Air pollution consists of chemicals or particles in the air that can harm the health of humans, animals, and plants. It also damages buildings. Pollutants in the air take many forms. They can be gases, solid particles, or liquid droplets.

Sources of Air Pollution

Pollution enters the Earth's atmosphere in many different ways. Most air pollution is created by people, taking the form of emissions from factories, cars, planes, or aerosol cans. Second-hand cigarette smoke is also considered air pollution. These man-made sources of pollution are called anthropogenic sources.

Some types of air pollution, such as smoke from wildfires or ash from volcanoes, occur naturally. These are called natural sources.

Air pollution is most common in large cities where emissions from many different sources are concentrated. Sometimes, mountains or tall buildings prevent air pollution from spreading out. This air pollution often appears as a cloud making the air murky. It is called smog. The word "smog" comes from combining the words "smoke" and "fog."

Large cities in poor and developing nations tend to have more air pollution than cities in developed nations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some of the worlds most polluted cities are Karachi, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; Beijing, China; Lima, Peru; and Cairo, Egypt. However, many developed nations also have air pollution problems. Los Angeles, California, is nicknamed Smog City.

Indoor Air Pollution

Air pollution is usually thought of as smoke from large factories or exhaust from vehicles. But there are many types of indoor air pollution as well.

Heating a house by burning substances such as kerosene, wood, and coal can contaminate the air inside the house. Ash and smoke make breathing difficult, and they can stick to walls, food, and clothing.

Naturally-occurring radon gas, a cancer-causing material, can also build up in homes. Radon is released through the surface of the Earth. Inexpensive systems installed by professionals can reduce radon levels.

Some construction materials, including insulation, are also dangerous to people's health. In addition, ventilation, or air movement, in homes and rooms can lead to the spread of toxic mold. A single colony of mold may exist in a damp, cool place in a house, such as between walls. The mold's spores enter the air and spread throughout the house. People can become sick from breathing in the spores.

Effects On Humans

People experience a wide range of health effects from being exposed to air pollution. Effects can be broken down into short-term effects and long-term effects.

Short-term effects, which are temporary, include illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis. They also include discomfort such as irritation to the nose, throat, eyes, or skin. Air pollution can also cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Bad smells made by factories, garbage, or sewer systems are considered air pollution, too. These odors are less serious but still unpleasant.

Long-term effects of air pollution can last for years or for an entire lifetime. They can even lead to a person's death. Long-term health effects from air pollution include heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases such as emphysema. Air pollution can also cause long-term damage to people's nerves, brain, kidneys, liver, and other organs. Some scientists suspect air pollutants cause birth defects. Nearly 2.5 million people die worldwide each year from the effects of outdoor or indoor air pollution.

People react differently to different types of air pollution. Young children and older adults, whose immune systems tend to be weaker, are often more sensitive to pollution. Conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and lung disease can be made worse by exposure to air pollution. The length of exposure and amount and type of pollutants are also factors.


Effects On The Environment

Like people, animals, and plants, entire ecosystems can suffer effects from air pollution. Haze, like smog, is a visible type of air pollution that obscures shapes and colors. Hazy air pollution can even muffle sounds.

Air pollution particles eventually fall back to Earth. Air pollution can directly contaminate the surface of bodies of water and soil. This can kill crops or reduce their yield. It can kill young trees and other plants.

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide particles in the air, can create acid rain when they mix with water and oxygen in the atmosphere. These air pollutants come mostly from coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles. When acid rain falls to Earth, it damages plants by changing soil composition; degrades water quality in rivers, lakes and streams; damages crops; and can cause buildings and monuments to decay.

Like humans, animals can suffer health effects from exposure to air pollution. Birth defects, diseases, and lower reproductive rates have all been attributed to air pollution.

Global Warming

Global warming is an environmental phenomenon caused by natural and anthropogenic air pollution. It refers to rising air and ocean temperatures around the world. This temperature rise is at least partially caused by an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases trap heat energy in the Earths atmosphere. (Usually, more of Earths heat escapes into space.)

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has had the biggest effect on global warming. Carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (coal, gasoline, and natural gas). Humans have come to rely on fossil fuels to power cars and planes, heat homes, and run factories. Doing these things pollutes the air with carbon dioxide.

Other greenhouse gases emitted by natural and artificial sources also include methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. Methane is a major emission from coal plants and agricultural processes. Nitrous oxide is a common emission from industrial factories, agriculture, and the burning of fossil fuels in cars. Fluorinated gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons, are emitted by industry. Fluorinated gases are often used instead of gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs have been outlawed in many places because they deplete the ozone layer.

Worldwide, many countries have taken steps to reduce or limit greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming. The Kyoto Protocol, first adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, is an agreement between 183 countries that they will work to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The United States has not signed that treaty.

Regulation

In addition to the international Kyoto Protocol, most developed nations have adopted laws to regulate emissions and reduce air pollution. In the United States, debate is under way about a system called cap and trade to limit emissions. This system would cap, or place a limit, on the amount of pollution a company is allowed. Companies that exceeded their cap would have to pay. Companies that polluted less than their cap could trade or sell their remaining pollution allowance to other companies. Cap and trade would essentially pay companies to limit pollution.

In 2006 the World Health Organization issued new Air Quality Guidelines. The WHOs guidelines are tougher than most individual countries existing guidelines. The WHO guidelines aim to reduce air pollution-related deaths by 15 percent a year.

Reduction

Anybody can take steps to reduce air pollution. Millions of people every day make simple changes in their lives to do this. Taking public transportation instead of driving a car, or riding a bike instead of traveling in carbon dioxide-emitting vehicles are a couple of ways to reduce air pollution. Avoiding aerosol cans, recycling yard trimmings instead of burning them, and not smoking cigarettes are others.

air pollution
China is one of the most rapidly developing nations in the world. It also has one of the highest rates of air pollution.

Downwinders
The United States conducted tests of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site in southern Nevada in the 1950s. These tests sent invisible radioactive particles into the atmosphere. These air pollution particles traveled with wind currents, eventually falling to Earth, sometimes hundreds of miles away in states including Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and Washington. These areas were considered to be "downwind" from the Nevada Test Site.

Decades later, people living in those downwind areascalled "downwinders"began developing cancer at above-normal rates. In 1990, the U.S. government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This law entitles some downwinders to payments of $50,000.

London Smog
What has come to be known as the London Smog of 1952, or the Great Smog of 1952, was a four-day incident that sickened 100,000 people and caused as many as 12,000 deaths. Very cold weather in December 1952 led residents of London, England, to burn more coal to keep warm. Smoke and other pollutants became trapped by a thick fog that settled over the city. The polluted fog became so thick that people could only see a few meters in front of them.

Greenhouse Gases
There are five major greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere.

  • water vapor
  • carbon dioxide
  • methane
  • nitrous oxide
  • ozone
acid rain
Noun

precipitation with high levels of nitric and sulfuric acids. Acid rain can be manmade or occur naturally.

aerosol can
Noun

container of liquid material under high pressure. When released through a small opening, the liquid becomes a spray or foam.

Noun

harmful chemicals in the atmosphere.

anthropogenic source
Noun

caused by people.

asthma
Noun

disease that makes it difficult to breathe.

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

attribute
Verb

to think to be caused by.

birth defect
Noun

physical disorder present at birth and not developed later.

bronchitis
Noun

irritation of the main air passages to the lungs.

cancer
Noun

growth of abnormal cells in the body.

cap and trade
Noun

system for reducing air pollution by placing limits on how much companies can pollute without having to pay for it.

carbon dioxide
Noun

greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

chemical
Noun

molecular properties of a substance.

chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)
Noun

chemical compound mostly used in refrigerants and flame-retardants. Some CFCs have destructive effects on the ozone layer.

cigarette
Noun

thin roll of tobacco for smoking.

coal
Noun

dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

coal-fired power plant
Noun

power plant that makes electricity by burning coal.

colony
Noun

network of mold cells considered as one organism.

combat
Verb

to fight.

concentrated
Adjective

items gathered closely together in one place.

consider
Verb

to think about.

contaminate
Verb

to poison or make hazardous.

Noun

agricultural produce.

Noun

steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

decade
Noun

10 years.

decay
Verb

to rot or decompose.

degrade
Verb

to lower the quality of something.

developed country
Noun

a nation that has high levels of economic activity, health care, and education.

developing world
Noun

nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.

downwind
Adjective

in the direction of the wind.

downwinder
Noun

person who was accidentally exposed to radioactive particles from the Nevada Test Site.

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

emission
Noun

discharge or release.

emit
Verb

to give off or send out.

emphysema
Noun

disease of the lungs.

exceed
Verb

to go beyond the limit.

exhaust
Noun

gases and particles expelled from an engine.

factory
Noun

one or more buildings used for the manufacture of a product.

fluorinate
Verb

to add or combine with the element fluorine (F).

Noun

clouds at ground level.

fossil fuel
Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

garbage
Noun

trash or waste material.

gas
Noun

state of matter with no fixed shape that will fill any container uniformly. Gas molecules are in constant, random motion.

gasoline
Noun

liquid mixture made from oil and used to run many motor vehicles.

Noun

increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.

greenhouse gas
Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

haze
Noun

group of solid and liquid particles in the air that makes it difficult to see.

heart disease
Noun

illness affecting the heart and circulatory system.

hydrofluorocarbon
Noun

greenhouse gas often used as an industrial cooling material.

illness
Noun

disease or sickness.

immune system
Noun

network of chemicals and organs that protects the body from disease.

incident
Noun

event or happening.

indoor air pollution
Noun

harmful chemicals coming from or accumulating inside a building.

insulation
Noun

material used to keep an object warm.

irritation
Noun

condition of unpleasant sensitivity.

kerosene
Noun

flammable liquid used as fuel.

kidney
Noun

organ that removes the waste products from blood and helps regulate general health.

Kyoto Protocol
Noun

(1997) international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

liquid
Noun

state of matter with no fixed shape and molecules that remain loosely bound with each other.

liver
Noun

organ that removes toxins from the blood, converts sugar to glycogen, and produces bile needed for digestion.

London Fog of 1952
Noun

(December 5December 9, 1952) severe smog that killed between 4,000 and 12,000 people in London, England. Also called the Great Smog.

long-term effects
Noun

results of an incident or behavior that last for years or a lifetime.

lung
Noun

organ in an animal that is necessary for breathing.

man-made
Noun

produced by people.

methane
Noun

chemical compound that is the basic ingredient of natural gas.

mold
Noun

type of fungi that forms on the surface of materials.

motor vehicle
Noun

method of transportation that is run by an electric or gas engine.

mountain
Noun

landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

Noun

type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.

natural source
Noun

caused by nature or the environment.

nausea
Noun

impulse to vomit.

nerve
Noun

part of the nervous system that registers sensation and touch.

Nevada Test Site
Noun

testing site for nuclear weapons and other military products in the southern Nevada desert. Nuclear weapons testing was discontinued there in 1992.

nitrogen oxide
Noun

one of many chemical compounds made of different combinations of nitrogen and oxygen.

nitrous oxide
Noun

greenhouse gas used in medicine and the manufacture of rockets. Also known as laughing gas or happy gas.

nuclear weapon
Noun

explosive device that draws power from the splitting and combining of atomic nuclei.

obscure
Verb

to darken or partially block.

odor
Noun

smell.

oxygen
Noun

chemical element with the symbol O, whose gas form is 21% of the Earth's atmosphere.

Noun

layer in the atmosphere containing the gas ozone, which absorbs most of the sun's ultraviolet radiation.

particle
Noun

small piece of material.

phenomenon
Noun

an unusual act or occurrence.

pneumonia
Noun

infection where lungs fill with fluid.

pollutant
Noun

chemical or other substance that harms a natural resource.

public transportation
Noun

methods of movement that are available to all community members for a fee, and which follow a fixed route and schedule: buses, subways, trains and ferries.

Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
Noun

(1990) law providing money to people who developed cancer as a result of exposure to radiation in the atmosphere near nuclear test sites.

radioactive particle
Noun

atom or part of an atom with excess energy that decays and changes the properties of the atom. Also called a hot particle.

radon
Noun

chemical element with the symbol Rn.

recycle
Verb

to clean or process in order to make suitable for reuse.

reduce
Verb

to lower or lessen.

regulate
Verb

to determine and administer a set of rules for an activity.

rely
Verb

to depend on.

reproductive rate
Noun

number of live offspring produced by a single female per reproductive cycle, usually a year.

respiratory disease
Noun

illness having to do with the lungs and breathing.

sewer system
Noun

network of drains disposing liquid and solid waste.

short-term effect
Noun

results of an incident or behavior that last days or months and do not return.

Noun

type of air pollution common in manufacturing areas or areas with high traffic.

smoke
Noun

gases given off by a burning substance.

soil
Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

soil composition
Noun

material, including chemicals, air, and moisture, that make up a section of earth.

solid
Noun

state of matter with a fixed shape and molecules that vibrate but do not move.

spore
Noun

reproductive unit of some organisms.

sulfur dioxide
Noun

greenhouse gas that can cause acid rain.

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

temporary
Adjective

not lasting or permanent.

toxic mold
Noun

airborne particles released by mold (not the mold itself) that can cause health problems for people and animals.

treaty
Noun

official agreement between groups of people.

unpleasant
Adjective

offensive or foul.

ventilation
Noun

movement or circulation of fresh air in a closed environment. Also called air circulation.

Noun

fragments of lava less than 2 millimeters across.

Noun

an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

Noun

uncontrolled fire that happens in a rural or sparsely populated area.

World Health Organization (WHO)
Noun

United Nations agency responsible for health.

yard
Noun

land surrounding a house or building.

yard trimmings
Noun

grass, leaves, and small branches left over from mowing and cutting back local vegetation. Also called yard waste.

yield
Verb

to produce or result in.