Air pollution – types, causes, statistics and actions

Who would have thought that carbon dioxide, a gas crucial to the survival of plants and therefore just about all life on this planet, would ever be classed as a pollutant? It is now, due to increased emissions through human activity that are contributing to global warming.

While the focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions is fantastic, other forms of air pollution are still occurring, and in some cases, increasingly so.

Air pollution is a major threat to the general health of all creatures in the environment, including us. In a 2008 study, it was found that decreasing air pollution in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley would save more lives each year than ending all motor vehicle deaths in the same areas.

In China,  widespread air pollution causes around 656000 deaths annually. Our thirst for cheap consumer goods is literally killing the Chinese people.

Still in Asia, the Great Brown Cloud, aka the Asian Brown Cloud, is a more recent phenomenon.  It’s a visible layer of air pollution that covers a great swath of the planet and appears as a massive brown stain when viewed via satellite. It’s not only ugly to look at but has some very real and very detrimental effects on the environment, such as changes in rainfall patterns and decreasing crop harvests.

Air pollution sources

The following are major air pollution types, sources and their effects

Sulfur dioxide:

This is created in nature by events such as volcanoes, but its main source are coal and oil products, particularly coal. Sulfur dioxide mixes with rain to become acid rain – which is not an exaggeration. Acid rain has destroyed many monuments around the world. Additionally, it can acidify waterways making them inhospitable to forms of aquatic life and destroy soil organisms and as such, negatively affecting plans.

Nitrogen dioxide

Nitrogen dioxide is one of the most common air pollutants and is visible as a brown haze over many cities. It is a toxic gas in itself. The most prevalent source of nitrogen dioxide is the internal combustion engine. Long term exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide can impact on lung function and create respiratory symptoms. Nitrogen dioxide is another compound that can contribute to acid rain.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is an odorless but highly toxic gas, most commonly generated by internal combustion engines; but also associated with the incomplete combustion of wood and coal, cigarette smoking. In nature, its sources include volcanic activity. Carbon monoxide also contributes to the formation of low-level ozone and elevates levels of methane (another potent greenhouse gas)

Volatile organic compounds.

Also known as VOCs, volatile organic compounds can sometimes be in higher concentration inside your home than outside. VOCs cover a myriad of chemicals including benzene, toluene, formaldehyde and xylene; all carcinogenic. Formaldehyde is extremely common inside the home as so many adhesive, bonding and solvent agents contain it. Oil based paints can also have high level of VOCs. The problem with chemicals such as formaldehyde is they can off gas for many years.

Dust and particulate matter

Many of the world’s dust storms have a link to human activity – such as deforestation and poor agricultural practices. If you’ve ever been caught in a dust storm, you’ll never forget the choking feeling. Dust hits your lungs and basically turns to mud. Dust storms also strip land of topsoil, the nutrient rich layer of soil that plants so heavily rely on.

Other forms of particulate matter include soot from internal combustion engines, industrial processes and home heating. Increased levels of fine particles in the air have been linked to heart disease and lung cancer.

Heavy metals

Among the heavy metals, the one of greates concern is mercury. The most common source of mercury in the atmosphere attributable to human activity comes from coal-fired power plants. Even “clean coal” technology does not remove all the mercury emitted from the combustion of coal. Natural processes and human activities put about equal amounts of mercury into the atmosphere. Mercury can wind up in soil and water, where it can become methyl mercury, one of the most toxic compounds known to man. Methyl mercury is bioaccumulative, meaning that it builds in your body.

What you can do

While you can’t single-handedly break up the Great Brown Cloud or make the air above your city crystal clear, we can all play a role in helping reduce air pollution – and it’s really quite simple to do. Additionally, some of the following will also save you money!

Many of the pollutants listed above have a common source – cars, trucks – any equipment that utilizes an internal combustion engine. Car exhaust (and cigarette smoking for that matter) are a cocktail of all sorts of chemicals.  So, drive less – walk or ride a bike more, consider an electric bike or even car pool.

With the items you do buy, try to they are made with low VOC components and have as little packaging as possible.

Regarding electricity in your home; check with your local utility to see if they offer “green” electricity options, that is power that’s been generated through renewable energy such as wind or solar power. If your utility doesn’t, you can also buy green tags from a third party provider, which is pretty much the same thing.

If that’s not an option either, try to reduce the amount of electricity you use. One of the easiest ways to do this is by addressing phantom loads and switching incandescent bulbs to CFL or LED lighting.

You can also enlist the help of plants to assist in mopping up some of these pollutants – both indoors and outdoors. Plant some extra trees and shrubs in your yard or grab some indoor plants. Aside from adding a touch of green to your home, some species of indoor plants have been shown to combat VOC gas levels.

Another simple strategy is to simply buy less junk – just about every bit of plastic, every piece of paper somewhere along the line would likely have been involved in a process that generated some of the above. Hyperconsumption is the root cause of many of our society’s ills – wars, hunger, poverty, inequity – it’s not just about environmental issues.