Air pollution occurs when the air contains gases, dust, fumes or odour in harmful amounts. That is, amounts which could be harmful to the health or comfort of humans and animals or which could cause damage to plants and materials.

Pollutants that are emitted directly from identifiable sources are produced both by natural events (for example, dust storms and volcanic eruptions) and human activities (emission from vehicles, industries, etc.). These are called primary pollutants. There are five primary pollutants that together contribute about 90 percent of the global air pollution. These are

  • Carbon oxides (CO and CO2),
  • Nitrogen oxides,
  • Sulfur oxides,
  • Volatile organic compounds (mostly hydrocarbons) and
  • Suspended particulate matter.

Pollutants that are produced in the atmosphere when certain chemical reactions take placeamong the primary pollutants are called secondary pollutants. Eg: Sulfuric Acid, Nitric Acid, Carbonic Acid, etc.

When Sulphur Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxides are transported by prevailing winds they form secondary pollutants such as Nitric Acid Vapour, droplets of Sulfuric Acid and particles of sulphate and nitrate salts. These chemicals descend on the earth’s surface in two forms: wet (as acidic rain, snow, fog and cloud vapour) and dry (as acidic particles). The resulting mixture is called acid deposition, commonly called Acid Rain. Acid deposition has many harmful effects especially when the pH falls below 5.1 for terrestrial systems and below 5.5 for aquatic systems. It contributes to human respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma, which can cause premature death. It also damages statues, buildings, metals and car finishes. Acid deposition can damage tree foliage directly but the most serious effect is weakening of trees so they become more susceptible to other types of damage. The nitric acid and the nitrate salts in acid deposition can lead to excessive soil nitrogen levels. This can over stimulate growth of other plants and intensify depletion of other important soil nutrients such as calcium and magnesium, which in turn can reduce tree growth and vigour.

Effects of Air Pollution on living organisms:

  • Exposure to air containing even 0.001 percent of carbon monoxide for several hours can cause collapse, coma and even death. As carbon monoxide remains attached to hemoglobin in blood for a long time, it accumulates and reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of blood. This impairs perception and thinking, slows reflexes and causes headaches, drowsiness, dizziness and nausea.Carbon monoxide in heavy traffic causes headaches, drowsiness and blurred vision.
  • Sulfur Dioxide irritates respiratory tissues. Chronic exposure causes a condition similar tobronchitis. It also reacts with water, oxygen and other material in the air to form sulfur-containingacids. The acids can become attached to particles which when inhaled are very corrosive to the lung.
  • Nitrogen Oxides especially NO2 can irritate the lungs, aggravate asthma or chronic bronchitisand also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections such as influenza or common colds.
  • Suspended Particles aggravate bronchitis and asthma. Exposure to these particles over a longperiod of time damages lung tissue and contribute to the development of chronic respiratorydisease and cancer.
  • Many volatile organic compounds such as (benzene and formaldehyde) and toxic particulates(such as lead, cadmium) can cause mutations, reproductive problems or cancer.
  • Ozone, a component of photochemical smog causes coughing, chest pain, breathlessness and irritation of the eye, nose and the throat.

Effects of Air Pollution on Plants:

When some gaseous pollutants enter leaf pores they damage the leaves of crop plants. Chronicexposure of the leaves to air pollutants can break down the waxy coating that helps prevent excessive water loss and leads to damage from diseases, pests, drought and frost. Such exposure interferes with photosynthesis and plant growth, reduces nutrient uptake and causes leaves to turn yellow, brown or drop off altogether. At a higher concentration of sulphur dioxide majority of the flower buds become stiff and hard. They eventually fall from the plants, as they are unable to flower. Prolonged exposure to high levels of several air pollutants from smelters, coal burning power plants and industrial units as well as from cars and trucks can damage trees and other plants.

Effects of Air Pollution on Materials:

Every year air pollutants cause damage worth billions of rupees. Air pollutants break down exterior paint on cars and houses. All around the world air pollutants have discoloured irreplaceable monuments, historic buildings, marble statues, etc.

Effects of Air Pollution on the Stratosphere:

The upper stratosphere consists of considerable amounts of ozone, which works as an effective screen for ultraviolet light. This region called the ozone layer extends up to 60 kms above the surface of the earth. Though the ozone is present upto 60 kms its greatest density remains in the region between 20 to 25 kms. The ozone layer does not consist of solely ozone but a mixture of other common atmospheric gases. In the densest ozone layer there will be only one ozone molecule in 100,000 gas molecules. Therefore even small changes in the ozone concentration can produce dramatic effects on life on earth. Though it was known earlier that ozone shows fluctuations in its concentrations which may be accompanied sometimes with a little ozone depletion, it was only in 1985 that the large scale destruction of the ozone also called the Ozone Hole came into limelight when some British researchers published measurements about the ozone layer. Soon after these findings a greater impetus was given to research on the ozone layer, which convincingly established that CFC’s were leading to its depletion. These CFCs (chloro-flurocarbons) are extremely stable, non-flammable, non-toxic and harmless to handle. This makes them ideal for many industrial applications like aerosols, air conditioners, refrigerators and fire extinguishers. Many cans, which give out foams and sprays, use CFCs. (eg: perfumes, room fresheners, etc.) CFCs are also used in making foams for mattresses and cushions, disposable Styrofoam cups, glasses, packaging material for insulation, cold storage etc. Halons are similar in structure to the CFCs but contain bromine atoms instead of chlorine. They are more dangerous to the ozone layer than CFCs. Halons are used as fire extinguishing agents as they do not pose harm to people and equipment exposed to them during fire fighting.