Pollution is defined as the addition or exessive addition of certain materials to the physical environment thereby making it less fit or unfit for living. These materials are called pollutants
Air pollution is the presence of substances in the atmosphere that are harmful to the health of humans and other living beings, or cause damage to the climate or to materials. There are many different types of air pollutants, such as gases (such as ammonia, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, methane, carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons), particulates (both organic and inorganic), and biological molecules.
Air pollution may cause diseases, allergies and even death to humans; it may also cause harm to other living organisms such as animals and food crops, and may damage the natural environment (for example, climate change, ozone depletion or habitat degradation) or built environment (for example, acid rain). Both human activity and natural processes can generate air pollution.
Productivity losses and degraded quality of life caused by air pollution are estimated to cost the world economy $5 trillion per year.
Various pollution control technologies and strategies are available to reduce air pollution.
To reduce the impacts of air pollution, both international and national legislation and regulation have been implemented to regulate air pollution.
Local laws where well enforced in cities have led to strong public health improvements. At the international level some of these efforts have been successful, for example the Montreal Protocol which successful at reducing release of harmful ozone depleting chemicals or 1985 Helsinki Protocol which reduced sulfur emissions, while other attempts have been less rapid in implementation, such as international action on climate change.
Pollutants emitted into the atmosphere by human activity include:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) – Because of its role as a greenhouse gas it has been described as “the leading pollutant” and “the worst climate pollutant”. Carbon dioxide is a natural component of the atmosphere, essential for plant life and given off by the human respiratory system.
CO2 currently forms about 410 parts per million (ppm) of earth’s atmosphere, compared to about 280 ppm in pre-industrial times, and billions of metric tons of CO2 are emitted annually by burning of fossil fuels.
- Sulfur oxides (SOx) – particularly sulfur dioxide, a chemical compound with the formula SO2. SO2 is produced by volcanoes and in various industrial processes. Coal and petroleum often contain sulfur compounds, and their combustion generates sulfur dioxide. Further oxidation of SO2, usually in the presence of a catalyst such as NO2, forms H2SO4, and thus acid rain is formed. This is one of the causes for concern over the environmental impact of the use of these fuels as power sources.
- Nitrogen oxides (NOx) – Nitrogen oxides, particularly nitrogen dioxide, are expelled from high temperature combustion, and are also produced during thunderstorms by electric discharge. They can be seen as a brown haze dome above or a plume downwind of cities. Nitrogen dioxide is a chemical compound with the formula NO2. It is one of several nitrogen oxides. One of the most prominent air pollutants, this reddish-brown toxic gas has a characteristic sharp, biting odor.
- Particulate matter / particles, alternatively referred to as particulate matter (PM), atmospheric particulate matter, or fine particles, are tiny particles of solid or liquid suspended in a gas.
In contrast, aerosol refers to combined particles and gas. Some particulates occur naturally, originating from volcanoes, dust storms, forest and grassland fires, living vegetation, and sea spray. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, power plants and various industrial processes also generate significant amounts of aerosols.
Averaged worldwide, anthropogenic aerosols—those made by human activities—currently account for approximately 10 percent of our atmosphere. Increased levels of fine particles in the air are linked to health hazards such as heart disease, altered lung function and lung cancer. Particulates are related to respiratory infections and can be particularly harmful to those already suffering from conditions like asthma.
- Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – harmful to the ozone layer; emitted from products are currently banned from use. These are gases which are released from air conditioners, refrigerators, aerosol sprays, etc. On release into the air, CFCs rise to the stratosphere. Here they come in contact with other gases and damage the ozone layer. This allows harmful ultraviolet rays to reach the earth’s surface. This can lead to skin cancer, eye disease and can even cause damage to plants.
- Ground level ozone (O3) formed from NOx and VOCs. Ozone (O3) is a key constituent of the troposphere. It is also an important constituent of certain regions of the stratosphere commonly known as the Ozone layer. Photochemical and chemical reactions involving it drive many of the chemical processes that occur in the atmosphere by day and by night. At abnormally high concentrations brought about by human activities (largely the combustion of fossil fuel), it is a pollutant and a constituent of smog.