Smog is a type of large-scale outdoor pollution. It is caused by chemical reactions between pollutants derived from different sources, primarily automobile exhaust and industrial emissions. Cities are often centers of these types of activities, and many suffer from the effects of smog, especially during the warm months of the year. Additional information about smog and its effects are available from Environment Canada and the Air Quality Management District (AQMD) in southern California.
For each city, the exact causes of pollution may be different. Depending on the geographical location, temperature, wind and weather factors, pollution is dispersed differently. However, sometimes this does not happen and the pollution can build up to dangerous levels. A temperature inversionoccurs when air close to the earth is cooler than the air above it. Under these conditions the pollution cannot rise and be dispersed. Cities surrounded by mountains and located in a valley also experience trapping of pollution as in the case of Denver. Inversion can happen in any season. Winter inversions are likely to cause particulate and cabon monoxide pollution. Summer inversions are more likely to create smog.
Another consequence of outdoor air pollution is acid rain. When a pollutant, such as sulfuric acid combines with droplets of water in the air, the water (or snow) can become acidified. The effects of acid rain on the environment can be very serious even. It damages plants by destroying their leaves, it poisons the soil, and it changes the chemistry of lakes and streams if even if the changes are small. Damage due to acid rain kills trees and harms animals, fish, and other wildlife that are not adapted to the new acid levels. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Environment Canada are among the organizations that are actively studying the acid rain problem.
The Greenhouse Effect is also referred to as global warming, is generally believed to come from the build up of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is produced when fuels are burned. Plants convert carbon dioxide back to oxygen, but the release of carbon dioxide from human activities is higher than the world’s plants can process. The situation is made worse since many of the earth’s forests are being removed, and plant life is being damaged by acid rain. Thus, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is continuing to increase. This buildup acts like a blanket and traps heat close to the surface of our earth. Changes of even a few degrees will affect us all through changes in the climate and even the possibility that the polar ice caps may melt. (One of the consequences of polar ice cap melting would be a rise in global sea level, resulting in widespread coastal flooding.) Additional resources and information about the Greenhouse Effect and global warming are available from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Science Education Academy of the Bay Area (SEABA) and theSociety of Environmental Journalists (SEJ)
Ozone depletion is another result of pollution. Chemicals released by our activities affect thestratosphere , one of the atmospheric layers surrounding earth. The ozone layer in the stratosphere protects the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Release of chlorofluorocarbons(CFC’s) from aerosol cans, cooling systems and refrigerator equipment removes some of the ozone, causing “holes”; to open up in this layer and allowing the radiation to reach the earth. Ultraviolet radiation is known to cause skin cancer and has damaging effects on plants and wildlife. Additional resources and information about the ozone depletion problem are available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Ozone ACTION.
Many people spend large portion of time indoors – as much as 80-90% of their lives. We work, study, eat, drink and sleep in enclosed environments where air circulation may be restricted. For these reasons, some experts feel that more people suffer from the effects of indoor air pollution than outdoor pollution.
There are many sources of indoor air pollution. Tobacco smoke, cooking and heating appliances, and vapors from building materials, paints, furniture, etc. cause pollution inside buildings. Radon is a natural radioactive gas released from the earth, and it can be found concentrated in basements in some parts of the United States. Additional information about the radon problem is available from the USGS and the Minnesota Radon Project.
Pollution exposure at home and work is often greater than outdoors. The California Air Resources Board estimates that indoor air pollutant levels are 25-62% greater than outside levels and can pose serious health problems.
Both indoor and outdoor pollution need to be controlled and prevented. How can we prevent the damaging effects of air pollution?
Air pollution can affect our health in many ways with both short-term and long-term effects. Different groups of individuals are affected by air pollution in different ways. Some individuals are much more sensitive to pollutants than are others. Young children and elderly people often suffer more from the effects of air pollution. People with health problems such as asthma, heart and lung disease may also suffer more when the air is polluted. The extent to which an individual is harmed by air pollution usually depends on the total exposure to the damaging chemicals, i.e., the duration of exposure and the concentration of the chemicals must be taken into account.
Examples of short-term effects include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Other symptoms can include headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions. Short-term air pollution can aggravate the medical conditions of individuals with asthma and emphysema. In the great “Smog Disaster” in London in 1952, four thousand people died in a few days due to the high concentrations of pollution.
Long-term health effects can include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys. Continual exposure to air pollution affects the lungs of growing children and may aggravate or complicate medical conditions in the elderly. It is estimated that half a million people die prematurely every year in the United States as a result of smoking cigarettes.
Research into the health effects of air pollution is ongoing. Medical conditions arising from air pollution can be very expensive. Healthcare costs, lost productivity in the workplace, and human welfare impacts cost billions of dollars each year.
Additional information on the health effects of air pollution is available from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In many countries in the world, steps are being taken to stop the damage to our environment from air pollution. Scientific groups study the damaging effects on plant, animal and human life.Legislative bodies write laws to control emissions. Educators in schools and universities teach students, beginning at very young ages, about the effects of air pollution.
The first step to solving air pollution is assessment . Researchers have investigated outdoor air pollution and have developed standards for measuring the type and amount of some serious air pollutants.
Scientists must then determine how much exposure to pollutants is harmful.
Once exposure levels have been set, steps can be undertaken to reduce exposure to air pollution. These can be accomplished by regulation of man-made pollution through legislation. Many countries have set controls on pollution emissions for transportation vehicles and industry. This is usually done to through a variety of coordinating agencies which monitor the air and the environment. At the United Nations, the Atmosphere Management Program carries out world wide environmental projects. In the United States, the primary federal agency is the Environmental Protection Agency. Many state and local organizations also participate in monitoring and controlling the environment. These include the San Francisco Bay Area’s Air Quality Management District (B.A.A.Q.M.D.), the Air Quality Management District Environmental Protection Agency of California, SmogBusters of southern California, and the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention (GHASP).
Prevention is another key to controlling air pollution. The regulatory agencies mentioned above play an essential role in reducing and preventing air pollution in the environment.
In addition, it is possible to prevent many types of air pollution that are not regulated through personal, careful attention to our interactions with the environment. In the United States, most household products come with instructions about safe use. Additional information about product chemical safety are available in an article and a fact sheet from Enviro$en$e, and in Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).
Building materials should be reviewed for potential harmful effects. Information on building materials can be found in LBNL’s Center for Building Science newsletter. Additional information is available from EcoTech.
Adequate ventilation is also a key to controlling exposure to indoor air pollution. Home and work environments should be monitored for adequate air flow and proper exhaust systems installed. Additional information is available in a book titled Understanding Ventilation .
One of the most dangerous air pollutants is cigarette smoke. Restricting smoking is an important key to a healthier environment. Legislation to control smoking is in effect in some locations, but personal exposure should be monitored and limited wherever possible. Additional information about the effects of “secondhand” cigarette smoke is available from the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC)Medicine On-line.
Only through the efforts of scientists, business leaders, legislators, and individuals can we reduce the amount of air pollution on the planet. This challenge must be met by all of us in order to assure that a healthy environment will exist for ourselves and our children.