Air Quality or Air Pollution
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Air Quality / Air Pollution
Pollution is now a common place term that our ears are attuned to. We hear about the various forms of pollution and read about it through the mass media. Air pollution is one such form that refers to the contamination of the air, irrespective of indoors or outside. A physical, biological or chemical alteration to the air in the atmosphere can be termed as pollution. It occurs when any harmful gases, dust, smoke enters into the atmosphere and makes it difficult for plants, animals and humans to survive as the air becomes dirty.
Air pollution can further be classified into two sections - visible air pollution and invisible air pollution. Another way of looking at Air pollution could be any substance that holds the potential to hinder the atmosphere or the well-being of the living beings surviving in it. The sustainment of all things living is due to a combination of gases that collectively form the atmosphere; the imbalance caused by the increase or decrease of the percentage of these gases can be harmful for survival.
Air pollution can result from both human and natural actions. Natural events that pollute the air include forest fires, volcanic eruptions, wind erosion, pollen dispersal, evaporation of organic compounds and natural radioactivity. Pollution from natural occurrences are not very often.
The Ozone layer considered crucial for the existence of the ecosystems on the planet is depleting due to increased pollution. Global warming, a direct result of the increased imbalance of gases in the atmosphere has come to be known as the biggest threat and challenge that the contemporary world has to overcome in a bid for survival.
Human activities that result in air pollution include -
Emissions from industries and manufacturing activities
Consider a typical manufacturing plant - You will notice that there are long tubes (called chimneys) erected high into the air, with lots of smoke and fumes coming out of it. Waste incinerators, manufacturing industries and power plants emit high levels of carbon monoxide, organic compounds, and chemicals into the air. This happens almost everywhere that people live. Petroleum refineries also release lots of hydrocarbons into the air.
Manufacturing industries release large amount of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, organic compounds, and chemicals into the air thereby depleting the quality of air. Manufacturing industries can be found at every corner of the earth and there is no area that has not been affected by it. Petroleum refineries also release hydrocarbons and various other chemicals that pollute the air and also cause land pollution.
Mining is a process wherein minerals below the earth are extracted using large equipment. During the process dust and chemicals are released in the air causing massive air pollution. This is one of the reason which is responsible for the deteriorating health conditions of workers and nearby residents.
Burning Fossil Fuels after the industrial age, transportation has become a key part of our lives. Cars and heavy duty trucks, trains, shipping vessels and airplanes all burn lots of fossil fuels to work. Emissions from automobile engines contain both primary and secondary pollutants. This is a major cause of pollution, and one that is very difficult to manage. This is because humans rely heavily on vehicles and engines for transporting people, good and services.
Sulfur dioxide emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and other factory combustibles is one the major cause of air pollution. Pollution emitting from vehicles including trucks, jeeps, cars, trains, shipping vessels and airplanes cause immense amount of pollution. We rely on them to fulfill our daily basic needs of transportation. But, there overuse is killing our environment as dangerous gases are polluting the environment. Carbon Monoxide caused by improper or incomplete combustion and generally emitted from vehicles is another major pollutant along with Nitrogen Oxides that is produced from both natural and man-made processes.
Household and Farming Chemicals
Crop dusting, fumigating homes, household cleaning products or painting supplies, over the counter insect/pest killers, fertilizer dust emit harmful chemicals into the air and cause pollution. In many case, when we use these chemicals at home or offices with no or little ventilation, we may fall ill if we breathe them.
Ammonia is a very common by product from agriculture related activities and is one of the most hazardous gases in the atmosphere. Use of insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers in agricultural activities has grown quite a lot. They emit harmful chemicals into the air and can also cause water pollution.
Household cleaning products, painting supplies emit toxic chemicals in the air and cause air pollution. Have you ever noticed that once you paint walls of your house, it creates some sort of smell which makes it literally impossible for you to breathe?
Suspended particulate matter popular by its acronym SPM, is another cause of pollution. Referring to the particles afloat in the air, SPM is usually caused by dust, combustion etc.
"To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one's family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one's own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him" - Buddha
"Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them" - Dalai Lama
What are the common air pollutants around?
Carbon Monoxide (CO) - Fuel combustion from vehicles and engines.
Reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the body’s organs and tissues; aggravates heart disease, resulting in chest pain and other symptoms.
Ground-level Ozone (O3) - Secondary pollutant formed by chemical reaction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and NOx in the presence of sunlight.
Decreases lung function and causes respiratory symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath, and also makes asthma and other lung diseases get worse.
Lead (Pb) - Smelters (metal refineries) and other metal industries; combustion of leaded gasoline in piston engine aircraft; waste incinerators (waste burners), and battery manufacturing.
Damages the developing nervous system, resulting in IQ loss and impacts on learning, memory, and behavior in children. Cardiovascular and renal effects in adults and early effects related to anemia.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) - Fuel combustion (electric utilities, big industrial boilers, vehicles) and wood burning.
Worsens lung diseases leading to respiratory symptoms, increased susceptibility to respiratory infection.
Particulate Matter (PM) - This is formed through chemical reactions, fuel combustion (e.g., burning coal, wood, diesel), industrial processes, farming (plowing, field burning), and unpaved roads or during road constructions.
Short-term exposures can worsen heart or lung diseases and cause respiratory problems. Long-term exposures can cause heart or lung disease and sometimes premature deaths.
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) - SO2 comes from fuel combustion (especially high-sulfur coal); electric utilities and industrial processes as well as natural occurrences like volcanoes.
Aggravates asthma and makes breathing difficult. It also contributes to particle formation with associated health effects.
What are the effects of air pollution?
Acidification - Chemical reactions involving air pollutants can create acidic compounds which can cause harm to vegetation and buildings. Sometimes, when an air pollutant, such as sulfuric acid combines with the water droplets that make up clouds, the water droplets become acidic, forming acid rain. When acid rain falls over an area, it can kill trees and harm animals, fish, and other wildlife.
Acid rain destroys the leaves of plants.
When acid rain infiltrates into soils, it changes the chemistry of the soil making it unfit for many living things that rely on soil as a habitat or for nutrition. Acid rain also changes the chemistry of the lakes and streams that the rainwater flows into, harming fish and other aquatic life.
Ocean acidification - Ocean acidification is the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth's oceans, caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.
Eutrophication - The process by which a body of water acquires a high concentration of nutrients, especially phosphates and nitrates. These typically promote excessive growth of algae. As the algae die and decompose, high levels of organic matter and the decomposing organisms deplete the water of available oxygen, causing the death of other organisms, such as fish. Eutrophication is a natural, slow-aging process for a water body, but human activity greatly speeds up the process.
It may occur naturally but can also be the result of human activity (cultural eutrophication from fertilizer run-off and sewage discharge) and is particularly evident in slow-moving rivers and shallow lakes.
Ground-level ozone – Ozone is found in two regions of the Earth's atmosphere – at ground level and in the upper regions of the atmosphere. Both types of ozone have the same chemical composition (O3). While upper atmospheric ozone protects the earth from the sun's harmful rays, ground level ozone is the main component of smog.
Troposheric, or ground level ozone, is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Ozone is likely to reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days in urban environments. Ozone can also be transported long distances by wind. For this reason, even rural areas can experience high ozone levels.
What we breathe - can harm our health. Even relatively low levels of ozone can cause health effects. People with lung disease, children, older adults, and people who are active outdoors may be particularly sensitive to ozone.
Children are at greatest risk from exposure to ozone because their lungs are still developing and they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high, which increases their exposure. Children are also more likely than adults to have asthma.
Breathing ground-level ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the lining of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.
Healthy people also experience difficulty breathing when exposed to ozone pollution. Because ozone forms in hot weather, anyone who spends time outdoors in the summer may be affected, particularly children, outdoor workers and people exercising. Some people who don't fall into any of these categories may also find themselves sensitive to ozone.
Ozone also affects sensitive vegetation and ecosystems, including forests, parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. In particular, ozone harms sensitive vegetation, including trees and plants during the growing season.
Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of NOx and VOC.
Particulate matter - "Particulate matter," also known as particle pollution or PM, is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Particle pollution is made up of a number of components, including acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.
Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.
When you inhale, you breathe in air along with any particles that are in the air. The air and the particles travel into your respiratory system (your lungs and airway). Along the way the particles can stick to the sides of the airway or travel deeper into the lungs.
Your lungs produce mucous to trap the particles, and tiny hairs wiggle to move the mucous and particles out of the lung. You may notice something in the back of your throat (this is the mucous); the mucous leaves the airway by coughing or swallowing. If the particle is small and it gets very far into the lungs, special cells in the lung trap the particles and then they can't get out and this can result in lung disease, emphysema, lung cancer.
The level of effect usually depends on the length of time of exposure, as well the kind and concentration of chemicals and particles exposed to.
Short-term effects include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Others include headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions. Short-term air pollution can aggravate the medical conditions of individuals with asthma and emphysema.
Long-term effects can include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys. Continual exposure to air pollution affects the lungs of growing children and may aggravate or complicate medical conditions in the elderly.
Global warming - Another direct effect is the immediate alterations that the world is witnessing due to Global warming. With increased temperatures worldwide, increase in sea levels and melting of ice from colder regions and icebergs, displacement and loss of habitat have already signalled an impending disaster if actions for preservation and normalization aren’t undertaken soon.
Acid Rain - Harmful gases like nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides are released into the atmosphere during the burning of fossil fuels. When it rains, the water droplets combines with these air pollutants, becomes acidic and then falls on the ground in the form of acid rain. Acid rain can cause great damage to human, animals and crops.
Effect on Wildlife - Just like humans, animals also face some devastating effects of air pollution. Toxic chemicals present in the air can force wildlife species to move to new place and change their habitat. The toxic pollutants deposit over the surface of the water and can also affect sea animals.
Air pollution prevention, monitoring and solution
Solution efforts on pollution is always a big problem - this is why prevention interventions are always a better way of controlling air pollution. These prevention methods can either come from government (laws) or by individual actions.
Use energy (light, water, boiler, kettle and fire woods) wisely – this is because lots of fossil fuels are burned to generate electricity, and so if we can cut down the use, we will also cut down the amount of pollution we create.
Understand the concept of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle - do not throw away items that are of no use to you. In-fact reuse them for some other purpose. For e.g. you can use old jars to store cereals or pulses.
This will minimize the dependence of producing new things. Remember manufacturing industries create a lot of pollution, so if we can re-use things like shopping plastic bags, clothing, paper and bottles, it can help.
Use public mode of transportation - encourage people to use more and more public modes of transportation to reduce pollution. Also, try to make use of carpooling. If you and your colleagues come from the same locality and have same timings you can explore this option to save energy and money. If we all do this, there will be less cars on road and less fumes.
Conserve energy - switch off fans and lights when you are going out. Large amount of fossil fuels are burnt to produce electricity. You can save the environment from degradation by reducing the amount of fossil fuels to be burned.
Emphasis on clean energy resources - Clean energy technologies like solar, wind and geothermal are on high these days. Governments of various countries have been providing grants to consumers who are interested in installing solar panels for their home. This will go a long way to curb air pollution.
Use energy efficient devices - LED lights or CFL lights consume less electricity as against their counterparts. They live longer, consume less electricity, lower electricity bills and also help you to reduce pollution by consuming less energy.
Several attempts are being made worldwide on a personal, industrial and governmental levels to curb the intensity at which Air Pollution is rising and regain a balance as far as the proportions of the foundation gases are concerned. This is a direct attempt at slacking Global warming. We are seeing a series of innovations and experiments aimed at alternate and unconventional options to reduce pollutants. Air Pollution is one of the larger mirrors of man’s follies, and a challenge we need to overcome to see a tomorrow.
Can air quality and air pollutants be monitored? - Yes we can.
Indoor Air Pollution
‘Indoor air’ is air within a building such as your home, classroom, office, shopping center, hospital or gym. We say ‘Indoor Air Pollution’ if indoor air is contaminated by smoke, chemicals, smells or particles.
Unlike outdoor air pollution, the effect of indoor air pollution is health related and less of an environmental issue. In colder regions, building and heating methods make use of airtight spaces, less ventilation and energy efficient heating. Sometimes synthetic building materials, smells from household care and furnishing chemicals can all be trapped indoors. As less fresh air gets indoors, the concentration of pollutants such as pollen, tobacco smoke, mold, pesticides, radon, asbestos and carbon monoxide trapped inside the building increases and people breathe that in.
Common indoor air pollutants include -
Tobacco smoke - this is smoke burning cigarettes or exhaled smoke by people smoking.
It generates a wide range of harmful chemicals and is known to cause cancer. It is well known that passive smoking causes a wide range of problems to the passive smoker (the person who is in the same room with a smoker and is not himself/herself a smoker) ranging from burning eyes, nose, and throat irritation to cancer, bronchitis, severe asthma, and a decrease in lung function.
Volatile organic compounds - originate mainly from solvents and chemicals. The main indoor sources are perfumes, hair sprays, furniture polish, glues, air fresheners, moth repellents, wood preservatives, and many other products used in the house. The main health effect is the imitation of the eye, nose and throat. In more severe cases there may be headaches, nausea and loss of coordination. In the long term, some of the pollutants are suspected to damage to the liver and other parts of the body.
Radon - this is a gas that is naturally emitted from the ground. Radon can be trapped in basements of building and homes. The gas is known to cause cancer after exposure over a period.
Carbon Monoxide - this is a poisonous gas with no color or smell. Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels such as gas, oil, coal or wood do not burn fully.
Pesticides - if used carefully and the manufacturers, instructions followed carefully they do not cause too much harm to the indoor air.
Biological pollutants - include pollen from plants, mite, hair from pets, fungi, parasites, and some bacteria. Most of them are allergens and can cause asthma, hay fever, and other allergic diseases.
Formaldehyde - is a gas that comes mainly from carpets, particle boards, and insulation foam. It causes irritation to the eyes and nose and may cause allergies in some people.
"Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship" - Buddha