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Air pollution

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Air pollution
Acid rain • Air Quality Index • Atmospheric dispersion modelingChlorofluorocarbon • Global dimming • Global warming • Haze • Indoor air quality • Ozone depletion • Particulate • Smog
Water pollution
EutrophicationHypoxiaMarine pollutionOcean acidification • Oil spill • Ship pollution • Surface runoff • Thermal pollution • Wastewater • Waterborne diseases • Water qualityWater stagnation
Soil contamination
BioremediationHerbicidePesticideSoil Guideline Values (SGVs)
Radioactive contamination
Actinides in the environment • Environmental radioactivityFission productNuclear falloutPlutonium in the environmentRadiation poisoning • Radium in the environment • Uranium in the environment
Other types of pollution
Invasive species • Light pollution • Noise pollution • Radio spectrum pollution • Visual pollution
Inter-government treaties
Montreal Protocol • Nitrogen Oxide Protocol • Kyoto Protocol • CLRTAP
Major organizations
DEFRA • EPA • Global Atmosphere Watch • Greenpeace • National Ambient Air Quality Standards
Related topics
Environmental Science • Natural environment

Air pollution is the modification of the natural characteristics of the atmosphere by a chemical, particulate matter, or biological agent. The atmosphere is a complex, dynamic natural gaseous system that is essential to support life on planet Earth. Stratospheric ozone depletion due to air pollution has long been recognized as a threat to human health as well as to the Earth's ecosystems.

Worldwide air pollution is responsible for large numbers of deaths and cases of respiratory disease. While major stationary sources are often identified with air pollution, the greatest source of emissions is actually mobile sources, mainly automobiles. Gases such as carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming, have recently gained recognition as pollutants by climate scientists, while they also recognize that carbon dioxide is essential for plant life through photosynthesis.




There are many substances in the air which may impair the health of plants and animals (including humans), or reduce visibility. These arise both from natural processes and human activity. Substances not naturally found in the air or at greater concentrations or in different locations from usual are referred to as pollutants.

Pollutants can be classified as either primary or secondary. Primary pollutants are substances directly emitted from a process, such as ash from a volcanic eruption or the carbon monoxide gas from a motor vehicle exhaust.

Secondary pollutants are not emitted directly. Rather, they form in the air when primary pollutants react or interact. An important example of a secondary pollutant is ground level ozone - one of the many secondary pollutants that make up photochemical smog.

Note that some pollutants may be both primary and secondary: that is, they are both emitted directly and formed from other primary pollutants.

Major primary pollutants produced by human activity include:

  • Sulfur oxides (SOx) especially sulfur dioxide are emitted from burning of coal and oil.
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) especially nitrogen dioxide are emitted from high temperature combustion. Can be seen as the brown haze dome above or plume downwind of cities.
  • Carbon monoxide is colourless, odourless, non-irritating but very poisonous gas. It is a product by incomplete combustion of fuel such as natural gas, coal or wood. Vehicular exhaust is a major source of carbon monoxide.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas emitted from combustion.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC), such as hydrocarbon fuel vapors and solvents.
  • Particulate matter (PM), measured as smoke and dust. PM10 is the fraction of suspended particles 10 micrometers in diameter and smaller that will enter the nasal cavity. PM2.5 has a maximum particle size of 2.5 µm and will enter the bronchies and lungs.
  • Toxic metals, such as lead, cadmium and copper.
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), harmful to the ozone layer emitted from products currently banned from use.
  • Ammonia (NH3) emitted from agricultural processes.
  • Odors, such as from garbage, sewage, and industrial processes
  • Radioactive pollutants produced by nuclear explosions and war explosives, and natural processes such as radon.

Secondary pollutants include:

  • Particulate matter formed from gaseous primary pollutants and compounds in photochemical smog, such as nitrogen dioxide.
  • Ground level ozone (O3) formed from NOx and VOCs.
  • Peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN) similarly formed from NOx and VOCs.

Minor air pollutants include:

  • A large number of minor . Some of these are regulated in USA under the Clean Air Act and in Europe under the Air Framework Directive.
  • A variety of persistent organic pollutants, which can attach to particulate matter.

Sources of air pollution

    Sources of air pollution refer to the various locations, activities or factors which are responsible for the releasing of pollutants in the atmosphere. These sources can be classified into two major categories which are:

Anthropogenic sources (human activity) mostly related to burning different kinds of fuel

  • "Stationary Sources" as smoke stacks of power plants, manufacturing facilities, municipal waste incinerators
  • "Mobile Sources" as motor vehicles, aircraft etc.
  • Combustion-fired power plants
  • Controlled burn practices used in agriculture and forestry management
  • Motor vehicles generating air pollution emissions.
  • Marine vessels, such as container ships or cruise ships, and related port air pollution.
  • Burning wood, fireplaces, stoves, furnaces and incinerators
  • Oil refining, power plant operation and industrial activity in general.
  • Chemicals, dust and crop waste burning in farming, (see Dust Bowl).
  • Fumes from paint, hair spray, varnish, aerosol sprays and other solvents.
  • Waste deposition in landfills, which generate methane.
  • Military uses, such as nuclear weapons, toxic gases, germ warfare and rocketry.

Natural sources

  • Dust from natural sources, usually large areas of land with little or no vegetation.
  • Methane, emitted by the digestion of food by animals, for example cattle.
  • Radon gas from radioactive decay within the Earth's crust.
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide from wildfires.
  • Volcanic activity, which produce sulfur, chlorine, and ash particulates.

Indoor air quality (IAQ)

Main article: Indoor air quality

A lack of ventilation indoors concentrates air pollution where people often spend the majority of their time. Radon (Rn) gas, a carcinogen, is exuded from the Earth in certain locations and trapped inside houses. Researchers have found that radon gas is responsible for over 1,800 deaths annually in the United Kingdom.[citation needed] Building materials including carpeting and plywood emit formaldehyde (H2CO) gas. Paint and solvents give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as they dry. Lead paint can degenerate into dust and be inhaled. Intentional air pollution is introduced with the use of air fresheners, incense, and other scented items. Controlled wood fires in stoves and fireplaces can add significant amounts of smoke particulates into the air, inside and out. Indoor pollution fatalities may be caused by using pesticides and other chemical sprays indoors without proper ventilation.

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and fatalities are often caused by faulty vents and chimneys, or by the burning of charcoal indoors. 56,000 Americans died from CO in the period 1979-1988.[citation needed] Chronic carbon monoxide poisoning can result even from poorly adjusted pilot lights. Traps are built into all domestic plumbing to keep sewer gas, hydrogen sulfide, out of interiors. Clothing emits tetrachloroethylene, or other dry cleaning fluids, for days after dry cleaning.

Though its use has now been banned in many countries, the extensive use of asbestos in industrial and domestic environments in the past has left a potentially very dangerous material in many localities. Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory medical condition affecting the tissue of the lungs. It occurs after long-term, heavy exposure to asbestos from asbestos-containing materials in structures. Sufferers have severe dyspnea (shortness of breath) and are at an increased risk regarding several different types of lung cancer. As clear explanations are not always stressed in non-technical literature, care should be taken to distinguish between several forms of relevant diseases. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), these may defined as; asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma (generally a very rare form of cancer, when more widespread it is almost always associated with prolonged exposure to asbestos).

Biological sources of air pollution are also found indoors, as gases and airborne particulates. Pets produce dander, people produce dust from minute skin flakes and decomposed hair, dust mites in bedding, carpeting and furniture produce enzymes and micron-sized fecal droppings, inhabitants emit methane, mold forms in walls and generates mycotoxins and spores, air conditioning systems can incubate Legionnaires' disease and mold, and houseplants, soil and surrounding gardens can produce pollen, dust, and mold. Indoors, the lack of air circulation allows these airborne pollutants to accumulate more than they would otherwise occur in nature.

Health effects

The World Health Organization states that 2.4 million people die each year from causes directly attributable to air pollution [1]. Many of these mortalities are attributable to indoor air pollution. Worldwide more deaths per year are linked to air pollution than to automobile accidents. Published in 2005 suggests that 310,000 Europeans die from air pollution annually. Direct causes of air pollution related deaths include aggravated asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, lung and heart diseases, and respiratory allergies. The US EPA estimates that a proposed set of changes in diesel engine technology (Tier 2) could result in 12,000 fewer premature mortalities, 15,000 fewer heart attacks, 6,000 fewer emergency room visits by children with asthma, and 8,900 fewer respiratory-related hospital admissions each year in the United States.

The worst short term civilian pollution crisis in India was the 1984 Bhopal Disaster. Leaked industrial vapors from the Union Carbide factory, belonging to Union Carbide, Inc., U.S.A., killed more than 2,000 people outright and injured anywhere from 150,000 to 600,000 others, some 6,000 of whom would later die from their injuries. The United Kingdom suffered its worst air pollution event when the December 4th Great Smog of 1952 formed over London. In six days more than 4,000 died, and 8,000 more died within the following months. An accidental leak of anthrax spores from a biological warfare laboratory in the former USSR in 1979 near Sverdlovsk is believed to have been the cause of hundreds of civilian deaths. The worst single incident of air pollution to occur in the United States of America occurred in Donora, Pennsylvania in late October, 1948, when 20 people died and over 7,000 were injured.[2]

The health effects caused by air pollutants may range from subtle biochemical and physiological changes to difficulty in breathing, wheezing, coughing and aggravation of existing respiratory and cardiac conditions. These effects can result in increased medication use, increased doctor or emergency room visits, more hospital admissions and premature death. The human health effects of poor air quality are far reaching, but principally affect the body's respiratory system and the cardiovascular system. Individual reactions to air pollutants depend on the type of pollutant a person is exposed to, the degree of exposure, the individual's health status and genetics. People who exercise outdoors, for example, on hot, smoggy days increase their exposure to pollutants in the air.

Reduction efforts

There are many air pollution control technologies and urban planning strategies available to reduce air pollution; however, worldwide costs of addressing the issue are high.[citation needed] Of course, these costs are a small fraction of the economic damage that air pollution will inflict on every nation of earth. Within the last decade the cost of air pollution annually in most of Europe is between 1-3 percent GDP and is at least 5 percent GDP of China.

Many countries have programs to or are debating how to reduce dependence on fossil fuels for energy production and shift toward renewable energy technologies or nuclear power plants.

Efforts to reduce pollution from mobile sources includes primary regulation (many developing countries have permissive regulations), expanding regulation to new sources (such as cruise and transport ships, farm equipment, and small gas-powered equipment such as lawn trimmers, chainsaws, and snowmobiles), increased fuel efficiency (such as through the use of hybrid vehicles), conversion to cleaner fuels (such as bioethanol, biodiesel, or conversion to electric vehicles with renewable energy sources (batteries or clean fuel such as hydrogen being used for transport and storage).

Control devices

The following items are commonly used as pollution control devices by industry or transportation devices. They can either destroy contaminants or remove them from an exhaust stream before it is emitted into the atmosphere.

  • Mercury control
    • Sorbent Injection Technology
    • Electro-Catalytic Oxidation (ECO)
    • K-Fuel
  • Miscellaneous associated equipment
    • Source capturing systems
    • Continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS)

Air quality standards


In general, there are two types of air quality standards. The first class of standards (such as the U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards) set maximum atmospheric concentrations for specific pollutants. Environmental agencies enact regulations which are intended to result in attainment of these target levels. The second class (such as the North American Air Quality Index) take the form of a scale with various thresholds, which is used to communicate to the public the relative risk of outdoor activity. The scale may or may not distinguish between different pollutants.


In Canada, air quality is typically evaluated against standards set by the Canadian Council of Minister for the Environment (CCME), an inter-governmental body of federal, provincial and territorial Ministers responsible for the environment. The CCME has set Canada Wide Standards(CWS).[3][4] These are:

  • CWS for PM2.5 = 30 µg/m3 (24 hour averaging time, by year 2010, based on 98th percentile ambient measurement annually, averaged over 3 consecutive years).
  • CWS for ozone = 65 ppb (8-hour averaging time, by year 2010, achievement is based on the 4th highest measurement annually, averaged over 3 consecutive years.

Note that there is no consequence in Canada to not achieving these standards. In addition, these only apply to jurisdictions with populations greater than 100,000. Further, provinces and territories may set more stringent standards than those set by the CCME.

European Union

National Emission Ceilings (NEC) for certain atmospheric pollutants are regulated by Directive 2001/81/EC (NECD).[5] As part of the preparatory work associated with the revision of the NECD, the European Commission is assisted by the NECPI working group (National Emission Ceilings – Policy Instruments).[6]

United Kingdom

Air quality targets set by the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are mostly aimed at local government representatives responsible for the management of air quality in cities, where air quality management is the most urgent. The UK has established an air quality network where levels of the key air pollutants[7] are published by monitoring centers.[8] Air quality in Oxford, Bath and London[9] is particularly poor. One controversial study[10] performed by the Calor Gas company and published in the Guardian newspaper compared walking in Oxford on an average day to smoking over sixty light cigarettes.

More precise comparisons can be collected from the UK Air Quality Archive[11] which allows the user to compare a cities management of pollutants against the national air quality objectives[12] set by DEFRA in 2000.

Localized peak values are often cited, but average values are also important to human health. The UK National Air Quality Information Archive offers almost real-time monitoring of "current maximum" air pollution measurements for many UK towns and cities.[13] This source offers a wide range of constantly updated data, including:

  • Hourly Mean Ozone (µg/m³)
  • Hourly Mean Nitrogen dioxide (µg/m³)
  • Maximum 15-Minute Mean Sulphur dioxide (µg/m³)
  • 8-Hour Mean Carbon monoxide (mg/m³)
  • 24-Hour Mean PM10 (µg/m³ Grav Equiv)

DEFRA acknowledges that air pollution has a significant effect on health and has produced a simple banding index system[14] is used to create a daily warning system that is issued by the BBC Weather Service to indicate air pollution levels.[15] DEFRA has published guidelines for people suffering from respiratory and heart diseases.[16]

United States

  In the 1960s, 70s, and 90s, the United States Congress enacted a series of Clean Air Acts which significantly strengthened regulation of air pollution. Individual U.S. states, some European nations and eventually the European Union followed these initiatives. The Clean Air Act sets numerical limits on the concentrations of a basic group of air pollutants and provide reporting and enforcement mechanisms.

In 1999, the United States EPA replaced the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) with the Air Quality Index (AQI) to incorporate new PM2.5 and Ozone standards.

The effects of these laws have been very positive. In the United States between 1970 and 2006, citizens enjoyed the following reductions in annual pollution emissions:[17]

  • carbon monoxide emissions fell from 197 million tons to 89 million tons
  • nitrogen oxide emissions fell from 27 million tons to 19 million tons
  • sulfur dioxide emissions fell from 31 million tons to 15 million tons
  • particulate emissions fell by 80%
  • lead emissions fell by more than 98%

In an October 2006 letter to EPA, the agency's independent scientific advisors warned that the ozone smog standard “needs to be substantially reduced” and that there is “no scientific justification” for retaining the current, weaker standard. The scientists unanimously recommended a smog threshold of 60 to 70 ppb after they conducted an extensive review of the evidence. [18]

The EPA has proposed, in June 2007, a new threshold of 75 ppb. This falls short of the scientific recommendation, but is an improvement over the current standard.

Polluting industries are lobbying to keep the current (weaker) standards in place. Environmentalists and public health advocates are mobilizing to support compliance with the scientific recommendations.[citation needed]

The National Ambient Air Quality Standards are pollution thresholds which trigger mandatory remediation plans by state and local governments, subject to enforcement by the EPA.

An outpouring of dust layered with man-made sulfates, smog, industrial fumes, carbon grit, and nitrates is crossing the Pacific Ocean on prevailing winds from booming Asian economies in plumes so vast they alter the climate. Almost a third of the air over Los Angeles and San Francisco can be traced directly to Asia. With it comes up to three-quarters of the black carbon particulate pollution that reaches the West Coast. [19]

Geographic areas affected by air pollution


Most Polluted World Cities by PM[20]
μg/m³ (2004)
169 Cairo, Egypt
150 Delhi, India
128 Kolkata, India (Calcutta)
125 Tianjin, China
123 Chongqing, China
109 Kanpur, India
109 Lucknow, India
104 Jakarta, Indonesia
101 Shenyang, China

Air pollution is usually concentrated in densely populated metropolitan areas, especially in developing countries where environmental regulations are generally relatively lax. However, even populated areas in developed countries attain unhealthy levels of pollution.



The source of these data is the Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) database produced by the Center for Global Development.[21]

Total carbon dioxide emissions

106 Tons of CO2 per year:

  • United States: 2,790
  • China: 2,680
  • Russia: 661
  • India: 583
  • Japan: 400
  • Germany: 356
  • Australia: 226
  • South Africa: 222
  • United Kingdom: 212
  • South Korea: 185

Per capita carbon dioxide emissions

Tons of CO2 per year per capita:

  • Australia: 10
  • United States: 8.2
  • United Kingdom: 3.2
  • China: 1.8
  • India: 0.5

Atmospheric dispersion modeling

The basic technology for analyzing air pollution is through the use of a variety of mathematical models for predicting the transport of air pollutants in the lower atmosphere. The principal methodologies are:

  • Point source dispersion, used for industrial sources.
  • Line source dispersion, used for airport and roadway air dispersion modeling
  • Area source dispersion, used for forest fires or duststorms
  • Photochemical models, used to analyze reactive pollutants that form smog


The point source problem is the best understood, since it involves simpler mathematics and has been studied for a long period of time, dating back to about the year 1900. It uses a Gaussian dispersion model for buoyant pollution plumes to forecast the air pollution isopleths, with consideration given to wind velocity, stack height, emission rate and stability class (a measure of atmospheric turbulence).[22][23] This model has been extensively validated and calibrated with experimental data for all sorts of atmospheric conditions.

The roadway air dispersion model was developed starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s in response to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the U.S. Department of Transportation (then known as the Federal Highway Administration) to understand impacts of proposed new highways upon air quality, especially in urban areas. Several research groups were active in this model development, among which were: the Environmental Research and Technology (ERT) group in Lexington, Massachusetts, the ESL Inc. group in Sunnyvale, California and the California Air Resources Board group in Sacramento, California. The research of the ESL group received a boost with a contract award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency to validate a line source model using sulfur hexafluoride as a tracer gas. This program was successful in validating the line source model developed by ESL inc. Some of the earliest uses of the model were in court cases involving highway air pollution, the Arlington, Virginia portion of Interstate 66 and the New Jersey Turnpike widening project through East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Area source models were developed in 1971 through 1974 by the ERT and ESL groups, but addressed a smaller fraction of total air pollution emissions, so that their use and need was not as widespread as the line source model, which enjoyed hundreds of different applications as early as the 1970s. Similarly photochemical models were developed primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, but their use was more specialized and for regional needs, such as understanding smog formation in Los Angeles, California.

Greenhouse effect and ocean acidification

Main article: Greenhouse effect

The greenhouse effect is a phenomenon whereby greenhouse gases, create a condition in the upper atmosphere causing a trapping of heat and leading to increased surface and lower tropospheric temperatures. It shares this property with many other gases, the largest overall forcing on Earth coming from water vapour. Other greenhouse gases include methane, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, NOx, and ozone. Many greenhouse gases, contain carbon, and some of that from fossil fuels.

This effect has been understood by scientists for about a century, and technological advancements during this period have helped increase the breadth and depth of data relating to the phenomenon. Currently, scientists are studying the role of changes in composition of greenhouse gases from natural and anthropogenic sources for the effect on climate change.

A number of studies have also investigated the potential for long-term rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide to cause slight increases in the acidity of ocean waters and the possible effects of this on marine ecosystems. However, carbonic acid is a very weak acid, and is utilized by marine organisms during photosynthesis.

See also

  • Flue gas desulfurization
  • Global Atmosphere Watch
  • Global dimming
  • Global warming
  • Greenhouse effect
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer
  • Kyoto Protocol
  • List of natural disasters by death toll#Smog
  • National Ambient Air Quality Standards (USA EPA)
  • Particulate
  • Polluter pays principle
  • Smog and Haze
  • Spare the Air program (California)


  1. ^ Estimated deaths & DALYs attributable to selected environmental risk factors, by WHO Member State, 2002
  2. ^ Davis, Devra (2002). When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-01521-2. 
  3. ^ Canada-wide Standards
  4. ^ Canada-Wide Standards for Particulate Matter (PM) and Ozone
  5. ^ Directive 2001/81/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2001 on national emission ceilings for certain atmospheric pollutants
  6. ^ Terms of Reference, Working Group on the Revision of National Emissions Ceilings and Policy InstrumentsPDF (24.4 KiB)
  7. ^ The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA): Air Pollution
  8. ^ LAQM Air Quality Management Areas
  9. ^ London
  10. ^ Taking the Oxford air adds up to a 60-a-day habit (a newspaper article in The Guardian
  11. ^ UK Air Quality Archive
  12. ^ UK National Air Quality Objectives
  13. ^ Current Air Pollution Bulletin
  14. ^ Air Pollution Bandings and Indexes
  15. ^ BBC Weather Service
  16. ^ Air Pollution - What it means for your health
  17. ^ Wall Street Journal article, May 23, 2006
  18. ^ American Lung Association, June 2, 2007
  19. ^ Wall Street Journal article, July 20, 2007
  20. ^ World Bank Statistics
  21. ^ CARMA, Geographic Regions
  22. ^ Turner, D.B. (1994). Workbook of atmospheric dispersion estimates: an introduction to dispersion modeling, 2nd Edition, CRC Press. ISBN 1-56670-023-X.
  23. ^ Beychok, M.R. (2005). Fundamentals Of Stack Gas Dispersion, 4th Edition, author-published. ISBN 0-9644588-0-2.

Air quality science and general information

  • International Conference on Urban Air Quality.
  • UNEP Urban Issues
  • European Commission > Environment > Policies > Air >Air Quality.
  • UNEP Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles

Air quality modelling

  • Stuff in the Air Standard air quality modelling procedure for industrial sources.
  • Wiki on Atmospheric Dispersion Modelling. Addresses the international community of atmospheric dispersion modellers - primarily researchers, but also users of models. Its purpose is to pool experiences gained by dispersion modellers during their work.
  • Air Dispersion Modeling Conversions and Formulas One of six technical articles devoted to air quality and air pollution dispersion modeling.

Effects on human health

  • Air Pollution Triggers Blood Clots.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Air_pollution". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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