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Works Cited
"Air Pollution." Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2017, p. 1p. 1. EBSCOhost,
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Air Pollution
Air Pollution, contamination of the atmosphere by gaseous, liquid, or solid substances that can
endanger the health and welfare of humans or other living things or can attack materials, reduce
visibility, or produce undesirable odors. Some air pollution is caused by natural sources, such as
wildfires, volcanic eruptions, or radon gas emitted from the earth. Radon is a prominent cause of
pollution of indoor air; other significant sources of indoor pollution include tobacco smoke and fumes
from the combustion of various fuels, as well as asbestos fibers from old insulation and chemicals from
furnishings, rugs, and cleaning materials. This article is concerned primarily with outdoor air pollution
caused by human activities.

Each year, industrially developed countries generate billions of tons of pollutants. Many come from
directly identifiable sources; sulfur dioxide, for example, typically is produced by industrial facilities such
as electric power plants burning high-sulfur coal or oil. Others are formed through the action of sunlight
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on previously emitted reactive materials (called precursors). For example, ozone, a dangerous pollutant
in smog, is produced by the interaction of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides under the influence of
sunlight. On the other hand, ozone in the upper atmosphere provides protection against the sun’s
ultraviolet rays. The discovery of evidence, beginning in the 1970s, that air pollutants such as
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer led to moves to phase out these materials.

Meteorology and Health Effects


Pollutant concentrations are reduced by atmospheric mixing, which depends on such weather
conditions as temperature, wind speed, amount of sunlight, and the movement of high and low pressure
systems and their interaction with the local topography, for example, mountains and valleys. Normally,
temperature decreases with altitude. But when a colder layer of air settles under a warm layer,
producing a temperature, or thermal, inversion, atmospheric mixing is retarded and pollutants may
accumulate near the ground. Inversions can become sustained under a stationary weather system
coupled with low wind speeds.
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Periods of poor atmospheric mixing of only a few days, and sometimes only a few hours, can lead to
heavy concentrations of hazardous materials in high-pollution areas and, under severe conditions, can
result in illness and even death. An inversion in Donora, Pa., in 1948 caused respiratory illness in over
6000 persons and led to the death of 20—the worst known air pollution disaster in U.S. history. Severe
pollution in London took 3500 to 4000 lives in 1952 and another 700 in 1962. Release of methyl
isocyanate into the air during a temperature inversion at Bhopal, India, in December 1984 caused at
least 3300 deaths and more than 20,000 illnesses. The effects of long-term exposure to low
concentrations are not well defined; however, those most at risk are the very young, the elderly,
smokers, workers whose jobs expose them to toxic materials, and persons with heart or lung disease.
Air pollution can also injure livestock and crops.

Often, the first noticeable effects of pollution are aesthetic and may not be dangerous. These include
visibility reduction due to tiny particles suspended in air, or bad odors, such as the rotten egg smell
produced by hydrogen sulfide emitted from pulp and paper mills.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets limits, called National Ambient Air Quality
Standards, for certain major pollutants regarded as harmful to health and the environment. The
standards, which apply to outdoor air, are of two kinds: primary and secondary. Primary standards are
intended to protect public health, including groups that tend to be especially sensitive to pollution, such
as asthmatics, children, and the aged. Secondary standards focus on safeguarding public welfare,
offering protection against such problems as decreased visibility and damage to animals, crops,
vegetation, and buildings. The standard is usually given in terms of atmospheric concentrations
(micrograms or milligrams of pollutants per cubic meter of air) or in terms of parts per million, that is,
number of pollutant molecules per million air molecules.

Exposure to high doses of many pollutants can be fatal, an outcome particularly apt to occur in indoor
settings that allow pollutants to accumulate. Carbon monoxide, once it enters the bloodstream via the
lungs, can bind to hemoglobin, resulting in decreased oxygen reaching the body’s cells; people with
cardiovascular problems are particularly at risk, but even healthy people may experience impaired
mental alertness and vision. Even brief exposure to sulfur dioxide may lead to narrowing of the airways
(bronchoconstriction), causing wheezing and shortness of breath; especially susceptible are persons
with asthma who engage in outdoor physical activity. Long-term exposure to sulfur dioxide can result in
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respiratory disease and exacerbate existing cardiovascular disease. Particulate matter typically
consists of a mixture of solids and liquid droplets in the air; particles that are small enough can get into
the lungs and give rise to or worsen respiratory and other illnesses, sometimes even with just brief
exposure. Lead exposure may damage organs, including the brain and nervous system, and can lead to
osteoporosis or reproductive disorders. Nitrogen oxides may trigger respiratory symptoms; and though
U.S. levels of these oxides, in particular of nitrogen dioxide, have generally been low enough by national
EPA air quality standards, oxides continue raise concern because they contribute to the formation of
ozone, particle pollution, and acid rain. Inhaling ozone can lead to a variety of respiratory problems and
aggravate existing conditions, such as asthma; and frequent exposure over a period of time can cause
permanent scarring of lung tissue and impairment of lung function.

A number of countries issue periodic assessments of the quality of outdoor air. In the U.S., this rating,
compiled by the EPA on a daily basis for localities around the country, is called the Air Quality Index.
Intended to reflect the health effects that may occur in a few hours or days after breathing polluted air, it
is calculated for ground-level ozone and particulate matter, as well as for carbon monoxide, nitrogen
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dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. The Air Quality Index values for those pollutants of most concern in a given
area are commonly made available via newspapers, broadcast media, and Internet. The index runs
from 0 to 500. Values up to 50 indicate good or satisfactory air quality with minimal risk; values from 51
to 100 are classed as moderate, representing acceptable air quality, although some people unusually
sensitive to the pollutant involved may suffer effects. A figure from 101 to 150 means that members of
sensitive groups may experience health effects. Values from 151 to 200 are considered unhealthy, with
health affects beginning to show up in the general population. The next level, from 201 to 300, is
regarded as very unhealthy, involving more serious effects among the general public. Values above 300
are classed as hazardous, signaling an emergency situation.

Sources and Control


The combustion of coal, oil, and gasoline accounts for much of air pollution. more than 80 percent of the
sulfur dioxide and roughly 40 percent of the nitrogen oxides released into the atmosphere in the U.S.
come from fossil-fuel–fired electric power plants, industrial boilers, and residential furnaces. Nearly 80
percent of the carbon monoxide, more than 50 percent of the nitrogen oxides, and a somewhat smaller
proportion of the hydrocarbons come from burning gasoline and diesel fuels in motor vehicles. Other
major pollution sources include iron and steel mills; coke ovens; zinc, lead, and copper smelters;
municipal incinerators; petroleum refineries; cement plants; large solvent users; and nitric and sulfuric
acid plants.

Major (“Criteria”) Air Pollutants


Pollutant Major Sources Health Standard∗
Carbon Monoxide (CO) Motor-vehicle exhaust; some industrial 10 mg/m3 (9 ppm)
processes over 8 hr; 40 mg/m3
(35 ppm) over 1 hr;
no more than once
per year (for both)
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) Heat and power generation facilities that use 0.03 ppm over a
oil or coal containing sulfur; metal smelting year; 0.14 ppm over
facilities; sulfuric acid plants 24 hr no more than
once per year
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Coarse particulate matter, Road dust stirred up by motor vehicles; 150 µg/m3 over 24 hr
from 2.5 to 10 µm in diameter demolition and construction; crushing and no more than once
(PM10), as in windblown dust grinding processes per year
Fine particulate matter, up to Combustion processes; certain industrial 15.0 µg/m3 over 1
2.5 µm in diameter (PM2.5), processes; chemical reactions of gases such year; 35 µg/m3 over
as in smoke or haze as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide 24 hr

Note: 1 cubic meter (1m3) is


equal to 35.3 cu. ft; 1 milligram
(1mg) is equal to 0.00004 oz;
1 microgram (1 µg) is equal to
0.00000004 oz.
∗EPA Primary National
Ambient Air Quality Standard
as of the end of 2006.
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Lead (Pb) lead smelters; battery plants; waste 1.5 µg/m3 over 3
incinerators; emissions from motor vehicles months
(formerly a chief source) plummeted in the U.S.
with the phaseout of unleaded gasoline in
highway vehicles (completed in 1995)
Nitrogen oxides (NO, NO2) Motor-vehicle exhaust; heat and power 100 µg/m3 (0.053
generation; nitric acid; explosives; fertilizer ppm) over a year
plants
Ozone (O3) Formed in the atmosphere by reactions of 0.08 ppm over 8 hr;
nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and sunlight 0.12 ppm) over 1 hr
no more than one
day per year (certain
areas only)

Note: 1 cubic meter (1m3) is


equal to 35.3 cu. ft; 1 milligram
(1mg) is equal to 0.00004 oz;
1 microgram (1 µg) is equal to
0.00000004 oz.
∗EPA Primary National
Ambient Air Quality Standard
as of the end of 2006.

Potential pollutants may exist in the materials entering a chemical or combustion process, or may be
produced as a result of the process itself. Carbon monoxide, for example, is a typical product of internal-
combustion engines. Methods for controlling air pollution include removing the hazardous material
before it is used, removing the pollutant after it is formed, altering the process so that the pollutant is not
formed or occurs only at very low levels (such as by replacing a high-pollution fuel with a cleaner one),
and reducing use of the process. Automobile pollutants can be controlled by burning the gasoline as
completely as possible, by recirculating fumes from fuel tank, carburetor, and crankcase, and by
changing the engine exhaust to harmless substances in catalytic converters. Industrially emitted
particulates may be trapped in cyclones, electrostatic precipitators, and filters. Pollutant gases can be
collected in liquids or on solids, or incinerated into harmless substances.
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Large-Scale Effects
The tall smokestacks traditionally used by industries and utilities do not remove pollutants but simply
boost them higher into the atmosphere, thereby reducing their concentration at the site. These pollutants
may then be transported over large distances and produce adverse effects in areas far from the site of
the original emission. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from the central and eastern U.S., for
example, have been found responsible for acid rain in New York State, New England, and eastern
Canada. The pH, level, or relative acidity, of some freshwater lakes and streams in that region has been
altered so dramatically by acid precipitation that entire fish populations have been destroyed. Similar
effects have been observed in Europe and elsewhere. Sulfur dioxide emissions and the subsequent
formation of sulfuric acid have also contributed to the degradation of limestone and marble at large
distances from the source. Efforts at controlling emissions in North America and Europe, however, have
shown that acidification can be slowed and in some cases even reversed.

The worldwide concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen since the Industrial
Revolution. The period since the 1940s has seen a particularly high rate of increase as a result of a
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surge in the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. Available data indicate that the increased carbon
dioxide, along with certain other gases, is producing a “greenhouse effect,” which allows solar energy to
enter the atmosphere but reduces the reemission into space of infrared radiation from the earth. The
greenhouse effect is expected to lead to a warming trend that, if prolonged, could alter the global climate
and lead to a partial melting of the polar ice caps. The global climate is an extraordinarily complex
system, and it is conceivable that a development such as an increase in cloud cover, the absorption of
excess carbon dioxide by the oceans, or a decrease in solar radiation could halt the warming before it
reached the stage of large-scale polar melting. Nevertheless, evidence has accumulated since at least
the 1980s that the greenhouse effect is definitely under way, prompting many scientists to call for
international action to deal with it.

Government Action
In the U.S., the Clean Air Act of 1963 as amended in 1966, 1967, 1970, 1977, and 1990 is the legal basis
for air-pollution control throughout the U.S. The EPA has primary responsibility for carrying out the
requirements of the act, which mandates the establishment of the National Ambient Air Quality
Standards. The law sets limits on the discharge of pollutants into the air so that air-quality standards will
be achieved. The act was also designed to prevent significant deterioration of air quality in areas where
the air is currently cleaner than the standards require. The amendments of 1990 identified ozone, carbon
monoxide, particulate matter, acid rain, and scores of “air toxics” (hazardous pollutants not dealt with
elsewhere in the act, such as carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins) as major air pollution
problems.

Internationally, a trailblazing attempt at limiting and preventing air pollution was the Convention on Long-
Range Transboundary Air Pollution, the first legally binding multinational pact to confront air pollution on
a broad regional basis. Adopted in 1979 within the framework of the United Nations Economic
Commission for Europe (whose membership includes such countries as Canada and the U.S.), it took
effect in 1983. As of 2006 it had been extended by eight protocols, although none of them had been
signed by all of the approximately 50 parties to the convention. The protocols deal with long-term
financing of monitoring and evaluation efforts; reduction of sulfur emissions; control of nitrogen oxides;
control of emissions of volatile organic compounds (hydrocarbons); reduction of emissions of heavy
metals (cadmium, lead, and mercury); curtailment of persistent organic pollutants (mainly pesticides,
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along with a couple of industrial chemicals and their by-products/contaminants); and abatement of
acidification, eutrophication, and ground-level ozone.

A series of international agreements concluded in association with the United Nations have focused on
the ozone layer of the atmosphere. The Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, signed
by 28 parties in 1985, acknowledged the importance of safeguarding the ozone layer. Specific
commitments came later, in the Montréal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer,
adopted in 1987. The original number of signatories was 46. As of 2006, the number of parties to the
protocol, which had by then been amended several times, exceeded 190. The Montréal Protocol called
for a general phaseout of the production of chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) and certain other compounds
thought to contribute to ozone depletion. It also provided aid to developing countries in making this
transition.

A concerted international effort to address the problem of global warming due to human-caused, or
anthropogenic, emissions began with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,
which was opened for signature at a 1992 “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and went into
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force in 1994. As of the end of 2006, the number of parties to the convention totaled some 190. The
convention’s declared objective was “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere
at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Specific
emissions reduction commitments for certain gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide,
hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride) were expressed in a protocol adopted at
a 1997 conference in Kyoto, Japan. These included an overall reduction in developed countries’
greenhouse gas emissions of 5 percent below 1990 levels between the years 2008 and 2012. The
European Union was to curb emissions by 8 percent, the U.S. by 7 percent, and Japan by 6 percent, but
mandatory reductions were not imposed on developing countries. Although the U.S. signed the Kyoto
Protocol, it subsequently declined to ratify the pact, objecting to the lack of limits on developing
countries’ emissions and to the harm the protocol’s constraints were expected to cause the U.S.
economy. For the pact to go into effect, it had to be ratified by developed countries accounting for at
least 55 percent of total industrialized-nation greenhouse gas emissions. As a result of the rejection of
the accord by the U.S., the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, this threshold was not reached
until late 2004. The protocol finally went into force in February 2005, and as of late 2006 more than 160
nations had become parties to it. Among those that had not ratified the agreement, and thus were not
bound by its terms, were the U.S. and Australia.

Copyright © 2018 World Almanac Education Group, Inc. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia
and text may not be copied without their express written permission except for the print or download
capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This text is intended solely for the use of the
individual user.
Source: Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia
Accession Number: AI045000

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