What is Air Pollution?

Pollution is now a commonplace term that our ears are attuned to. We hear about the various forms of pollution every day 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.

Read here more about 40 facts of air pollution.

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Source: Pixabay

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.

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

Visible air pollution, as the name suggests, can be visible. The smog you see over a city is an example of visible pollution.

Invisible air pollutants are less noticeable, but they can be more deadly. Good examples of invisible air pollutants are sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

It can be further divided into Primarily and Secondary air pollutants if we go deep.

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 as a secondary pollutant.

Top-ten Kinds of Air Pollution

  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Nitrogen oxides
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Particulates
  • Ozone
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
  • Unburned hydrocarbons
  • Lead and heavy metals

Sources of Air Pollution

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

Natural 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.

Man-made Sources

While looking at the man-made contributions towards air pollution, it can be further divided into: 

  1. Outdoor pollution sources
  2. Indoor pollution sources

Outdoor Pollution Sources

The major outdoor pollution sources include power generation, vehicles, agriculture/waste incineration, industry and building heating systems. Smoke features as a prominent component. The smoke emitted from various forms of combustion, like in biomass, factories, vehicles, furnaces, etc.

Waste dumped in landfills generates methane, which 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.

Indoor Pollution Sources

In low- and middle-income countries, mostly burning fuels such as dung, coal and wood in inefficient stoves or open hearths produces a variety of health-damaging pollutants. These include carbon monoxide, methane, particulate matter (PM), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

Even burning kerosene in simple wick lamps also produces significant emissions of fine particles and other pollutants. Exposure to smoke from cooking fires causes 3.8 million premature deaths each year.

Various Causes of Air pollution

1. The Burning of Fossil Fuels

Sulfur dioxide emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, petroleum for energy in power plants, and other factory combustibles is one the major cause of air pollution. 

Billions of vehicles run on roads are powered by gasoline and diesel engines that burn petroleum for releasing energy. Petroleum is made up of hydrocarbons, and engines don’t burn them cleanly.

As a result, pollutants such as PM, nitric oxide and NO2 (together referred to as NOx), carbon monoxide, organic compounds, and lead emit from vehicles including trucks, jeeps, cars, trains, airplanes, causing a high level of pollution. These modes of transportation form part of our daily basic needs, so we rely on them heavily.

But, their overuse is killing our environment as dangerous gases are polluting the atmosphere. 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.

As per the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to outdoor air pollution contributes to as much as 0.6 to 1.4 percent of the burden of disease and 4.2 million deaths every year.

2. Agricultural Activities

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

Farmers also set the field and old crops on fire in order to keep them clean for the next round of sowing. The burning to clean fields is said to cause pollution by releasing harmful gases in the air.

3. Waste in Landfills

Landfills are land areas in which waste is deposited or buried. These deposited or buried wastes generate methane. Methane is a major greenhouse gas that is highly flammable and very hazardous.  

E-waste is another grave concern involving a lot of unscientific dismantlings such as chemical leaching, burning wires and others.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 that 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.

Around seven million premature deaths caused every year due to the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause, WHO says.

7. Natural Events

There are certain natural events such as volcanoes, forest fires, and dust storms, which are nature-born and cause air pollution.

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 like asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart attacks and strokes along with cancer, among other threats to the body. Several million are known to have died due to the direct or indirect effects of Air pollution. 

2. Child Health Problems

Air pollution is detrimental to your health even before you take your first breath. Exposure to high air pollution levels during pregnancy causes miscarriages as well as premature birth, autism, asthma and spectrum disorder in young children.

It also has the potential to damage early brain development in a child and cause pneumonia that kills almost a million children below 5 years. Children are at a greater risk of short term respiratory infections and pulmonary diseases in areas exposed to air pollutants.

3. Global Warming

Another direct effect is the immediate alterations that the world is witnessing due to global warming.

With increased temperatures worldwide, an 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.

4. 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 humans, animals, and crops.

5. Eutrophication

Eutrophication is a condition where a high amount of nitrogen present in some pollutants gets developed on the sea surface and turns itself into algae and adversely affects fish, plants, and animal species.

The green-colored algae that are present on lakes and ponds are due to the presence of this chemical only.

6. 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.

7. 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 becomes 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.

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Impressive Solutions To Air Pollution

1. Use the 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 the same timings, you can explore this option to save energy and money.

2. Better Household Practices

Discard fireplaces and/or wooden stoves used for heating homes. Use gas logs in place of wood. Also, eliminate the use of gas-powered lawn and gardening equipment. Avoid setting fire to garbage, dry leaves, or other materials in your yard, and lighting bonfires in the open. Try to mulch or compost your yard waste. Use cleaning products and paints that are environmentally friendly.

3. 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.

4. Understand the Concept of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

Do not throw away items that are of no use to you. Instead, reuse them for some other purpose. For example, you can use old jars to store cereals or pulses.

5. Emphasis on Clean Energy Resources

Use of Clean energy technologies like solarwind and geothermal is on the rise these days. Governments of various countries have been providing grants to consumers who are interested in installing solar panels for their homes. Undoubtedly, this can go a long way to curb air pollution.

6. Use Energy-Efficient Devices

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

Several attempts are being made worldwide on 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 creating 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 better tomorrow.

Air Pollution Infographic

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Source

References:

Health Impact of Air Pollution

Air Pollution by UNEP

Air Pollution and Health

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