Different types of air pollution have very different effects on plants and animals. The different types of air pollution come from different sources so the solution of cleaning up air pollution isn’t an easy one. Understanding the problem takes time, but every thing we do to improve air quality brings us closer to having the fresh air we all thrive on.
Air pollution consists of gases and fine particles. Each type of air pollution has different effects upon the environment and human health. The main types of air pollution are:
- Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is mainly emitted by the burning of fossil fuels such as crude oil and coal. Sulfur dioxide is an irritating gas that can cause burning of eyes and mucus membranes in the nose, throat, and lungs. In moist air, sulfur dioxide combines with water to form sulfuric acid, the foundation of winter smog and acid deposition.
- Nitrogen oxides (NOX) are gases formed by the combination of nitrogen with various numbers of oxygen ions. Human sources of nitrogen oxides include vehicle traffic; fossil-fuel burning power facilities and industrial factories; and agricultural fertilizers. Nitrogen oxides react with other gasses in the air to form ozone and acids. Nitrogen oxides also accelerate eutrophication of water bodies.
- Ammonia (NH3) also results from agricultural activities, including animal husbandry, and contributes to acid deposition and eutrophication.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) include a range of different contaminants, such as carbohydrates, organic compounds and solvents. VOCs arise from fossil fuel burning, industrial processes such as leather tanning plastics manufacturing, use of household cleansers, paints, items made from petro-chemicals, and agricultural activities. VOCs play a central role in ozone loss. They can have a variety of effects on human health ranging from noxious odors to respiratory diseases and even cancer.
- Methane (CH4) is emitted mainly by livestock, but smaller amounts are also released during waste combustion and natural gas production. Methane contributes to the greenhouse effect, global warming, and climate change.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) results from the incomplete combustion of any fuel. High concentrations of CO in the blood prevent the transportation of oxygen and can lead to headaches, breathing difficulty, and swift death. Carbon monoxide also contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
- Dust particles, or particulate matter, can derive from natural events such as volcanoes or human activities such as construction and industrial processes. Cement manufacturing, mining, and other mineral processing industries are primary sources of dust. The upper respiratory tract stops larger dust particles, but fine particulate matter can penetrate deeply into the lungs, carrying carcinogenic compounds and metals.
- Ozone (O3) is created by the action of ultraviolet light upon nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere. Ozone causes smogs, acidification, and climate change. Ozone penetrates the lungs deeply, irritating respiratory diseases. Paradoxically, the global ozone layer in the high atmosphere provides essential protection against cancer-causing solar radiation. Losses of large areas of this ozone layer permit more solar radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, contributing to global warming and climate change.
- Radioactive radiation from outer space is a natural phenomenon. But humans can create dangerously high levels of radioactive radiation with nuclear weapons testing, nuclear power plant radiation leaks, and improper disposal of nuclear waste materials. Radioactive radiation can alter DNA, leading to birth defects. It can cause cancer. In very high doses, radioactive radiation can burn tissues and cause swift death.
The many different types of air pollution cause even more adverse effects upon the environment and human health. Some air pollution occurs naturally in levels that species have evolved to tolerate. Man’s additional contributions tip the balance and inflict damage upon the environment as well as health.