Basic Knowledge
Air Pollution



When people think about air pollution, they usually think about smog, acid rain, CFC's, and other forms of outdoor air pollution. But did you know that air pollution also can exist inside homes and other buildings? It can, and every year, the health of many people is affected by chemical substances present in the air within buildings.

A great deal of research on pollution is being conducted at laboratories and universities. The goals of the research are to find solutions and to educate the public about the problem. One place where this type of work is being done in the Wind Engineering Research Center, Tokyo Polytechnic University.

Let's take a closer look at the various types of air pollution, the effects that they have on people, and what is being (or not being) done to correct the problem.

What is Air Pollution?

Air is the ocean we breathe. Air supplies us with oxygen which is essential for our bodies to live. Air is 99.9% nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor and inert gases. Human activities can release substances into the air, some of which can cause problems for humans, plants, and animals.

There are several main types of pollution and well-known effects of pollution which are commonly discussed. These include smog, acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and "holes" in the ozone layer. Each of these problems has serious implications for our health and well-being as well as for the whole environment.

One type of air pollution is the release of particles into the air from burning fuel for energy. Diesel smoke is a good example of this particulate matter . The particles are very small pieces of matter measuring about 2.5 microns or about .0001 inches. This type of pollution is sometimes referred to as "black carbon" pollution. The exhaust from burning fuels in automobiles, homes, and industries is a major source of pollution in the air. Some authorities believe that even the burning of wood and charcoal in fireplaces and barbeques can release significant quantities of soot into the air.

Another type of pollution is the release of noxious gases, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and chemical vapors. These can take part in further chemical reactions once they are in the atmosphere, forming smog and acid rain.

Pollution also needs to be considered inside our homes, offices, and schools. Some of these pollutants can be created by indoor activities such as smoking and cooking. In the United States, we spend about 80-90% of our time inside buildings, and so our exposure to harmful indoor pollutants can be serious. It is therefore important to consider both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Outdoor Air Pollution




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.

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 inversion occurs 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 also experience trapping of pollution. Inversion can happen in any season. Winter inversions are likely to cause particulate and carbon 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. It damages plants by destroying their leaves, it poisons the soil, and it changes the chemistry of lakes and streams. Damage due to acid rain kills trees and harms animals, fish, and other wildlife.

The Greenhouse Effect, 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.)

Ozone depletion is another result of pollution. Chemicals released by our activities affect the stratosphere , 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.