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Health Effects Caused by Air Pollution

  • Date: 2013/08/06 (Rev. 2019/02/03)
  • Thomas C. Weiss - Disabled World
  • Synopsis : Article looks at the dramatic and sometimes debilitating effects of severe air pollution and how it can affect behavior and health.

Main Document

Air pollution is defined as contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Household combustion devices, motor vehicles, industrial facilities and forest fires are common sources of air pollution. Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Outdoor and indoor air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases, which can be fatal.

As with photochemical pollutants, sulfur dioxide contributes to the occurrence of respiratory diseases. Acid rain, which is a form of precipitation containing high levels of nitric or sulfuric acids, has the ability to contaminate vegetation and drinking water, erode buildings, and damage aquatic life. When a weather condition referred to as a, 'temperature inversion,' prevents the dispersal of smog in the air, people living in the affected area, particularly children, seniors, and those with forms of chronic illnesses, are warned to remain indoors and avoid physical stress.

The dramatic and even debilitating effects of severe air pollution in cities around the world have alerted various governments to the need for crisis procedures. Air pollution levels that are even considered to be, 'everyday,' have the potential to affect a person's behavior and health. Indoor air pollution is a real issue in developed nations where efficient insulation keeps pollutants inside of structures. In nations that are less-developed, the lack of indoor sanitation and running water may encourage respiratory infections. Carbon monoxide, as an example, through driving oxygen out of a person's bloodstream, causes symptoms including:

  • Apathy
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Disorientation
  • Decreased visual acuity
  • Decreased muscular coordination
Chart showing air pollution sources
Chart showing air pollution sources

Air pollution also has the potential to harm populations of people in ways that are so slow or subtle they have yet to be detected. Due to this, research is underway to assess the long-term effects of chronic exposure to low levels of air pollutants including what the majority of people experience, how air pollutants interact with each other in a person's body, as well as with physical factors such as stress, nutrition, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and common medications. Also under investigation is the relation between air pollutants and birth defects, cancer, and genetic mutations.

Air pollution and seasonal, 'holes,' in the ozone layer in the atmosphere above the Arctic and Antarctica, along with increasing evidence of global ozone depletion, are considered to be discoveries that may increase the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the planet's surface. The radiation damages plants and crops and has the potential to lead to cataracts and skin cancer. The depletion of the ozone layer has been caused in large part by the emission of, 'chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's),' from air conditioners, refrigerators, and aerosol sprays. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 requires developed nations not to exceed 1986 levels. A number of meetings were held between the years of 1990 and 1997 to adopt agreements to accelerate the phasing out of ozone-depleting substances.

Air Pollution Sources

The combustion of gasoline and hydrocarbon fuels in cars, trucks, and jet airplanes creates a number of primary pollutants. The pollutants include gaseous hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide - as well as large quantities of particulates, mainly lead. When exposed to sunlight, nitrogen oxides combine with hydrocarbons to create a secondary class of pollutants known as, 'photochemical oxidants.' Among the photochemical oxidants are ozone and peroxacetylnitrate (PAN), which stings a person's eyes.

Chart showing airborne pollution sources
Chart showing airborne pollution sources

Nitrogen oxides react with oxygen in the air to form nitrogen dioxide which is a bad-smelling brown gas. In urban areas such as Los Angeles, where transportation is the largest cause of air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide tints the air brown and blends with other contaminants and water in the atmosphere to produce smog. While the use of catalytic converters has reduced smog-producing compounds from motor vehicle exhaust, studies have demonstrated that the converters also produce nitrous dioxide - something that contributes substantially to the process of global warming.

In cities, the air might be seriously polluted not just by transportation, but also by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil in factories, generating stations, homes, and office buildings as well as through the burning of garbage. Large-scale combustion creates tons of soot, ash and additional particulates that are responsible for the gray smog in cities including Chicago and New York, as well as vast quantities of sulfur oxides which may also be the result of burning oil and coal. Oxides damage building stone, rust iron, tarnish silver, kill plants, and decompose nylon. Air pollution from cities is not confined to the cities themselves - it also affects rural areas located a number of miles downwind.

Each industrial process presents its own pattern of air pollution. Petroleum refineries are responsible for wide-spread particulate and hydrocarbon pollution. Steel and iron mills, pulp and paper mills, metal smelters, cement and asphalt plants, and chemical plants all spew incredible amounts of different particulates. High-voltage power lines that are uninsulated ionize the air and form ozone and additional hazardous pollutants. Pollutants that are airborne from other sources include:

  • Herbicides
  • Insecticides
  • Dust from fertilizers
  • Radioactive fallout
  • Dust from livestock feedlots
  • Dust from mining operations

The question on a lot of people's minds at this point is, "What can we possibly do about all of the pollutants that surround us in the very air we are breathing" The health hazards are all to real and ever-present, especially if you live in a major city. Fresh country air is not always that fresh, given the fact that pollutants have the ability to drift in the wind for miles.

Solutions

To fight pollution in America the, 'Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970,' gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to both establish and enforce air pollution standards, as well as to set emission standards for new factories and extremely hazardous industrial pollutants. States in America were required to meet, 'ambient air quality standards,' through regulation of the emissions of a number of pollutants from existing stationary sources such as incinerators and power plants, in part through the installation of electrostatic precipitators, smokestack scrubbers, and additional filters. Car manufacturers were mandated to install exhaust controls, or to develop engines that were, 'less-polluting.' The Clean Air Act, as amended in the year 1977, authorized the EPA to impose stricter pollution standards as well as higher penalties for failure to comply with air quality standards.

The year 1990 found the Act being reauthorized and requiring the majority of cities to meet existing smog reduction regulations by the year 2005. The amendments of 1990 also expanded the strength and scope of the regulations for controlling industrial forms of pollutants. The result has been a limited amount of progress in reducing the quantities of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and lead in the air you breathe. The EPA also regulated hazardous air pollutants which, in the year 1992, include things such as beryllium, vinylchloride, asbestos, mercury, inorganic arsenic, benzene, and radioactive substances.

Perhaps the most needed long-term solutions to air pollution might be the elimination of fossil fuels and the replacement of the internal-combustion engine itself. Pursuit of these efforts have begun in Japan, Europe, and America; they are working to develop alternate energy sources and different types of transportation engines such as one that is electricity-powered. A system of, 'pollution allowances,' based upon trading emission rights has been established in America in an attempt to use the free market to reward reduction of pollution. The international sale of surplus emission rights is allowed under the Kyoto Protocol. Additional proposed solutions include:

  • Discourage waste and inefficiency
  • Mechanical controls on coal-fired utility plants
  • Raising gasoline and electricity rates to reflect environmental costs

The year 1992 found 150 nations signing a treaty on global warming at the United Nations-sponsored summit on the environment in Rio de Janeiro. A United Nations Conference on Climate Change was held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 that produced an international agreement to fight global warming through sharp reduction of emissions of industrial gases created by industrialized nations. While America dropped the treaty in the year 2001 stating it was, 'counter to U.S. Interests,' the majority of other responsible nations agreed that year on the details needed to make the protocol a binding international treaty. The needed ratifications brought the treaty into force in the year 2005. Efforts to develop a new and more encompassing, binding treaty that would build on the Kyoto Protocol have remained unsuccessful and in the year 2012 Canada became the first ratifying nation to withdraw. Later in the year 2012, the Kyoto Protocol was extended to the year 2020.

What this means to you is that if you live in America, the leadership of your nation is more interested in industry than your health. For other nations, concern for your health may or may not be of concern; not every nation has demonstrated an interest in health over industry or pollutants. The need for ingenuity in relation to different ways to pursue industrial endeavors has never been greater; ways to produce without polluting are desperately needed.

The health of people around the world depends such innovative thinking.



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