Types of Air Pollutants

air pollution

Air pollution is one of the most important, and worrying, of the environmental issues society faces today. Defined as the introduction of harmful materials, such as biological molecules and particulates, into the Earth’s atmosphere, air pollution can cause:

  • Damage to living organisms, such as food crops, and animals
  • Damage to the built or natural environment
  • Disease
  • Allergies
  • Death to humans

The earth’s atmosphere is comprised of complex natural gases that are essential for supporting all life on the planet. It’s blanket of gases contains both air and protection from the radiation and heat from the sun.

The atmosphere of the Earth is around 300 miles thick, with most of the being within 10 miles of its surface. The gases that make up this protective system, along with water, include:

  • Oxygen
  • Nitrogen
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Argon

Dangers to Humans

The two forms of air pollution considered to be the most detrimental to humans are ozone, or smog, and particle pollution, or soot. According to the State of the Air Report 2014 by the American Lung Association, almost half (47 percent) of all people living in the U.S. are in counties that have unhealthy levels of particle pollution, or ozone.


The majority of ozone is caused by a chemical reaction between the vapors emitted from the burning of fossil or carbon-based fuels and sunlight. Therefore, it stands to reason that ozone pollution is at its highest during the sunny months.

Ozone exposure can cause both short and long term issues to an individual’s health. Short term problems include irritation to the respiratory system, and skin irritation. Long term exposure can cause more serious issues, such as an increased rate of pulmonary disease, inflammation of the lining of the lungs, and impaired lung function.

Particle pollution

Particle pollution is very widespread throughout the environment. It consists of liquid and solid particles comprising of chemicals, diesel exhaust, soot, ash, and metals.

Particle pollution is produced by the use of diesel fuel in heavy equipment, passenger vehicles, and cargo vehicles, as well as from the burning of coal in power plants, and other industry. Wood burning is another source of this type of pollution, along with agricultural practices.

Particle pollution is particularly dangerous to humans (even in low concentrations), and has been linked to premature birth, and lung cancer. It also causes illnesses like:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Shortened life span
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Irritation of current respiratory conditions, such as asthma

Other common air pollutants that can pose health risks to humans include:

  • Carbon monoxide. Produced by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels in industrial plants, home heating equipment, vehicles, and other sources, carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas, and is poisonous to both animals and humans when inhaled.
  • Nitrogen oxides. Gases that contribute to both acid rain and smog.
  • Sulfur dioxide. Produced by the burning of fuels that contain sulfur, such as coal and oil, sulfur dioxide can lead to health issues, particularly in individuals with existing lung or heart conditions.
  • When present in high concentrations in the body, this neurotoxin can be the cause of cardiovascular problems, as well as immune issues, kidney disease, and reproductive problems.

Environmental Dangers

The greenhouse effect, that leads to climate change and global warming, is one of the most widely known forms of air pollution today. A certain percentage of these gases are released into the air via natural sources, and this is necessary in terms of balancing the earth’s climate.

Naturally-speaking, greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, and form an absorbent and reflective layer that prevents some of the sun’s heat escaping from the atmosphere, ensuring that animal and plant life can thrive and grow.

However, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, man has added to the naturally occurring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The most common of these being carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane.

Unfortunately, when man-made greenhouses gases are added into the mix, too much heat is reflected back into the atmosphere, causing global warming. With increased storm activity, melting of polar ice, ocean levels rising, and the flooding of low lying and coastal areas among the potential consequences of climate change, as well as the altering of ecosystems and extinction of species of plants and animals, air pollution is a huge issue today.

Although the gas occurs naturally in the atmosphere, human-related emissions are altering the carbon-cycle of the earth. The main sources of carbon dioxide human-related emissions in the U.S. are via industry, electricity, and transportation.

The molecules of the gas stay within the atmosphere for up to 114 years, and the impact of one single pound of the gas on global warming, is almost 300 times more than that of one pound of carbon dioxide.

Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of the dangers of air pollution to both people, and the planet. Originally passed in 1973, and consequently amended in 1990, the Clean Air Act has significantly reduced the volume of pollutants released into the air on a daily basis.

Since its inception, the Act has:

  • Reduced mercury emissions by 45 percent since 1990.
  • Cut ground-level ozone by more than 25 percent since 1980.
  • Cut lead air pollution by over 90 percent since 1980 by reducing the lead content in gasoline.
  • Phased out ozone-depleting chemical production, and use.
  • Significantly reduced the main pollutants (nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide) that cause acid rain.

Although there is still much more room for improvement, this increased awareness will help ensure that the earth’s atmosphere is maintained as well as it can be for the benefit of future generations.

To reduce your own air pollution, take a look at our earlier related post 40 Ways to Reduce Air Pollution and Your Carbon Footprint.

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