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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

air pollution

air pollution

Air pollution consists of chemicals or particles in the air that can harm the health of humans, animals, and plants. It also damages buildings.

Grades

4 - 12+

Subjects

Biology, Earth Science, Ecology, Geography

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Morgan Stanley

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.

Fast Fact

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.

Fast Fact

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

  • water vapor
  • carbon dioxide
  • methane
  • nitrous oxide
  • ozone

Fast Fact

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.

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Writers
Kim Rutledge, Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel, Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng, Santani Teng
Hilary Hall, Hilary Hall
Tara Ramroop, Tara Ramroop
Erin Sprout, Erin Sprout
Jeff Hunt, Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau, Diane Boudreau
Hilary Costa, Hilary Costa
Illustrators
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society,
Tim Gunther, Tim Gunther
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West, Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne,
Producer
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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