Definition of Air Pollution

What Is Air Pollution?

Air pollution generally consists of toxic solid and gaseous particles that become suspended in the air. This in turn can cause significant harm to humans, animals, and the environment. Though some air pollutants occur naturally, such as through forest fires, many are added to the air through human activities such as burning fossil fuels, industrial processes, incineration of waste, dry cleaning processes, spraying of aerosol products, solid waste landfills, etc.

There are many kinds of individual air pollutants (too numerous to list here) but the following are the most concerning and/or are the most common:

  • Aerosols
  • Asbestos
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
  • Ground level ozone (smog)
  • Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) (also known as toxic air pollutants or TAPs) such as benzene, perchloroethylene, methylene chloride, asbestos, toluene, heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, chromium, and lead), and dioxins (you can find the full US list here)
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Methane
  • Nitrogen oxides
  • Particulate matter (PM), or solids suspended in air, such as acids, organic chemicals, metals, dust, or allergens
  • Propellants
  • Radiation
  • Radon
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Individual pollutants can have negative impacts on the environment and human health, but what is of greater concern is how air pollutants react with each other. Several sub-types of air pollution include:

  • Acid rain
  • Greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to the greenhouse effect, global warming, and climate change
  • Ozone depletion
  • Smog or ground-level ozone pollution

Because air mixes freely between regions as well as between indoor and outdoor air, it is hard to escape air pollution. Here are some common ways people come in contact with polluted air:

  • Inhaling contaminated air
  • Eating foods that have come in contact with contaminated air (both plant and animal products)
  • Drinking water with dissolved air pollutants
  • Consuming contaminated soil
  • Coming in physical contact with substances (such as soil or dust or water) that has been contaminated with polluted air

In addition to causing many human health problems, air pollution also damages the planet as a whole. Such as when pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, and peroxyacl nitrates enter the atmosphere they are able to damage the leaves of trees and other plants. This impedes their ability to conduct photosynthesis, which is a necessary process for absorbing carbon dioxide. Air pollution also damages food crops resulting in lower yields, which will become a concern for global food demands in the decades to come.

Air Pollution Articles

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