Effects of Air Pollution

by Jacob Mcilvaine on March 27, 2014

Air pollution is not a new problem of environmental concern.  Air pollution can trace its roots all the way back to 17th century London when citizens complained of “breathing nothing but an impure and thick Mist.”  Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, air pollution has become an ever more increasing concern.  It has negative effects on both the health of the environment and people.  Air pollution stems from many sources including automobiles, power plants, mills, and refineries.

The US government has classified six pollutants on which Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must gather scientific and medical information.  These pollutants are Particulate Matter, Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, Carbon Monoxide, Ozone, and Lead.  These six air pollutants are of primary concern because they are the most common and widespread.

Particulate Matter includes pollen, dust, soot, smoke, and more.  These pollutants can be microscopic; so small that they remain in the atmosphere unaffected by gravity.  Because Particulate Matter is visible to the naked eye, these are the pollutants most people associate with air quality.  And because Particulate Matter has been dramatically reduced in recent years, many people believe that air pollution is not as much of a problem as it once was.  However this is very misleading because not only is most air pollution invisible, but the pollutants that are colorless can be more harmful to human health than visible pollutants.

Carbon Monoxide, Sulfur Dioxide, and Ozone are three of these colorless air pollutants.  Carbon Monoxide is extremely dangerous because it is colorless, odorless, and very toxic.  It replaces the oxygen molecules on hemoglobin in blood causing less oxygen to be delivered to body tissues.  The main source of Carbon Monoxide is automobile emissions.  Sulfur Dioxide on its own is not very harmful, however it reacts with water vapor to form other compounds such as sulfuric acid, sulfates, and sulfites.  These compounds can irritate the lungs, corrode metals, and kill plants.  Ozone forms when nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds react with oxygen and sunlight to produce photochemical smog.   Ozone has many effects on the respiratory system and some research points towards the possibility that ozone may contribute to type I diabetes.


Air pollution in Los Angeles.

Nitrogen Oxides and Lead are of particular concern because they most commonly affect children. Nitrogen Oxides are released into the atmosphere when combustion occurs at high temperatures producing these yellow-brown gases that have an acrid odor.  Children exposed to Nitrogen Oxides can have an enhanced risk of respiratory disease.  The major cause of lead pollution was leaded gasoline, however since the phasing out of leaded gasoline the levels have dropped.  The primary concern about lead is its impact on the intellectual development of children.  Air pollution is a very serious public health concern that needs to be addressed.   If air pollution continues at its current levels it will have disastrous consequences not only on our health, but also on our environment.


Nadakavukaren, A. (2011). Our global environment: A health perspective. Prospect

Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc





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