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Introduction to Air Pollution

Extreme air pollution episodes when air pollution reaches excessively high levels for several hours or several days can cause extreme
discomfort, diseases and even deaths among the most vulnerable people.

Extreme air pollution episodes have a high probability of occurring when there are persistent thermal inversions and weak or
stagnant winds. The pollution cannot be dispersed.

Studies that investigate public health effects follow three different approaches - epidemiological, clinical and toxicological

An epidemiological study involves the systematic statistical analysis of data from the community at large or a diseased
group. It then attempts to identify associations between health effects and air pollution
A clinical study is one that focuses on human subjects and provides data on the effects of air pollutions under controlled
laboratory conditions
Toxicological studies are studies conducted often on animals or simpler cellular systems to determine the toxicity of a
substance when taken in a particular dose.

The common health hazards of air pollution are chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysemas, lung cancer, bronchial asthma and
respiratory infections

Epidemiological studies have shown that exposure to fine particulants (PM 2.5 and less) is associated with increased incidence of
respiratory illness and chronic bronchitis, decreased pulmonary function and increased mortality rates.

Even short-term exposure to a variety of gaseous air pollutants and particulate matter has been associated with increased rate of
asthma attacks.

Epidemiological studies have also shown ambient air pollution has a causual role of in the development of some lung cancers.
Atmospheric Structure and Dynamics

When studying air pollution the atmospheric layer of primary concern is the troposphere. (The layer closest to the ground extending
to an altitude of 9km to 16 km).

The troposphere consists of 3 layers

The atmospheric surface layer,


The planetary boundary layer (PBL)
The free atmosphere.

The PBL can be several tens of thousands of


meters to a few kilometers deep
Atmospheric Systems and Pollutant Transport (movement of pollutants)

Movement of the atmosphere and the diffusion of pollutants are influenced by a wide range of atmospheric systems. These being:

Macroscale- global climate and general circulation


Synoptic - while also macroscale these operate within timescales of less than few weeks and determine the day to day weather.
They are referred to as synoptic weather systems.
Mesoscale - weather and atmospheric circulation systems of horizontal scales between 5 and 1000 kms. Most are associated with
fixed geographical features and do not travel in space
Microscale - these are confined to the atmospheric boundary layer. As most of the air pollutants are emitted from sources at
ground or within the planetary boundary layer (PBL) the importance of the PBL winds and turbulence to their short-range
dispersion cannot be overemphasized

At the microscale obstacles form wakes. These obstacles can be natural (hill)
or man made (tall building).
Movement of Plumes

Visible smoke plumes from industrial stakes have been observed and photographed under different
micrometeorological conditions. They have been observed to have characteristic plume shapes

Fanning. The plume has a large spread horizontally and very little vertically. This typically occurs at night in a very stable
boundary layer with strong surface inversion and weak variable winds.

Fumigation. Is when the plume material gets rapidly brought down to the ground level due to downward mixing. This
situation occurs shortly after sunrise due to surface heating and is slowly replaced by an unstable layer that grows up to
the top of the plume. This condition is usually short-lived but results in the highest ground level concentrations.

Looping occurs in very unstable and convective conditions during midday and afternoon. Large convection eddies take
the plume material in successively upward and downward motions.

Coning This is when the plume looks like a cone in both the horizontal and vertical scale. This usually occurs under
cloudy and windy conditions.

Lofting The plume stays above the surface inversion. This occurs shortly after transition from unstable to stable
conditions near sunset. The plume can be thin or become quite thick. Depending on the height of the stake and the rate
of deepening of the inversion layer the lofting condition may be very transitory or it may persist for several hours.

Trapping (Not shown in diagrams) Plumes released in unstable atmosphere disperse their material uniformly
throughout the air (the Planetary Boundary Layer PBL). Trapping can lead to very high ground level concentrations when
the inversion layer is low and there are weak winds.