Living in a society where literally anything can pollute, one can’t help but wonder what this planet will look like a few hundred years from now. Regardless of how many people try to ignore the effects of pollution, it’s real, and it’s bad.
Poor air quality is starting to become a world-wide phenomenon, especially in countries with all sorts of well-developed industries, such as China or the US. The American Lung Association estimates that nearly 40 percent of Americans are at risk of developing some sort of fatal disease because of breathing polluted air.
What Is Air Pollution?
While air pollution can have a very complex definition, one can recognize it as being a mixture of toxic chemicals which are found in the air we breathe, and which the environment can’t absorb, dilute, or dissipate at a natural rate. When these toxic compounds exceed a certain threshold, they decrease the quality of the air, causing a number of undesirable consequences.
Generally speaking, “healthy” air is made of 21 percent oxygen, 78 percent nitrogen, and one percent – a mixture of carbon dioxide, helium, hydrogen, methane, and argon. The reason why air pollution is rising at an alarming rate is because there are so many sources that can contaminate the air: from methane to pollen, from smoke to soot, from mold to the pesticides people use to spray their gardens.
Causes of Air Pollution
The complexity of the topic makes it difficult to cover absolutely every source of air pollution. For better understanding, we’ve tried to group the major causes of air pollution by the nature of the activity that triggers the problem, so let’s start off with man-made causes:
- Fossil fuel emissions are a very important part of what causes air to decrease in quality. Petroleum, coal, and other combustibles come from furnaces of factories, power plants, and other devices that burn fuel in order to operate. In the US alone, 21 percent of greenhouse emissions are caused by industries, with another 31 percent caused by generating electricity. According to a study conducted in 2013, vehicles are responsible for more than 50 percent of the nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emissions in the US.
- Waste is another cause of air pollution, particularly when discussing how landfills generate methane. Because the urban population of big cities is rising constantly, waste growth is directly proportional to it, causing more demand for landfill creation.
- Agriculture can also cause a great deal of air pollution, because it also involves a series of processes that damage the atmosphere. In order to build farms and fields to grow animals, deforestation is on the rise as well.
It’s also important to take into account the fact that there are also natural causes which may decrease the quality of the air. There are certain phenomena and natural forces that man can’t control:
- Volcanic eruptions are one of the largest natural contributors to air pollution. When a volcano erupts, the atmosphere is filled with ash, chlorine, and sulphuric products. As the wind blows, these are spread over a larger area, affecting people that live remotely close to the erupting volcano.
- Wildfires are another natural occurrence, specific to dry areas, particularly those covered in wood. As these fires spread, they also release a lot of smoke and carbon monoxide, which increases the impact of greenhouse effects.
- Dust storms occur in regions with open land, and little to no vegetation. The particles that are released into the air by this phenomenon can pose a hazard for living creatures and, if they spread to nearby areas with natural vegetation, can also impediment photosynthesis.
What Is AQI?
AQI is an acronym for “Air Quality Index”, which is a numeric system that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses to monitor air pollution. More and more countries have adopted this colored-labeled system in order to see which zones are the most exposed to hazards caused by air pollution.
- When the AQI is between the values of 0 and 50, which means that air quality is good, and the air that the population breathes does not pose any health concerns.
- A numerical value between 51 and 100 shows acceptable air quality, but could arise some health concerns for certain categories of pollutants. This index may pose a threat to those who are particularly sensitive to air pollution.
- An AQI between 101 and 150 might not affect the general public, but can, once again, pose a danger to those who are sensitive.
- An index between 151 and 200 is considered unhealthy, as the general population may start experiencing health issues.
- A value between 201 and 300 indicates an emergency condition, and the majority of the population is likely to be affected.
- Values between 301 and 500 are considered a hazardous situation, and everyone is likely to experience severe health consequences.
Air Pollution Consequences
As air becomes more and more polluted, it can impact both the human health, as well as the environment around us. People all over the world are living in cities where air pollution is increasing at alarming rates.
Long term exposure to highly polluted air can cause a series of health problems, such as:
- Irritation felt in the throat, nose, or eyes.
- Damage to the main systems of the body, starting with the immune system and all the way to the neurological and reproductive one.
- Breathing difficulties, which can also lead to heart and lung problems.
Naturally, the impact that air pollution has on human health is just as dramatic as the one it has on the environment. Since we rely on the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ground we walk on to sustain life, any damage to the ecosystem is eventually a threat to all living things.
Global warming has been a subject of intense debate, as several of the world’s most powerful countries have talked about the long-term impact of global warming on both the environment and human health. The planet’s atmosphere gathers a variety of natural gases that work to capture the sun’s heat closer to the surface of the Earth.
Also known as “the greenhouse effect”, this entire process stabilizes the temperature of the planet. However, greenhouse gases are also man-made, and the fact that they are on the rise has destabilized the natural balance.
Since the atmosphere now has larger quantities of methane and carbon dioxide (just to name a few), the Earth now traps more of the sun’s heat, causing the temperature of the planet to rise. The effects that global warming has on human health and the environment are still being closely analyzed.
When fossil fuels are burned, they release sulphur and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. As the amounts of such pollutants increases, they cause a phenomenon called “acid rain”, a form of precipitation that can be anything from rain to fog.
Acid rain doesn’t just affect the polluted air: the wind can carry these particles for hundreds of miles, covering larger areas. When acid rain ends up polluting the water, it can endanger marine life. As it falls on the ground, it can damage the soil and the trees. The phenomenon has even been linked to building decay.
Depending on where it resides, ozone can be quite a protective gas. Ozone normally belongs in the stratosphere, creating a layer that can shield the Earth against the sun’s harmful UV rays. When ozone reaches ground level, it turns into a pollutant that puts human health at hazard.
The ozone in the stratosphere is slowly being destroyed by what we now refer to as “ozone depleters”. These are substances that range from hydrochlorofluorocarbons to halons. They are normally found in products such as pesticides, solvents, foaming agents, or fire extinguishers.
As ozone depleters slowing degrade the protective layer, it’s easier for UV radiation to penetrate the stratosphere and reach the Earth, causing everything from crop damage to skin cancer.
There are many different ways in which air pollution can affect soil quality, thus leading to crop damage. For example, the ozone levels registered at ground level can prevent grass, crops, or trees from growing, but can also lead to plant disease.
This can be a result of acid rain, or ozone depletion, which leads to an increase in UV radiation.
When there are a lot of tiny particles that meet sunlight in the air, that’s when haze is formed. Haze can be particularly dangerous as it obstructs visual field, but also causes changes in the texture and color that we see.
There are different types of activities that can emit particles contributing to haze, such as vehicles, construction activities, and power plants.
Eutrophication occurs when there is a high concentration of nutrients in a particular body of water, which can lead to eco-structural imbalance, such as fish killing or healthy algae growth. The entire process is quite common in old bodies of water, such as aging lakes, but it can also be accelerated by different human activities.
When the air is pollution, and therefore has larger quantities of nitrogen oxides, it causes the aquatic ecosystems to have an elevated quantity of nitrogen oxide as well.
Reducing Air Pollution
In order to reduce air pollution, it requires a combined effort on behalf of the citizens and the local authorities, which can force several industries to regulate their sustainability plants in order to improve their production by switching to a more eco-friendly process.
The steps that governments and local authorities can take in order to make this happen are up for debate, and pose a delicate subject that requires intense analysis of the industries activating in each country. As far as the citizens are concerned, here are some things that you can start implementing right now in order to do your part and help reduce air pollution:
- Switch to electronic that have the ENERGY STAR label, and which are considered to be very efficient in terms of how much energy they consume.
- Using your personal vehicle as less as possible is probably one of the most important steps to take in reducing air pollution. A single bus can transport people that would otherwise drive 40 cars. If public transportation isn’t an option, try to look for carpooling solutions instead.
- Avoid burning yard waste. Instead, learn how you can turn leaves into compost and prevent any more unnecessary fires. You should also try to avoid burning trash, and instead look for ways to separate it and recycle it.
- According to NASA, household plants can be extremely beneficial for the environment, as they help remove carbon monoxide from the air. By plating more around your garden and backyard, you can help filter chemicals in the air. If you live inside an apartment, you will have a natural way of removing dangerous air compounds, and therefore purifying the air indoors.
While these are just some generic examples, there is an infinite number of things you can do to reduce air pollution. There is such a thing known as the “carbon footprint”, which is a sum of the greenhouse gases that human activities help produce either directly or indirectly.
Basically, every action that you perform has a carbon footprint (with very few exceptions). When you go to the grocery store in your own personal car, the fuel you burn creates carbon dioxide. The canned goods that you buy at the supermarket were produced by emitting more carbon dioxide. The electricity that powers your home? That’s right: more carbon dioxide.
The carbon footprint gathers all the carbon dioxide emissions that your activities generated within a single year. Simply put: almost, if not all the things that you do pollute the air. That literally means that there are so many things that you can “do better” in order to lower your carbon footprint:
- Unplug all electrical devices in your home when you are not using them.
- Don’t leave your cell phone chargers in the sockets when the phone isn’t plugged in.
- Ride a bike instead of driving the car.
- Group your errands so that you drive as fewer miles in a day as possible.
- Use cleaning products and paints that are labeled as “zero VOC”.
- Avoid overheating or overcooling your home. Add a thermostat to regulate your indoor temperature and insulate your home to make sure you’re not losing any heat during the winter.
- Save as much water as possible (through simple steps, like taking shorter showers instead of filling the bathtub).
- If you have a garden, use as less pesticides/insecticides/shady chemicals as possible.
More Interesting Air Pollution Facts
Even without all the scientific knowledge behind it, everyone knows that air pollution is a bad thing. The entire topic of air pollution is extremely complex, mostly because in today’s modern world, almost each and every one of us end up polluting the air through one action or another.
Here are some more interesting (and troublesome) pollution facts:
- Air pollution decreases a person’s life expectancy with one or two years, on average.
- Air pollutants are the most dangerous of all, even more than land or water pollutants.
- Back in 1952, 8.000 people died during the Great Smog of London.
- 25 percent of the deaths registered in India are due to air pollution.
- Similarly, 65 percent of deaths in Asia have the same causes.
- Throughout the world, there are people who have to wear marks in order to prevent breathing highly-polluted air.
- In California alone, medical expenses to treat different health problems due to air pollution are as high as $200 million.
- In America, more than 50,000 die every year because of air pollution.
- The air polluted by vehicles is responsible with 85 percent of lung cancer cases.
- Air pollution is more dangerous to children rather than adults, as kids have smaller lung capacity.
The Bottom Line
Any process that creates particles which end up travelling through the air or gases that modify the natural composition of the air we breathe can be considered as air polluting. The sources of air pollution are too many too count, because they aren’t just manmade. Natural phenomena can also cause pollution, as part of Earth’s natural cycle.
What’s interesting and a little bit ironic is that the more means we discover to improve life and make it easier, the more we’re actually decreasing the quality of life because our comfort and our technological advancements are all in the detriment of the planet’s health.
Thankfully, there are a series of actions that everyone can perform in order to minimise their carbon footprint. In a joint effort between the citizens, the industries, and the government, some of these technological developments should be aimed at making production processes more sustainable, while also educating the citizens to do their part in protecting their environment.