and land together.

The best ways to reduce air pollution are by walking and riding bicycle.

A single bus caries passengers which are likely to drive 40 cars.

28% of the Americans believe they are most affected by air pollution caused by vehicles.

Air pollution in China can travel up to Central Valley of California.

Outdoor air pollution outdoor, ranks in the top ten killers on earth.

65% of the deaths in Asia and 25% deaths in India are due to air pollution.

2 million cars in Manila, Philippines cause 80% of air pollution.

Air pollution in India is estimated to cause 527, 700 deaths every year.

The number of people who die in America every year due to air pollution is above 50,000.

80% of lung diseases are caused due to pollution from other cars, buses, trucks and other vehicles.

It is estimated that 750,000 people die in china prematurely due to air pollution.

Research by MIT proves that around 13,000 British citizens die due to air pollution from vehicles an power plants.

Air pollution in California kills 25,000 people per year and costs $200 million worth of medical expenses.

300,000 in China die every year due heart disease and lung cancer cause by air pollution.

People in many cities wear masks continually to save themselves from air pollution.

Heavy crude oil increases air pollution 40% more than light crude oil.

Air pollution caused in traffic increase the chances of heart attack.

By 2050, 6 million people will die per year due to air pollution.

During heavy traffic jam, pollutants outside can seep into your car, making the air inside you car 10 times more polluted than typical city air.

According to the California Department of Education, Asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism.

Indoor air pollution is 2-5 times worse than the air outdoors.

People who live near high traffic roads face greater risk of cancer, heart disease, asthma and bronchitis as these places contain more concentrated levels of air pollution.

Switching to more efficient and cleaner fuels from solid fuels(wood, biomass) can help you to reduce indoor air pollution.

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