Air Pollution, addition of harmful substances to the atmosphere resulting in damage to the environment, human health, and quality of life. One of many forms of pollution, air pollution occurs inside homes, schools, and offices; in cities; across continents; and even globally. Air pollution makes people sick—it causes breathing problems and promotes cancer—and it harms plants, animals, and the ecosystems in which they live. Some air pollutants return to Earth in the form of acid rain and snow, which corrode statues and buildings, damage crops and forests, and make lakes and streams unsuitable for fish and other plant and animal life.
Pollution is changing Earth’s atmosphere so that it lets in more harmful radiation from the Sun. At the same time, our polluted atmosphere is becoming a better insulator, preventing heat from escaping back into space and leading to a rise in global average temperatures. Scientists predict that the temperature increase, referred to as global warming, will affect world food supply, alter sea level, make weather more extreme, and increase the spread of tropical disease. Most air pollution comes from one human activity: burning fossil fuels—natural gas, coal, and oil—to power industrial processes and motor vehicles.
Among the harmful chemical compounds this burning puts into the atmosphere are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and tiny solid particles—including lead from gasoline additives—called particulates. Between 1900 and 1970, motor vehicle use rapidly expanded, and emissions of nitrogen oxides, some of the most damaging pollutants in vehicle exhaust, increased 690 percent. When fuels are incompletely burned, various chemicals called volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) also enter the air. Pollutants also come from other sources.
For instance, decomposing garbage in landfills and solid waste disposal sites emits methane gas, and many household products give off VOCs. Some of these pollutants also come from natural sources. For example, forest fires emit particulates and VOCs into the atmosphere. Ultrafine dust particles, dislodged by soil erosion when water and weather loosen layers of soil, increase airborne particulate levels. Volcanoes spew out sulfur dioxide and large amounts of pulverized lava rock known as volcanic ash. A big volcanic eruption can darken the sky over a wide region and affect the Earth’s entire atmosphere.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, for example, dumped enough volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere to lower global temperatures for the next two years. Unlike pollutants from human activity, however, naturally occurring pollutants tend to remain in the atmosphere for a short time and do not lead to permanent atmospheric change. Once in the atmosphere, pollutants often undergo chemical reactions that produce additional harmful compounds. Air pollution is subject to weather patterns that can trap it in valleys or blow it across the globe to damage pristine environments far from the original sources.
Local and regional pollution take place in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, the troposphere, which at its widest extends from Earth’s surface to about 16 km (about 10 mi). The troposphere is the region in which most weather occurs. If the load of pollutants added to the troposphere were equally distributed, the pollutants would be spread over vast areas and the air pollution might almost escape our notice. Pollution sources tend to be concentrated, however, especially in cities. In the weather phenomenon known as thermal inversion, a layer of cooler air is trapped near the ground by a layer of warmer air above.
When this occurs, normal air mixing almost ceases and pollutants are trapped in the lower layer. Local topography, or the shape of the land, can worsen this effect—an area ringed by mountains, for example, can become a pollution trap. Smog is intense local pollution usually trapped by a thermal inversion. Before the age of the automobile, most smog came from burning coal. In 19th-century London, smog was so severe that street lights were turned on by noon because soot and smog darkened the midday sky. Burning gasoline in motor vehicles is the main source of smog in most regions today.
Powered by sunlight, oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds react in the atmosphere to produce photochemical smog. Smog contains ozone, a form of oxygen gas made up of molecules with three oxygen atoms rather than the normal two. Ozone in the lower atmosphere is a poison—it damages vegetation, kills trees, irritates lung tissues, and attacks rubber. Environmental officials measure ozone to determine the severity of smog. When the ozone level is high, other pollutants, including carbon monoxide, are usually present at high levels as well (see Air Quality).
In the presence of atmospheric moisture, sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen turn into droplets of pure acid floating in smog. These airborne acids are bad for the lungs and attack anything made of limestone, marble, or metal. In cities around the world, smog acids are eroding precious artifacts, including the Parthenon temple in Athens, Greece, and the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide pollute places far from the points where they are released into the air. Carried by winds in the troposphere, they can reach distant regions where they descend in acid form, usually as rain or snow.
Such acid precipitation can burn the leaves of plants and make lakes too acidic to support fish and other living things. Because of acidification, sensitive species such as the popular brook trout can no longer survive in many lakes and streams in the eastern United States. Smog spoils views and makes outdoor activity unpleasant. For the very young, the very old, and people who suffer from asthma or heart disease, the effects of smog are even worse: It may cause headaches or dizziness and can cause breathing difficulties. In extreme cases, smog can lead to mass illness and death, mainly from carbon monoxide poisoning.
In 1948 in the steel-mill town of Donora, Pennsylvania, intense local smog killed 19 people. In 1952 in London about 4,000 people died in one of the notorious smog events known as London Fogs; in 1962 another 700 Londoners died. With stronger pollution controls and less reliance on coal for heat, today’s chronic smog is rarely so obviously deadly. However, under adverse weather conditions, accidental releases of toxic substances can be equally disastrous. The worst such accident occurred in 1984 in Bhopal, India, when methyl isocyanate released from an American-owned factory during a thermal inversion caused more than 3,800 deaths.
Air pollution can expand beyond a regional area to cause global effects. The stratosphere is the layer of the atmosphere between 16 km (10 mi) and 50 km (30 mi) above sea level. It is rich in ozone, the same molecule that acts as a pollutant when found at lower levels of the atmosphere in urban smog. Up at the stratospheric level, however, ozone forms a protective layer that serves a vital function: It absorbs the wavelength of solar radiation known as ultraviolet-B (UV-B). UV-B damages deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic molecule found in every living cell, increasing the risk of such problems as cancer in humans.
Because of its protective function, the ozone layer is essential to life on Earth. Several pollutants attack the ozone layer. Chief among them is the class of chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), formerly used as refrigerants (notably in air conditioners), as agents in several manufacturing processes, and as propellants in spray cans. CFC molecules are virtually indestructible until they reach the stratosphere. Here, intense ultraviolet radiation breaks the CFC molecules apart, releasing the chlorine atoms they contain.
These chlorine atoms begin reacting with ozone, breaking it down into ordinary oxygen molecules that do not absorb UV-B. The chlorine acts as a catalyst—that is, it takes part in several chemical reactions—yet at the end emerges unchanged and able to react again. A single chlorine atom can destroy up to 100,000 ozone molecules in the stratosphere. Other pollutants, including nitrous oxide from fertilizers and the pesticide methyl bromide, also attack atmospheric ozone. Scientists are finding that under this assault the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere is thinning.
In the Antarctic region, it vanishes almost entirely for a few weeks every year. Although CFC use has been greatly reduced in recent years and will soon be prohibited worldwide, CFC molecules already released into the lower atmosphere will be making their way to the stratosphere for decades, and further ozone loss is expected. As a result, experts anticipate an increase in skin cancers, more cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye), and reduced yields of some food crops. Humans are bringing about another global-scale change in the atmosphere: the increase in what are called greenhouse gases.
Like glass in a greenhouse, these gases admit the Sun’s light but tend to reflect back downward the heat that is radiated from the ground below, trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This process is known as the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is the most significant of these gases—there is 31 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than there was in 1750, the result of our burning coal and fuels derived from oil. Methane, nitrous oxide, and CFCs are greenhouse gases as well. Scientists predict that increases in these gases in the atmosphere will make the Earth a warmer place.
They expect a global rise in average temperature of 1. 4 to 5. 8 Celsius degrees (2. 5 to 10. 4 Fahrenheit degrees) in the next century. Average temperatures have in fact been rising, and the 1990s were the warmest decade on record. Some scientists are reluctant to say that global warming has actually begun because climate naturally varies from year to year and decade to decade, and it takes many years of records to be sure of a fundamental change. There is little disagreement, though, that global warming is on its way.
Global warming will have different effects in ifferent regions. A warmed world is expected to have more extreme weather, with more rain during wet periods, longer droughts, and more powerful storms. Although the effects of future climate change are unknown, some predict that exaggerated weather conditions may translate into better agricultural yields in areas such as the western United States, where temperature and rainfall are expected to increase, while dramatic decreases in rainfall may lead to severe drought and plunging agricultural yields in parts of Africa, for example.
Warmer temperatures are expected to partially melt the polar ice caps, leading to a projected sea level rise of 9 to 100 cm (4 to 40 in) by the year 2100. A sea level rise at the upper end of this range would flood coastal cities, force people to abandon low-lying islands, and completely inundate coastal wetlands. If sea levels rise at projected rates, the Florida Everglades could be completely under salt water in the next century. Diseases like malaria, which at present are primarily found in the tropics, may become more common in the regions of the globe between the tropics and the polar regions, called the temperate zones.
For many of the world’s plant species, and for animal species that are not easily able to shift their territories as their habitat grows warmer, climate change may bring extinction. Pollution is perhaps most harmful at an often unrecognized site—inside the homes and buildings where we spend most of our time. Indoor pollutants include tobacco smoke; radon, an invisible radioactive gas that enters homes from the ground in some regions; and chemicals released from synthetic carpets and furniture, pesticides, and household cleaners.
When disturbed, asbestos, a nonflammable material once commonly used in insulation, sheds airborne fibers that can produce a lung disease called asbestosis. Pollutants may accumulate to reach much higher levels than they do outside, where natural air currents disperse them. Indoor air levels of many pollutants may be 2 to 5 times, and occasionally more than 100 times, higher than outdoor levels. These levels of indoor air pollutants are especially harmful because people spend as much as 90 percent of their time living, working, and playing indoors. Inefficient or improperly vented heaters are particularly dangerous.
In the United States, the serious effort against local and regional air pollution began with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which was amended in 1977 and 1990. This law requires that the air contain no more than specified levels of particulate matter, lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, ozone, and various toxic substances. To avoid the mere shifting of pollution from dirty areas to clean ones, stricter standards apply where the air is comparatively clean. In national parks, for instance, the air is supposed to remain as clean as it was when the law was passed.
The act sets deadlines by which standards must be met. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of refining and enforcing these standards, but the day-to-day work of fighting pollution falls to the state governments and to local air pollution control districts. Some states, notably California, have imposed tougher air pollution standards of their own. In an effort to enforce pollution standards, pollution control authorities measure both the amounts of pollutants present in the atmosphere and the amounts entering it from certain sources.
The usual approach is to sample the open, or ambient, air and test it for the presence of specified pollutants. The amount of each pollutant is counted in parts per million or, in some cases, milligrams or micrograms per cubic meter. To learn how much pollution is coming from specific sources, measurements are also taken at industrial smokestacks and automobile tailpipes. Pollution is controlled in two ways: with end-of-the-pipe devices that capture pollutants already created and by limiting the quantity of pollutants produced in the first place.
End-of-the-pipe devices include catalytic converters in automobiles and various kinds of filters and scrubbers in industrial plants. In a catalytic converter, exhaust gases pass over small beads coated with metals that promote reactions changing harmful substances into less harmful ones. When end-of-the-pipe devices first began to be used, they dramatically reduced pollution at a relatively low cost. As air pollution standards become stricter, it becomes more and more expensive to further clean the air. In order to lower pollution overall, industrial polluters are sometimes allowed to make cooperative deals.
For instance, a power company may fulfill its pollution control requirements by investing in pollution control at another plant or factory, where more effective pollution control can be accomplished at a lower cost. End-of-the-pipe controls, however sophisticated, can only do so much. As pollution efforts evolve, keeping the air clean will depend much more on preventing pollution than on curing it. Gasoline, for instance, has been reformulated several times to achieve cleaner burning. Various manufacturing processes have been redesigned so that less waste is produced.
Car manufacturers are experimenting with automobiles that run on electricity or on cleaner-burning fuels. Buildings are being designed to take advantage of sun in winter and shade and breezes in summer to reduce the need for artificial heating and cooling, which are usually powered by the burning of fossil fuels. The choices people make in their daily lives can have a significant impact on the state of the air. Using public transportation instead of driving, for instance, reduces pollution by limiting the number of pollution-emitting automobiles on the road.
During periods of particularly intense smog, pollution control authorities often urge people to avoid trips by car. To encourage transit use during bad-air periods, authorities in Paris, France, make bus and subway travel temporarily free. Indoor pollution control must be accomplished building by building or even room by room. Proper ventilation mimics natural outdoor air currents, reducing levels of indoor air pollutants by continually circulating fresh air. After improving ventilation, the most effective single step is probably banning smoking in public rooms.
Where asbestos has been used in insulation, it can be removed or sealed behind sheathes so that it won’t be shredded and get into the air. Sealing foundations and installing special pipes and pumps can prevent radon from seeping into buildings. On the global scale, pollution control standards are the result of complex negotiations among nations. Typically, developed countries, having already gone through a period of rapid (and dirty) industrialization, are ready to demand cleaner technologies.
Less developed nations, hoping for rapid economic growth, are less enthusiastic about pollution controls. They seek lenient deadlines and financial help from developed countries to make the expensive changes necessary to reduce pollutant emissions in their industrial processes. Nonetheless, several important international accords have been reached. In 1988 the United States and 24 other nations agreed in the Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Agreement to hold their production of nitrogen oxides, a key contributor to acid rain, to current levels.
In the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, adopted in 1987 and strengthened in 1990 and 1992, most nations agreed to stop or reduce the manufacture of CFCs. In 1992 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiated a treaty outlining cooperative efforts to curb global warming. The treaty, which took effect in March 1994, has been legally accepted by 160 of the 165 participating countries. In December 1997 at the Third Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Japan, more than 160 nations formally adopted the Kyoto Protocol.
This agreement calls for industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases to levels 5 percent below 1990 emission levels between 2008 and 2012. Negotiators have met regularly since 1995 to iron out the details of how this treaty could be enforced in ways that are agreeable for industrialized countries such as the United States, which releases more greenhouse gases than any other nation, and developing countries that are struggling to become industrialized and often cannot afford the expense that restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions would require.
Antipollution measures have helped stem the increase of global pollution emission levels. Between 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed, and 1995, total emissions of the major air pollutants in the United States decreased by nearly 30 percent. During the same 25-year period, the U. S. population increased 28 percent and vehicle miles traveled increased 116 percent. Air pollution control is a race between the reduction of pollution from each source, such as a factory or a car, and the rapid multiplication of sources.
Smog in cities in the United States is expected to increase again as the number of cars and miles driven continues to rise. Meanwhile, developing countries are building up their own industries, and their citizens are buying cars as soon as they can afford them. Ominous changes continue in the global atmosphere. New efforts to control air pollution will be necessary as long as these trends continue.