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Air Pollution – Causes, Effects and Solutions

Delhi chokes on air pollution

Air pollution is considered today one of the most dangerous forms of pollution that affects both people, birds and animals.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is produced when dangerous substances such as particulates and harmful chemicals are released into the atmosphere, causing different types of allergies and diseases that can lead to the death of people and animals.

Air pollution can also harm the crops and the environment.

Poor urban air quality and indoor air pollution are other forms of air pollution that seriously affects the life of the people living and working there.

Air pollution is mostly generated by the human activity on the planet, but also by natural processes such as active volcanoes and tropical storms, methane emitted by animals and humans, dust and also smoke produced by wild fires.

Pollutants Causing Air Pollution On Planet Earth

I mentioned before that air pollution is mostly produced by the human activity, which means that a large part of the pollutants causing air pollution are represented by chemical substances or compounds released during the daily human activities that are taking place all over the planet.

Chemical substances released into the atmosphere during the daily human activities include:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO): is a colorless, odorless, non-irritating, but toxic gas.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2): is a natural component of the atmosphere because is essential for plant life, and is produced by the human, animal and bird respiratory systems while exhaling.
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx): Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is released during high temperature combustion processes, but also by electric discharge during thunderstorms.

    Nitrogen dioxide is a reddish-brown toxic gas known as one of most dangerous air pollutants known today.

  • Sulfur oxides (SOx): Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is released during industrial processes, but also by active volcanoes.

    Coal and oil often contain sulfur compounds, and during the combustion of these fossil fuels sulfur dioxide is released.

    In the presence of a catalyst such as NO2, sulfur dioxide will form sulfuric acid (H2SO4) which will produce acid rain.

  • Particulates, also known as particulate matter (PM), represents fine particles consisting of very tiny parts of solid or liquid matter suspended in a gas, which are released into the atmosphere.

    Particulate matter (PM) is released into the atmosphere during both human activity and natural processes.

    Particulates released during the natural processes are produced by volcanoes, dust and tropical storms and wildfires.

    Particulates produced by the human activity on the planet include particulate matter (PM) released during various industrial processes, during the combustion process of the fossil fuels inside engines, and on a larger scale inside power plants.

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC): known as outdoor air pollutants consist of different chemical compounds such as methane (CH4) and non-methane compounds (NMVOCs).

    Methane is considered a greenhouse gas, which produces global warming, while NMVOCs (benzene, toluene and xylene) are aromatic compounds, which can cause cancer and leukemia to people exposed to these pollutants for a prolonged period of time.

  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): are emitted by products currently banned from use, but in the past, they were released by air conditioners, refrigerators and aerosol sprays.

    Once released, CFCs rise into the stratosphere where they enter in contact with other gases and creating different compounds that are damaging the ozone layer.

    The damaged ozone layer is no longer capable of blocking the UVa and UVb rays emitted by the Sun, and when these harmful ultraviolet rays are reaching the earth’s surface, they can harm the plants and the humans by causing skin cancer and eye diseases.

  • Ammonia (NH3): is released during the agricultural processes and even if this chemical compound with pungent odor is essential for the nutritional needs of terrestrial organisms and represents a building block for the synthesis of many pharmaceuticals, it is also a caustic and hazardous substance that reacts in the atmosphere with nitrogen and sulfur oxides generating secondary particles that are polluting the air.
  • Radioactive pollutants are produced by war explosives such as nuclear explosions, nuclear events, and also by natural processes such as the radioactive decay of radon.

Causes of Air Pollution

Besides the natural processes that are generating air pollution, the different human activities that take place on the planet every day are causing the air pollution that is responsible for the cardiovascular, lung and skin diseases affecting the people living in the polluted areas.

1. Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat

The number of vehicles on the roads has been increased dramatically in the last decades because mankind is no longer using its legs to travel from one place to another, we are using the car even to travel on very short distances.

The large number of vehicles on the roads today increases the level of air pollution because we are still using cars burning fossil fuels.

Every major city on the planet is affected by the massive air pollution produced by the large number of vehicles on its roads.

In fact, all people living in crowded areas where the cars are used by a large number of people will suffer due to the heavy air pollution caused by the presence of these fossil fuel-based vehicles.

Air pollution is not only produced by the vehicles burning fossil fuels, the entire transportation system (heavy duty trucks, trains, shipping vessels and even airplanes) is responsible for the air pollution produced on the entire planet.

Power plants are burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas to generate electricity and heat during the winter.

Coal is the most dirty fossil fuel known today that produces smog in the areas where is massively used as electricity and heat source.

2. Emissions released by the industry and the manufacturing activities

Power plants serving different industries, almost all manufacturing plants and petroleum refineries are all responsible for the massive air pollution released into the atmosphere every day.

All power plants, refineries and manufacturing plants rely on chimneys that are erected high into the air and are used to burn fossil fuels or waste.

Some of the power plants and manufacturing plants are also responsible for land and water pollution.

3. Household and agricultural processes

Many household cleaning activities involve the use of chemical products (for cleaning) that are causing Indoor air pollution.

Ammonia is a hazardous substance that is important in many agricultural processes, but combined with nitrogen and sulfur oxides produces secondary particles that are polluting the air.

4. Mining operations

Mining operations such as drilling, blasting, hauling, collecting, and transporting different types of ore is a major source of harmful emissions causing air pollution.

Air Pollution Effects

Air pollution affects both the environment and the people.

Birds and animals living in the city will suffer due to the air pollution produced by the large number vehicles burning fossil fuels.

The natural environment located close to a power plant, a manufacturing plant or an oil refinery will be affected both by the air pollution produced during the burning and manufacturing processes, but also by the land and water pollution caused by these industrial facilities.

People living in areas affected by air pollution can be affected as follows:

1. Cardiovascular and lung diseases

Particulate matter released during the high temperature combustion process of fossil fuels in engines and also produced by power plants during the combustion process of fossil fuels to generate power is inhaled by people living in the polluted areas and on the long term can lead to cardiovascular and lung disease.

The long-term exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulates) increases the overall risk of lung cancer deaths and cardiovascular deaths.

2. Acid rain

Coal and oil often contain sulfur compounds, and during the combustion process of these fossil fuels sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can be released.

SO2 and NOx will react with water, oxygen and other chemicals present in the atmosphere and will form sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and nitric acid (HNO3).

Acid rain formed this way can become a problem for the people living close to a power plant burning coal or oil and also for other people living far away from the power plant because the wind can transport SO2 and NOX over long distances and even across borders.

3. Global warming and climate change

The release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere produces air pollution, but also leads to global warming.

The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere will act like a thermal blanket for Earth by absorbing the heat produced by the Sun and by warming the surface of the planet.

The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere such as: water vapor, methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxides (NOx) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) due to the human activity increases the “greenhouse effect” on the planet and leads to global warming and climate change.

4. Eutrophication

Eutrophication occurs when pollutants containing nitrogen are deposited on soil and water surfaces leading to an enrichment of the nutrients in that body of water, which produces the growth of plants and algae over the normal levels.

The increased number of plants and algae over the surface of the water results in oxygen depletion of the water body, which will harm the underwater life.

The green algae that can be seen on the surface of lakes and ponds is due to the fact that detergents, fertilizers or sewage water were previously discharged into that aquatic system.

5. Ozone Layer Depletion

In the past, chemicals contained in spray aerosols, which were heavily used in the developed countries in the last five decades were the substances that initiated the destruction of the ozone layer.

Today, when CFCs reach the stratosphere where the ozone layer is located, they get exposed to UV rays, which turns them into substances that include chlorine and bromine.

According to the EPA, only one atom of chlorine is enough to destroy hundred of thousands of ozone molecules.

Solutions to Air Pollution

Because air pollution is mainly caused by the human activity on the planet, it is in our power to do something to stop this scourge that is ruining our health and the environment.

1. Replacing fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources

In order to reduce the level of air pollution on the planet we need to replace the fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources.

If we cannot rely entirely on renewable energy sources as the main sources of power on the planet, at least we can use cleaner energy sources (natural gas instead of oil and coal) to reduce the level of air pollution produced every day.

2. Replacing fossil fuel-based vehicles with hybrid or electric cars

The era of the cars that burn fossil fuels is close to its end because almost all carmakers have already introduced in their offer electric or hybrid vehicles.

As the network of fast charging stations for electric cars becomes available across the planet the vehicles burning fossil fuels will become only a part of the history.

3. Using technology that is more efficient

Luckily for us, technology evolves extremely fast today, which means that we can find on the market very new and efficient technology that can lower our energy consumption very much.

Replacing old light bulbs with LED-light bulbs will significantly reduce your energy bills.

By consuming less energy we become more efficient and we become protectors of the environment.

4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

By understanding the concept of waste management we can keep the environment much cleaner.

Reduce is the first concept in the waste hierarchy and refers to the fact that we need to reduce the consumption of resources in order to produce less waste.

Reuse is the second concept in the waste hierarchy and refers to the number of items that we can use again and again instead of throwing them to the trash and buy some new ones.

Recycle is the third concept in the waste hierarchy and refers to the number of items that can be recycled today in order to turn them into new products that can be used again.

5. Learn how to save energy

Saving energy will not only reduce the monthly bills that you pay for energy consumption, but will also reduce the level of air pollution produced by power plants that are burning fossil fuels.

You can save energy using efficient household appliances and LED-light bulbs.

To save even more energy, you need to learn that you don’t need to heat (during the winter) or cool (during the summer) all the rooms of the house.

If you reduce the energy consumption by heating or cooling only the rooms where you spend the most time (and not the rooms that you don’t use) you will save a significant amount of energy every month and your carbon footprint will become very small.

6. Use less fossil fuels and more renewable energy

Air pollution is mostly present in the major cities of the planet where the number of vehicles burning fossil fuels is high or in the areas close to a coal power plant that burns coal to generate electricity and heat during the winter or close to a steel factory that burns huge amounts of coal to generate the energy required in the production process.

Final conclusion

By using renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass etc., instead of fossil fuels, and by replacing the current cars that burn gasoline and diesel with hybrid or electric vehicles we can bring the clean future closer to our time.

Article written by:

I write about the renewable energy sector, electric cars and climate change issues. I love nature and good food, so I travel all over the world to see new places and meet new people. Magda Savin

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