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Air Pollution - Causes, Harmful Effects, and Control

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The World health organization records approximately 2.4 million deaths yearly due to air pollution. In this article, let us see its impact on public health.

Written by

Dr. Afsha Mirza

Medically reviewed by

Dr. J. N. Naidu

Published At December 7, 2022
Reviewed AtDecember 9, 2022

What Is Air Pollution?

Whenever individuals go out, they may notice a brownish smog of air pollution, especially in urban areas, that results from the absorption of solar radiation by black carbon, ashes from burning coal, dust particles, and gasses like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. Pollution depends on meteorological factors like topography, air movement, and climate.

The term "air pollution" is unavoidable due to man's presence and activities. The presence in the surrounding atmosphere of substances like gasses, a mixture of gaseous and particulate matter generated by the activities of men in a concentration that affects human health and is harmful to vegetation and animals. Dangerous gasses and particles include automobile fumes, tobacco smoke and smoke from burning coal, and certain gasses like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. Air pollution contains tiny particles resulting from the consequences of men's activities and other ones produced by nature. Air pollution can be of two types: Outdoor air pollution and indoor air pollution.

What Are the Sources of Air Pollution?

  • Automobiles: Hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide, lead, and nitrogen oxide.

  • Industries: Combustion of fuel generates sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. Petrochemical industries generate hydrogen fluoride and hydrochloric acid.

  • Domestic Sources: Combustion of coal, wood, or oil- a source of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide.

  • Tobacco Smoke: Smoking cigarettes, bidis, and passive smoking.

What Are the Biological Indicators of Air Pollution?

  1. Sulfur Dioxide: It is the best indicator of air pollution (a significant contaminant in urban and industrial areas).

  2. Smoke and Soiling Index: Air passed through a white paper under specified conditions, and smoke concentration is estimated.

  3. Grit and Dust Measurement (Suspended Particles): The deposit gauge collects grit, dust, and other solids.

  4. Coefficient of Haze: Assessing the air's amount of smoke or aerosol.

  5. Air Pollution Index: Arbitrary considers one or more pollutants as a measure of the severity of pollution.

  6. Lichens: Lichens are also an indicator of air pollution.

What Are the Types of Air Pollutants?

  1. Primary Pollutants: Emitted directly into the atmosphere from factory chimneys or exhaust pipes. For example- volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and particulate matter.

  2. Secondary Pollutants: Formed within the atmosphere, they arise from the chemical reaction of primary pollutants. For example- ozone and peroxyacetyl nitrate.

  3. Gaseous Air Pollutants: Gases or vapor.

  4. Particulate Air Pollutants: Solid or liquid suspended in the atmosphere.

  5. Local Scale Pollutants: Encountered close to where they are emitted.

  6. Urban Scale Pollutants: Nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide are present at high concentrations throughout the city.

  7. Regional Scale Pollutants: Sulfate particles and ozone.

What Is the Meaning of Indoor and Outdoor Air Pollution?

  • Indoor Air Pollution: It results from fuel or tobacco combustion, coal combustion, construction material and fireproofing, painted surface, the soil under buildings, organic vapors, and ozone that results in severe health issues.

  • Outdoor Air Pollution: It results from coal combustion, gasses like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, tobacco smoking, and ground-level ozone.

According to the World health organization, the pollutant which contributes the most to affect the individual's health is particulate matter or particulate pollutant, which is a mixture of solid and liquid droplets, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and the ozone layer.

What Are the Ways of Exposure?

Short-term exposure to air pollution results from ground-level ozone. It can affect the respiratory system, decrease lung function, and alleviate asthma symptoms. Sulfur dioxide exposure may harm the eyes and respiratory tract and cause skin irritation.

Long-term exposure to air pollutants can cause serious health issues, which are as follows:

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease- The World health organization has reported 43% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease cases and deaths globally. It can cause respiratory issues like chronic bronchitis, emphysema (air sacs in the lungs are destroyed, constricted, collapsed, pulled, or overinflated), and breathing difficulties.

  • Lung Cancer: Particulate pollutants can cause lung cancer due to their small size, so they can easily reach the lower respiratory tract. The World health organization reports that 29% of lung cancer cases and deaths are due to air pollution.

  • Cardiovascular Disease: Constant exposure to air pollution may increase the chances of stroke and heart attack. According to the data given by the global burden of disease study, air pollution caused 19% of deaths from cardiovascular disease, 21% from stroke, and 24% from coronary artery diseases in 2015.

  • Premature Birth: Exposure to air pollution in pregnancy can lead to the risk of premature birth by increasing the levels of toxic chemicals in the blood that can weaken the placenta and lead to premature birth. Lesser exposure to air pollution can decrease the chances of premature births.

What Will Be the Severe Complications Associated With Outdoor Air Pollution?

Outdoor air pollution may cause cancer; particulate pollutants may cause lung cancer due to their small size. It can also alleviate the symptoms of asthma and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Ground-level ozone may also alleviate asthma symptoms. Carbon monoxide poisoning if the levels reach 40%; symptoms include chest pain, vertigo, vomiting, and weakness. Combustion of coal and oil releases sulfur dioxide that can cause eyes and respiratory tract infections and cardiovascular disease. Nitrogen dioxide is removed from automobiles, gas, and kerosene stoves. Inhaling nitrogen dioxide may cause coughing, headache, throat infection, chest pain, and fever.

How to Prevent and Control Air Pollution?

  • Containment: Achieved by enclosure, ventilation, air cleaning, and arresters.

  • Replacement: Increased use of electricity, natural gas, and central heating in place of coal and wood.

  • Dilution: Establishment of green belts between industrial and residential areas.

  • Legislation: Height of chimneys, no smoke zones, avoid staying in traffic for a more extended period, use electric vehicles, reduce exposure to mold, pollen, and dust. Radon gas can cause lung cancer so an individual can check for radon gas with a radon test kit. Carbon monoxide detectors are also available to check for carbon monoxide.

Conclusion:

Exposure to air pollution can render a variety of adverse health consequences. It raises the risk of respiratory conditions, heart conditions, and lung cancer. Both short and prolonged exposure to air contaminants has been associated with health consequences. More extreme effects impact people who are already sick. Juveniles, the elderly, and poor individuals are more sensitive. Air pollution is the most significant health hazard globally. Every individual must contribute to reducing air pollution. The government and residents are committed to preventing and managing air pollution. The consequences of air pollution will decline upon lessening the exposure.

Dr. J. N. Naidu
Dr. J. N. Naidu

General Practitioner

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