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There’s nothing quite like opening the door and breathing fresh, clean, air—but how clean is the air you’re breathing right now?
What Is Air Pollution?
Air pollution can be defined as the presence of toxic chemicals or compounds (including those of biological origin) in the air, at levels that pose a health risk. In an even broader sense, air pollution means the presence of chemicals or compounds in the air which are usually not present and which lower the quality of the air or cause detrimental changes to the quality of life (such as the damaging of the ozone layer or causing global warming).
Causes of Air Pollution
Any process that produces substances that are small and light enough to be carried in air, or are gases themselves, can contribute to air pollution. These sources can be natural or man-made and occur all at once or slowly over time. Sources can be localized, such as industrial complexes, or come from multiple producers, such as cars. They can be indoor or outdoor, and even if pollutants are present, this does not mean that they are dangerous to health, as long as they do not exceed safe limits set by organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Combustion from Industry
Almost all of the common air pollutants can be produced by industrial processes. Some of these are produced by combustion of fossil fuels that drive the industrial process, resulting in particulates, ozone and nitrogen oxides.
Common forms of transportation like cars, planes and ships generally use combustion to harness energy from fossil fuels. The combustion process releases pollutants into the air, such as particles and carbon monoxide, and also releases substances that quickly form into nitrogen oxides and ozone, which are important air pollutants.
Farmers use machinery driven by fossil fuels to plow fields and harvest produce, and the animals that are raised in bulk for food also produce their own type of air pollution. Methane is a gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect that allows global warming; it arises from intestinal gas released by livestock.
Specific industries produce particular air pollutant profiles, and the major source of metal pollution like lead is metal smelting, although niche uses of lead, such as in the manufacture of certain aviation fuels, also contribute.
Aerosols and CFCs
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols were a major cause of ozone layer destruction, and their production was banned in the United States in 1995. Despite such bans worldwide, the U.S. National Library of Medicine says CFCs can last for a century in the atmosphere, where they continue to do damage. The ozone layer helps shield the planet from dangerous ultraviolet rays.
Keeping homes warm is commonly the job of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal. Their combustion means that heating is an important source of air pollutants like sulfur dioxide. If electricity is used to heat the house, the energy plants that produced it may also have been driven by fossil fuels.
The energy used in cooking may have come from energy plants, in which case the potential for air pollution has arisen earlier. Alternatively, such as in developing countries, home cooking requires direct burning of wood or coals, which produces the particulate pollution at the point of use.
Sometimes people think of air pollution as entirely man-made. In fact, natural processes release lots of substances into the air that are classed as pollution. Sulfur dioxide is a major modern air pollutant, and according to National Geographic, volcanoes can release enough sulfur dioxide into the air to influence global cooling.
Forest fires release pollutants into the air in the same way as fireplaces burning wood produce pollution. They produce fine smoke particles, which, according to the EPA, are small enough to be able to get into the lungs and damage the lungs and the heart.
In the developing world, homes may have visible smoke coming from the fire that is used to cook and heat the home. In the developed world, tobacco smoke is commonly the only visible type of air pollution inside the house. Both types of indoor smoke are linked to respiratory diseases.
The Effects of Air Pollution on Human Health
Air pollution has serious effects on the human health. Depending on the level of exposure and the type of pollutant inhaled, these effects can vary, ranging from simple symptoms like coughing and the irritation of the respiratory tract to acute conditions like asthma and chronic lung diseases.
Skin problems and irritations can develop due to prolonged exposure to several air pollutants, and a variety of cancer forms may develop after inhaling air contaminants. Do not neglect potential diseases caused by air pollution.
Air pollutants that have serious negative effects on the human health can be classified as toxic and non-toxic.
Now that we know the culprits of air pollution, let’s start discussing the harmful effects.
There are many different types of effects that air pollutants can cause. For one, there’s the human health factor to consider .If humans are at risk, then other forms of wildlife and organic creatures are in danger as well. Then there are the effects on the planet and its atmosphere.
In the paragraphs to follow, we’ll take a closer look at all of air pollution’s effects.
1. Accelerated Global Warming
This is a green energy discussion, so let’s tackle this one first.
Earlier on, you learned about the Ozone layer and its role in protecting our planet. Air pollution directly accelerates the rate at which global warming happens by depleting the Ozone layer.
Global warming refers to the increased temperatures Earth continues to experience. These higher temperatures lead to the melting of the polar ice caps and icebergs, which elevates sea levels and creates concern for the human race.
2. Human Respiratory and Heart Concerns
Air pollution is known to cause irritation in the eyes, lungs, nose, and throat. It creates respiratory problems and exacerbates existing conditions such as asthma and emphysema.
When continually exposed to air pollution, humans become at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Air filled with toxins can have a number of adverse effects on the arteries, and have even been a contributor to heart attacks.
3. Wildlife Endangerment
Most diseases and conditions that humans are susceptible to, animals are as well. Air pollution creates many of the same issues that humans face.
Heavily polluted areas force inhabitants to seek new homes, which can negatively impact the ecosystem.
Toxic chemicals, which we’ll discuss in the next bullet, also deposit over surfaces of water that can lead to the endangerment of marine life animals.
4. Acid Rain
When air pollution, specifically sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, are released into sky through fossil fuel burning, it creates the phenomenon known as acid rain.
Water, high in the atmosphere, combines with these chemicals and becomes acidic in nature. It then scatters the ground, disguised as normal rainfall.
Smog and soot
These two are the most prevalent types of air pollution. Smog, or “ground-level ozone,” as it is more wonkily called, occurs when emissions from combusting fossil fuels react with sunlight. Soot, or “particulate matter,” is made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens, in the form of gas or solids that are carried in the air. The EPA’s “Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act” states, “In many parts of the United States, pollution has reduced the distance and clarity of what we see by 70 percent.” The sources of smog and soot are similar. “Both come from cars and trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators, engines—anything that combusts fossil fuels such as coal, gas, or natural gas,” Walke says. The tiniest airborne particles in soot—whether they’re in the form of gas or solids—are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even hasten death.
Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs—especially of people who work or exercise outside, children, and senior citizens. It’s even worse for people who have asthma or allergies—these extra pollutants only intensify their symptoms and can trigger asthma attacks.
Hazardous air pollutants
These are either deadly or have severe health risks even in small amounts. Almost 200 are regulated by law; some of the most common are mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene. “These are also most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incinerating, or in the case of benzene, found in gasoline,” Walke says. Benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the EPA, can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but also present in small amounts in the air, can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions. Lead in large amounts can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even in small amounts it can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn. Mercury affects the central nervous system.
How to Help Reduce Air Pollution
“The less gasoline we burn, the better we’re doing to reduce air pollution and harmful effects of climate change,” Walke says. “Make good choices about transportation. When you can, walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation. For driving, choose cars that get better miles per gallon of gas or choose an electric car.” You can also investigate your power provider options—you may be able to request that your electricity be supplied by wind or solar. Buying your food locally cuts down on the fossil fuels burned in trucking or flying food in from across the country. And perhaps most important, “Support leaders who push for clean air and water and responsible steps on climate change,” Walke says.
Up until this point, we’ve covered all the bad of air pollution. Now let’s get onto the good. Well, there’s actually not much good to say for air pollution, but there are a number of positive ways it can be dealt with.
Understanding the causes and effects proves to be important so that we can determine how best to combat it. Reducing the use of fossil fuel powered automobiles is clearly something that can help. Same with finding unique ways to reduce energy consumption.
Let’s dig a little deeper into common solutions for preventing and minimizing air pollution.
1. Minimize the Use of Fossil Fuel Powered Automobiles.
As a leading contributor to air pollution, it only makes sense that a vehicle-based solution appears first on this list. One way to do this is by switching to a hybrid vehicle, or better yet, one that runs on fully electric. Other ways include taking public transportation, carpooling with friends and colleagues, or even riding a bike to your destination.
2. Be Mindful of Energy Consumption.
When you’re leaving home, be sure to turn off the lights, TV, and any other electronic appliances. Fossil fuel plants are a major cause of air pollutants, and the less energy you need, the less we have to rely on those plants to generate electricity. This also means turning to energy efficient devices when possible. Fluorescent lightbulbs over the course of their lifespan can reduce energy consumption while adding significant savings to your pocket.
3. Become an Advocate for Clean Energy.
Every day, technology continues to advance that improves the efficiency and cost of clean energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal. These types of energy sources create much less air pollution. Even nuclear is leaps and bounds better than traditional fossil fuel plants when it comes to air pollution. Find ways to promote and educate the public on clean energy alternatives. A small contribution goes a long way in the grand scheme of things.
Wherever you stand on the matter, recycling can help reduce air pollution. Instead of throwing away used containers and material, try reusing them or recycling them to be used again by someone else. One thing I personally love to do is reuse to-go containers from restaurants as plastic ware for work lunches. This obviously only works with plastic material, not Styrofoam.
We have now discussed the common causes, effects, and solutions for dealing with air pollution.
With air pollutants being such a widespread epidemic, it’s imperative that we come together as Earth’s inhabitants to become part of the solution, instead of continuing to be the problem.
We can make the choice to drive less toxic automobiles. We can choose how much energy we consume on a daily basis. We can also choose to reuse our old materials instead of dumping them into the environment. Air pollution can have some devastating impacts on our bodies and the planet if left untouched.
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