Just How Deadly for Your Health is the Air You Breathe Daily?
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Just How Deadly for Your Health is the Air You Breathe Daily?

Studies suggest that more than 500,000 Americans die each year from heart and lung diseases linked to breathing fine particle air pollution. A study has shown a strong correlation between pneumonia related deaths and air pollution from motor vehicles. Worldwide more deaths per year are linked to air pollution than to automobile accidents. Air pollution is also emerging as a risk factor for stroke, particularly in developing countries where pollutant levels are highest.

Air pollution is the introduction of chemicals, dust, or biological materials that cause harm or discomfort to humans or other living organisms, or cause damage to the natural environment or built environment, into the atmosphere. The atmosphere is a complex dynamic natural gaseous system that is essential to support life on planet Earth.

Stratospheric ozone depletion due to air pollution has long been recognized as a threat to human health as well as to the Earth's ecosystems. Indoor air pollution and urban air quality are listed as two of the world's worst pollution problems.


A substance in the air that can cause harm to humans and the environment is known as an air pollutant. Pollutants can be in the form of solid particles, liquid droplets, or gases. In addition, they may be natural or man-made.

Pollutants can be classified as primary or secondary. Usually, primary pollutants are directly emitted from a process, such as ash from a volcanic eruption, the carbon monoxide gas from a motor vehicle exhaust or sulfur dioxide released from factories. Secondary pollutants are not emitted directly. Rather, they form in the air when primary pollutants react or interact.

An important example of a secondary pollutant is ground level ozone — one of the many secondary pollutants that make up what is known as smog.

Major primary pollutants produced by human activity include:

  • Sulfur dioxide, is produced by volcanoes and in various industrial processes. Since coal and petroleum often contain sulfur compounds, their combustion generates sulfur dioxide. Further oxidation of Sulfur Dioxide, forms Sulfuric Acid, and thus acid rain. This is one of the causes for concern over the environmental impact of the use of these fuels as power sources.
  • Nitrogen oxides - especially nitrogen dioxide are emitted from high temperature combustion. Can be seen as the brown haze dome above or plume downwind of cities. This reddish-brown toxic gas has a characteristic sharp, biting odor. It is one of the most prominent air pollutants.
  • Carbon monoxide - is a colorless, odorless, non-irritating but very poisonous gas. It is a product by incomplete combustion of fuel such as natural gas, coal or wood. Vehicular exhaust is a major source of carbon monoxide.
  • Carbon dioxide - a colorless, odorless, non-toxic greenhouse gas associated with ocean acidification, emitted from sources such as combustion, cement production, and respiration
  • Particulate matter - Particulates, alternatively referred to as particulate matter or fine particles, are tiny particles of solid or liquid suspended in a gas. In contrast, aerosol refers to particles and the gas together. Sources of particulate matter can be man-made or natural. Some particulates occur naturally, originating from volcanoes, dust storms, forest and grassland fires, living vegetation, and sea spray.

Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, power plants and various industrial processes also generate significant amounts of aerosols. Averaged over the globe, aerosols made by human activities—currently account for about 10 percent of the total amount of aerosols in our atmosphere. Increased levels of fine particles in the air are linked to health hazards such as heart disease, altered lung function and lung cancer.

  • Toxic metals, such as lead, cadmium and copper.
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) - harmful to the ozone layer emitted from products currently banned from use.
  • Ammonia - emitted from agricultural processes. It is normally encountered as a gas with a characteristic pungent odor. Ammonia contributes significantly to the nutritional needs of terrestrial organisms by serving as a precursor to foodstuffs and fertilizers. Ammonia, either directly or indirectly, is also a building block for the synthesis of many pharmaceuticals. Although in wide use, ammonia is both caustic and hazardous.
  • Odors — such as from garbage, sewage, and industrial processes
  • Radioactive pollutants - produced by nuclear explosions, war explosives, and natural processes such as the radioactive decay of radon.

Sources of air pollution refer to the various locations, activities or factors which are responsible for the releasing of pollutants into the atmosphere. These sources can be classified into two major categories which are:

  • Human activity mostly related to burning different kinds of fuel
  • Smoke stacks, Factories, waste incinerators, furnaces
  • Motor vehicles, marine vessels, aircraft
  • Chemicals, dust and controlled burn practices in agriculture and forestry management. Fumes from paint, hair spray, varnish, aerosol sprays and other solvents
  • Waste deposition in landfills, which generate methane
  • Military, such as nuclear weapons, toxic gases, germ warfare and rocketry

Natural sources

  • Dust from natural sources, usually large areas of land with little or no vegetation
  • Methane, emitted by the digestion of food by animals, for example cattle
  • Radon gas from radioactive decay within the Earth's crust. It is considered to be a health hazard. Radon gas from natural sources can accumulate in buildings, especially in confined areas such as the basement and it is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide from wildfires
  • Vegetation, in some regions, emits environmentally significant amounts of NO2, SO2
  • Volcanic activity, which produce sulfur, chlorine, and ash particulates

Health effects

The World Health Organization states that 2.4 million people die each year from causes directly attributable to air pollution, with 1.5 million of these deaths attributable to indoor air pollution.

Studies suggest that more than 500,000 Americans die each year from heart and lung diseases linked to breathing fine particle air pollution. A study has shown a strong correlation between pneumonia related deaths and air pollution from motor vehicles.

Worldwide more deaths per year are linked to air pollution than to automobile accidents. Air pollution is also emerging as a risk factor for stroke, particularly in developing countries where pollutant levels are highest.

The worst short term civilian pollution crisis in India was the 1984 Bhopal Disaster. Leaked industrial vapors from the Union Carbide factory, belonging to Union Carbide, Inc., U.S.A., killed more than 25,000 people outright and injured anywhere from 150,000 to 600,000.

The United Kingdom suffered its worst air pollution event when the December 4 Great Smog of 1952 formed over London. In six days more than 4,000 died, and 8,000 more died within the following months.

An accidental leak of anthrax spores from a biological warfare laboratory in the former USSR in 1979 near Sverdlovsk is believed to have been the cause of hundreds of civilian deaths.

The worst single incident of air pollution to occur in the United States of America occurred in Donora, Pennsylvania in late October, 1948, when 20 people died and over 7,000 were injured.

The health effects caused by air pollution may include difficulty in breathing, wheezing, coughing and aggravation of existing respiratory and cardiac conditions. These effects can result in increased medication use, increased doctor or emergency room visits, more hospital admissions and premature death.

The human health effects of poor air quality are far reaching, but principally affect the body's respiratory system and the cardiovascular system. Individual reactions to air pollutants depend on the type of pollutant a person is exposed to, the degree of exposure, the individual's health status and genetics.

A new economic study of the health impacts and associated costs of air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin and San Joaquin Valley of Southern California shows that more than 3800 people die prematurely (approximately 14 years earlier than normal) each year because air pollution levels violate federal standards. The number of annual premature deaths is considerably higher than the fatalities related to auto collisions in the same area, which average fewer than 2,000 per year.

Diesel exhaust is a major contributor to combustion derived particulate matter air pollution.

Effects on Chest and Lungs

This includes diseases such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and some forms of asthma.

A study conducted in 1960-1961 in the wake of the Great Smog of 1952 compared 293 London residents with 477 residents of Gloucester, Peterborough, and Norwich, three towns with low reported death rates from chronic bronchitis. All subjects were male postal truck drivers aged 40 to 59.

Compared to the subjects from the outlying towns, the London subjects exhibited more severe respiratory symptoms (coughing, and phlegm), reduced lung function, and increased sputum production. The differences were more pronounced for subjects aged 50 to 59. The study controlled for age and smoking habits, so concluded that air pollution was the most likely cause of the observed differences.

Effects on children

Cities around the world with high exposure to air pollutants have the possibility of children living within them to develop asthma, pneumonia and other lower respiratory infections as well as a low initial birth rate. Protective measures to ensure the youths' health are being taken in cities such as New Delhi, India where buses now use compressed natural gas to help eliminate the “pea-soup” smog.

Research by the World Health Organization shows there is the greatest concentration of particulate matter particles in countries with low economic world power and high poverty and population rates. Examples of these countries include Egypt, Sudan, Mongolia, and Indonesia.

In the United States, the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, however in 2002 at least 146 million Americans were living in regions in which the concentration of certain air pollutants exceeded federal standards. Those pollutants include ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead. Because children are outdoors more and have higher minute ventilation they are more susceptible to the dangers of air pollution.

Reduction efforts

There are various air pollution control technologies and land use planning strategies available to reduce air pollution. At its most basic level land use planning is likely to involve zoning and transport infrastructure planning. In most developed countries, land use planning is an important part of social policy, ensuring that land is used efficiently for the benefit of the wider economy and population as well as to protect the environment.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Most Polluted World Cities

Particulate Matter  City 
169 Cairo,Egypt
150 Dehli, India
128 Kolkata, India
125 Tianjin,China
123 Chongging, China
109 Kanpur, India
109 Lucknow, India
104 Jakarta, Inonesia

Counties with the highest Carbon Dioxide Emissions


Percent of

Global Total

China 21.5%
U.S.A. 20.2%
Russia 5.5%
India 5.3%
Japan 4.6%
Germany 2.8%
UK 2.0%
Canada 1.9%
S.Korea 1.7%
Italy 1.7%

Efforts to reduce pollution from mobile sources includes primary regulation (many developing countries have permissive regulations),expanding regulation to new sources (such as cruise and transport ships, farm equipment, and small gas-powered equipment such as lawn trimmers, chainsaws, and snowmobiles), increased fuel efficiency (such as through the use of hybrid vehicles), conversion to cleaner fuels (such as bioethanol, biodiesel, or conversion to electric vehicles).

Images by Courtesy of Stock.xchng

Reference: Wikipedia

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Comments (13)

Density of population is the root cause of pollution of Indian cities like Kolkatta and Delhi.Even your statistics speaks for itself.Indian and Chinese cities(heavily populated) account for a lion's share in this.What to do!Otherwise, your article is very exhaustive.Thanks.

Thanks for your comments Rama - very valid points you make. My nose blocks up every night from coal burning pollution here in SA.

Thank you for your extensive research to compose this valuable article.I will return with a vote.

As someone who has many air-borne allergies, I found your article very interesting. We live in the mountains now, away from the pollution in the cities and my allergies are the best they've ever been.

Ranked #1 in Lung Conditions

This is a comprehensive discussion of both health article and environmental information in one, prolific article Colin.

Thanks for you input and valid comments - much appreciated!

Very important subject. thanks for the well discussed presentation

Boy, I thought the air I breath was all natural

Very well done. Presented wonderfully!

Many thanks for your kind and motivating comments!

Returning with a well deserved vote up.

Many thanks Roberta for your valued input, and vote!

I'm surprised that there are still people who burn their yards, burn leaves, and burn their garbage... it ought to be illegal, in my opinion. My adopted mom burns trash still.. there is no law against it in the country area that she lives in apparently.