Air Pollution Solutions

While air pollution is a serious problem, it is a problem that we can solve! In the United States and around the world, people are taking action to reduce emissions and improve air quality.

The Clean Air Act: How Laws Can Help Clean Up the Air

Creating policies and passing laws to restrict air pollution has been an important step toward improving air quality. In 1970, fueled by persistent visible smog in many U.S. cities and industrial areas and an increase in health problems caused by air pollution, the Clean Air Act paved the way for numerous efforts to improve air quality in the United States. The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set air quality standards for several hazardous air pollutants reported in the Air Quality Index (AQI) , requires states to have a plan to address air pollution and emissions reduction, and also addresses problems such as acid rain, ozone holes, and greenhouse gas pollution which is causing the climate to warm.

Since the Clean Air Act was passed:

Source: EPA

Most industrialized countries have laws and regulations about air quality. The United Kingdom first passed its Clean Air Act in 1956 following a deadly smog event that killed many London residents. In China, where rapid industrial and urban growth in recent decades resulted in a sharp decrease in air quality, numerous laws about air pollution have been passed, including a frequently updated five-year national plan to meet target reductions in air pollution.

It is important to note that while laws and regulations are helping, the effects of air pollution are still apparent. The decline of toxic air pollutants and health improvements are welcome changes, yet the growing threat of climate change due to fossil fuel emissions remains a problem that still needs to be solved.

There Are Many Solutions to Air Pollution

In order to improve air quality and slow climate warming, change needs to happen on a national and global scale. However, actions at the individual and community level are also important.

This is an illustration showing ways that you can help reduce air pollution: wind turbines are a source of renewable energy; drive low pollution vehicles; choose alternative transportation modes, such as walking, riding the bus, or riding a bicycle; refueling in the evening; and around the house choose low VOC products, use less energy, forgo the fire, and mow the grass in the evening.

Check out the EPA's website to learn more about actions you can take to reduce air pollution.

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Staying Healthy

Air pollution: How to reduce harm to your health

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Get regular exercise. Don't smoke. Control high blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol. These are age-old words of wisdom for a healthful life. But when was the last time your doctors told you to avoid exposure to pollution? Accumulating evidence about the impact of pollution on our health suggests that this should be another recommendation — though it wouldn't be easy to follow.

What is pollution?

A simple description of pollution is anything introduced into the environment by humans and that harms human health or ecosystems. As such, there are many kinds of pollution — in the air, water, and soil — which can take the form of gases, heavy metals, chemicals, bacteria, and even noise.

Let's focus here on air pollution. Outdoor air pollution includes the burning of fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) and wildfires. These generate noxious gases, smog (created by ground-level ozone), and soot (fine particles) that are harmful to breathe. Among the contributors to indoor air pollution are fireplaces and home cookstoves that use gas, coal, or biomass fuels such as wood or crop waste that are sometimes used in low-income countries.

Air pollution is a complex and vicious cycle. Its toxic effects are worsened by increased temperatures . Higher temperatures in turn increase the risk of uncontrolled wildfires and the use of energy (think of air conditioners). Both can release greenhouse gases that further drive climate change, which in turn raises temperatures and feeds other extreme weather around the globe, an ever-worsening cycle that continues to repeat.

In the United States, air pollution has improved quite a bit since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970. However, some air pollutant levels have risen in the last few years, and air pollution continues to have serious ongoing health impacts, both nationally and globally.

How does air pollution affect your health?

Numerous studies over the years have repeatedly shown that increased outdoor air levels of fine particulate matter correspond to increased hospitalizations for heart disease, stroke , diabetes , pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbation , and other serious health problems. Both long-term exposure and short-term exposure seem to matter.

A study published this year looked at global models of pollution levels and risk assessments of the world population over 14 years. It ties fossil fuel combustion alone to nearly nine million premature deaths worldwide in 2018 — that's one in five deaths — including more than 350,000 in the US. Most of these deaths are due to heart attacks and strokes.

Who is especially vulnerable to the potential effects of air pollution? Anyone who is elderly, young, or pregnant, and anyone with underlying diseases such as a heart or a lung condition. Additionally, people living in low-income communities , which are often situated near industrial plants or high-traffic areas, are disproportionately affected.

What can you do to reduce the harms of pollution?

Use the air quality index (AQI) as a guide to help you. The EPA developed the AQI to measure the air quality. You can track it specifically for where you live at AirNow . When the AQI is in the unhealthy zones, try to avoid outdoor activities, especially near traffic-congested areas. Stay indoors and close the windows while using air conditioners and fans when it's hot, if possible, to keep you from getting overheated . Or, when you go outside, wear a mask: cloth masks and surgical masks may help with larger particles, but only certain masks like N95s will filter fine particles. It also helps to change your clothes upon your return home.

Be thoughtful about transportation. Think about healthier alternatives to driving whenever you can. Buy local produce, if this is an option for you, to further cut down on global shipping and transportation that contribute to air pollution. And when driving, don't idle your car (note: automatic download), which is estimated to waste three billion gallons of fuel and generate 30 million tons of the major greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per year in the US.

Change out your gas stove. When it is time for a new stove, choose induction or electric stoves over gas stoves. Induction cooktops not only avert indoor pollution, but also use the least amount of energy.

Consider using air purifiers. Although they do not remove all pollutants, they can improve indoor air quality. Choose an air purifier that has a high clean air delivery rate (CADR) matched for the size of your room.

Replace filters. Changing your air conditioner and air purifier filters regularly will improve your air quality and reduce energy use.

Promote clean, renewable energy. Whether it's opting for a 100% renewable energy plan or voting for leaders that prioritize renewable energy, taking steps to decrease fossil fuel use has the double benefit of combatting climate change and air pollution, ultimately working toward a sustainable future with a healthier planet and a healthier you.

Follow me on Twitter @wynnearmand

About the Author

Wynne Armand, MD , Contributor


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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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The best ways to reduce air pollution and tackle climate change together


Electrifying public transport is one way to lower both air pollution and carbon emissions Image:  REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

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Air Pollution: Everything You Need to Know

How smog, soot, greenhouse gases, and other top air pollutants are affecting the planet—and your health.

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problem and solution for air pollution

What Is Air Pollution?

What causes air pollution, effects of air pollution, air pollution in the united states, air pollution and environmental justice, controlling air pollution, how to help reduce air pollution, how to protect your health.

Air pollution refers to the release of pollutants into the air—pollutants which are detrimental to human health and the planet as a whole. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year air pollution is responsible for nearly seven million deaths around the globe. Nine out of ten human beings currently breathe air that exceeds the WHO’s guideline limits for pollutants, with those living in low- and middle-income countries suffering the most. In the United States, the Clean Air Act , established in 1970, authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to safeguard public health by regulating the emissions of these harmful air pollutants.

“Most air pollution comes from energy use and production,” says John Walke , director of the Clean Air Project, part of the Climate and Clean Energy program at NRDC. “Burning fossil fuels releases gases and chemicals into the air.” And in an especially destructive feedback loop, air pollution not only contributes to climate change but is also exacerbated by it. “Air pollution in the form of carbon dioxide and methane raises the earth’s temperature,” Walke says. “Another type of air pollution, smog, is then worsened by that increased heat, forming when the weather is warmer and there’s more ultraviolet radiation.” Climate change also increases the production of allergenic air pollutants, including mold (thanks to damp conditions caused by extreme weather and increased flooding) and pollen (due to a longer pollen season).

“We’ve made progress over the last 50 years improving air quality in the United States thanks to the Clean Air Act,” says Kim Knowlton , senior scientist and deputy director of the NRDC Science Center . “But climate change will make it harder in the future to meet pollution standards, which are designed to protect health .”

The effects of air pollution on the human body vary depending on the type of pollutant and the length and level of exposure—as well as other factors, including a person’s individual health risks and the cumulative impacts of multiple pollutants or stressors.

Smog and soot

These are the two most prevalent types of air pollution. Smog (sometimes referred to as ground-level ozone) occurs when emissions from combusting fossil fuels react with sunlight. Soot (also known as particulate matter ) is made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens—in the form of either gas or solids—that are carried in the air. The sources of smog and soot are similar. “Both come from cars and trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators, engines, generally anything that combusts fossil fuels such as coal, gas, or natural gas,” Walke says.

Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs, especially those of children, senior citizens, and people who work or exercise outdoors. It’s even worse for people who have asthma or allergies: these extra pollutants can intensify their symptoms and trigger asthma attacks. The tiniest airborne particles in soot, whether gaseous or solid, are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even hasten death. In 2020 a report from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health showed COVID-19 mortality rates in areas with more soot pollution were higher than in areas with even slightly less, showing a correlation between the virus’s deadliness and long-term exposure to fine particulate matter and illuminating an environmental justice issue .

Because highways and polluting facilities have historically been sited in or next to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, the negative effects of this pollution have been disproportionately experienced by the people who live in these communities. In 2019 the Union of Concerned Scientists found that soot exposure was 34 percent higher for Asian Americans , on average, than for other Americans. For Black people, the exposure rate was 24 percent higher; for Latinos, 23 percent higher.

Hazardous air pollutants

A number of air pollutants pose severe health risks and can sometimes be fatal even in small amounts. Almost 200 of them are regulated by law; some of the most common are mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene. “These are also most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incinerating, or—in the case of benzene—found in gasoline,” Walke says. Benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the EPA, can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but also present in small amounts in the air, can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems as well as reproductive functions. Mercury attacks the central nervous system. In large amounts, lead can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even minimal exposure can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn.

Another category of toxic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are by-products of traffic exhaust and wildfire smoke. In large amounts they have been linked to eye and lung irritation, blood and liver issues, and even cancer. In one study, the children of mothers exposed to PAHs during pregnancy showed slower brain-processing speeds and more pronounced symptoms of ADHD.

Greenhouse gases

By trapping the earth’s heat in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases lead to warmer temperatures, which in turn lead to the hallmarks of climate change: rising sea levels, more extreme weather, heat-related deaths, and the increased transmission of infectious diseases. In 2018 carbon dioxide accounted for 81 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and methane made up 10 percent. “Carbon dioxide comes from combusting fossil fuels, and methane comes from natural and industrial sources, including large amounts that are released during oil and gas drilling,” Walke says. “We emit far larger amounts of carbon dioxide, but methane is significantly more potent, so it’s also very destructive.” Another class of greenhouse gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) , are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in their ability to trap heat. In October 2016 more than 140 countries reached an agreement to reduce the use of these chemicals—which are found in air conditioners and refrigerators—and develop greener alternatives over time. Though President Trump was unwilling to sign on to this agreement, a bipartisan group of senators overrode his objections in 2020 and set the United States on track to slash HFCs by 85 percent by 2035. According to David Doniger , senior strategic director of NRDC’s Climate and Clean Energy program, “the agreed-to HFC phasedown will avoid the equivalent of more than 80 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the next 35 years.”

Pollen and mold

Mold and allergens from trees, weeds, and grass are also carried in the air, are exacerbated by climate change, and can be hazardous to health. Though they aren’t regulated and are less directly connected to human actions, they can be considered a form of air pollution. “When homes, schools, or businesses get water damage, mold can grow and can produce allergenic airborne pollutants,” Knowlton says. “ Mold exposure can precipitate asthma attacks or an allergic response, and some molds can even produce toxins that would be dangerous for anyone to inhale.”

Pollen allergies are worsening because of climate change . “Lab and field studies are showing that pollen-producing plants—especially ragweed—grow larger and produce more pollen when you increase the amount of carbon dioxide that they grow in,” Knowlton says. “Climate change also extends the pollen production season, and some studies are beginning to suggest that ragweed pollen itself might be becoming a more potent allergen.” If so, more people will suffer runny noses, fevers, itchy eyes, and other symptoms.

Air pollution is now the world’s fourth-largest risk factor for early death. According to the most recent State of Global Air report —which summarizes the latest scientific understanding of air pollution around the world—4.5 million deaths were linked to outdoor air pollution exposures in 2019, and another 2.2 million deaths were caused by indoor air pollution. “Despite improvements in reducing global average mortality rates from air pollution, the world’s most populous countries, India and China, continue to bear the highest burdens of disease,” says Vijay Lamaye , staff scientist at the NRDC Science Center. “This report is a sobering reminder that the climate crisis threatens to worsen air pollution problems significantly if we fail to act to cut carbon pollution.”

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Some four out of ten U.S. residents—135 million people—live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution , according to the 2021 State of the Air report by the American Lung Association (ALA). Since the annual report was first published, in 2000, its findings have shown how the Clean Air Act has been able to reduce harmful emissions from transportation, power plants, and manufacturing.

Recent findings, however, reflect how climate change–fueled wildfires and extreme heat are adding to the challenges of protecting public health. The latest report—which focuses on ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution—also finds that people of color are 61 percent more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade in at least one of those categories, and three times more likely to live in a county that fails in all three.

In rankings for each of the three pollution categories covered by the ALA report, California cities occupy the top three slots (i.e., were highest in pollution) despite significant gains the Golden State has made in the past half-century. At the other end of the spectrum, Burlington, Vermont; Honolulu; and Wilmington, North Carolina, consistently rank among the country’s best cities for air quality. ( You can check the air quality of your own city or state on this map .)

No one wants to live next door to an incinerator, oil refinery, port, toxic waste dump, or other polluting site. Yet millions of people around the world do, and this puts them at a much higher risk for respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, neurological damage, cancer, and death. In the United States, people of color are 1.5 times more likely than whites to live in areas with poor air quality, according to the ALA.

Historically, racist zoning policies and the discriminatory lending practices known as redlining have combined to keep polluting industries and car-choked highways away from white neighborhoods and have turned communities of color—especially poor and working-class communities of color—into sacrifice zones where residents are forced to breathe dirty air and suffer the many health problems associated with it. In addition to the increased health risks that come from living in such places, members of these communities experience economic harm in the form of missed workdays, higher medical costs, and local underinvestment.

Environmental racism isn't limited to cities and industrial areas. Outdoor laborers, including the estimated three million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States, are among the most vulnerable to air pollution—and also among the least equipped, politically, to pressure employers and lawmakers to affirm their right to breathe clean air.

Recently, cumulative impact mapping , which uses data on environmental conditions and demographics, has been able to show how some communities are overburdened with layers of issues, like high levels of poverty, unemployment, and pollution. Tools like the Environmental Justice Screening Method and the EPA’s EJSCREEN provide evidence of what many environmental justice communities have been explaining for decades: that we need land-use and public health reforms to ensure that vulnerable areas are not overburdened and that the people who need resources most are receiving them.

In the United States, the Clean Air Act has been a crucial tool for reducing air pollution since its passage in 1970, although fossil-fuel interests aided by industry-friendly lawmakers have frequently attempted to weaken its many protections. Ensuring that this bedrock environmental law remains intact and properly enforced will always be key to maintaining and improving our air quality.

But the best, most effective way to control air pollution is to speed up our transition to cleaner fuels and industrial processes. By switching over to renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar power), maximizing fuel efficiency in our vehicles, and replacing more and more of our gasoline-powered cars and trucks with electric versions, we'll be limiting air pollution at its source while also curbing the global warming that heightens so many of its worst health impacts.

And what about the economic costs of controlling air pollution? According to a report on the Clean Air Act commissioned by NRDC, the annual benefits of cleaner air are up to 32 times greater than the cost of clean-air regulations. Those benefits include up to 370,000 avoided premature deaths, 189,000 fewer hospital admissions for cardiac and respiratory illnesses, and net economic benefits of up to $3.8 trillion for the U.S. economy every year.

“The less gasoline we burn, the better we’re doing to reduce air pollution and harmful effects of climate change,” Walke says. “Make good choices about transportation. When you can, walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation. For driving, choose a car that gets better miles per gallon of gas, or choose an electric car.” You can also investigate your power provider options—you may be able to request that your electricity be supplied by wind or solar. Buying your food locally cuts down on the fossil fuels burned in trucking or flying food in from across the country. And most important, “Support leaders who push for clean air and water and responsible steps on climate change,” Walke says.

This story was originally published on November 1, 2016, and has been updated with new information and links.

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Pollution is the introduction of harmful materials into the environment. These harmful materials are called pollutants.

Biology, Ecology, Health, Earth Science, Geography

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Pollution is the introduction of harmful materials into the environment . These harmful materials are called pollutants . Pollutants can be natural, such as volcanic ash . They can also be created by human activity, such as trash or runoff produced by factories. Pollutants damage the quality of air, water, and land. Many things that are useful to people produce pollution. Cars spew pollutants from their exhaust pipes. Burning coal to create electricity pollutes the air. Industries and homes generate garbage and sewage that can pollute the land and water. Pesticides —chemical poisons used to kill weeds and insects— seep into waterways and harm wildlife . All living things—from one-celled microbes to blue whales—depend on Earth ’s supply of air and water. When these resources are polluted, all forms of life are threatened. Pollution is a global problem. Although urban areas are usually more polluted than the countryside, pollution can spread to remote places where no people live. For example, pesticides and other chemicals have been found in the Antarctic ice sheet . In the middle of the northern Pacific Ocean, a huge collection of microscopic plastic particles forms what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch . Air and water currents carry pollution. Ocean currents and migrating fish carry marine pollutants far and wide. Winds can pick up radioactive material accidentally released from a nuclear reactor and scatter it around the world. Smoke from a factory in one country drifts into another country. In the past, visitors to Big Bend National Park in the U.S. state of Texas could see 290 kilometers (180 miles) across the vast landscape . Now, coal-burning power plants in Texas and the neighboring state of Chihuahua, Mexico have spewed so much pollution into the air that visitors to Big Bend can sometimes see only 50 kilometers (30 miles). The three major types of pollution are air pollution , water pollution , and land pollution . Air Pollution Sometimes, air pollution is visible . A person can see dark smoke pour from the exhaust pipes of large trucks or factories, for example. More often, however, air pollution is invisible . Polluted air can be dangerous, even if the pollutants are invisible. It can make people’s eyes burn and make them have difficulty breathing. It can also increase the risk of lung cancer . Sometimes, air pollution kills quickly. In 1984, an accident at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released a deadly gas into the air. At least 8,000 people died within days. Hundreds of thou sands more were permanently injured. Natural disasters can also cause air pollution to increase quickly. When volcanoes erupt , they eject volcanic ash and gases into the atmosphere . Volcanic ash can discolor the sky for months. After the eruption of the Indonesian volcano of Krakatoa in 1883, ash darkened the sky around the world. The dimmer sky caused fewer crops to be harvested as far away as Europe and North America. For years, meteorologists tracked what was known as the “equatorial smoke stream .” In fact, this smoke stream was a jet stream , a wind high in Earth’s atmosphere that Krakatoa’s air pollution made visible. Volcanic gases , such as sulfur dioxide , can kill nearby residents and make the soil infertile for years. Mount Vesuvius, a volcano in Italy, famously erupted in 79, killing hundreds of residents of the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Most victims of Vesuvius were not killed by lava or landslides caused by the eruption. They were choked, or asphyxiated , by deadly volcanic gases. In 1986, a toxic cloud developed over Lake Nyos, Cameroon. Lake Nyos sits in the crater of a volcano. Though the volcano did not erupt, it did eject volcanic gases into the lake. The heated gases passed through the water of the lake and collected as a cloud that descended the slopes of the volcano and into nearby valleys . As the toxic cloud moved across the landscape, it killed birds and other organisms in their natural habitat . This air pollution also killed thousands of cattle and as many as 1,700 people. Most air pollution is not natural, however. It comes from burning fossil fuels —coal, oil , and natural gas . When gasoline is burned to power cars and trucks, it produces carbon monoxide , a colorless, odorless gas. The gas is harmful in high concentrations , or amounts. City traffic produces highly concentrated carbon monoxide. Cars and factories produce other common pollutants, including nitrogen oxide , sulfur dioxide, and hydrocarbons . These chemicals react with sunlight to produce smog , a thick fog or haze of air pollution. The smog is so thick in Linfen, China, that people can seldom see the sun. Smog can be brown or grayish blue, depending on which pollutants are in it. Smog makes breathing difficult, especially for children and older adults. Some cities that suffer from extreme smog issue air pollution warnings. The government of Hong Kong, for example, will warn people not to go outside or engage in strenuous physical activity (such as running or swimming) when smog is very thick.

When air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide mix with moisture, they change into acids . They then fall back to earth as acid rain . Wind often carries acid rain far from the pollution source. Pollutants produced by factories and power plants in Spain can fall as acid rain in Norway. Acid rain can kill all the trees in a forest . It can also devastate lakes, streams, and other waterways. When lakes become acidic, fish can’t survive . In Sweden, acid rain created thousands of “ dead lakes ,” where fish no longer live. Acid rain also wears away marble and other kinds of stone . It has erased the words on gravestones and damaged many historic buildings and monuments . The Taj Mahal , in Agra, India, was once gleaming white. Years of exposure to acid rain has left it pale. Governments have tried to prevent acid rain by limiting the amount of pollutants released into the air. In Europe and North America, they have had some success, but acid rain remains a major problem in the developing world , especially Asia. Greenhouse gases are another source of air pollution. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane occur naturally in the atmosphere. In fact, they are necessary for life on Earth. They absorb sunlight reflected from Earth, preventing it from escaping into space. By trapping heat in the atmosphere, they keep Earth warm enough for people to live. This is called the greenhouse effect . But human activities such as burning fossil fuels and destroying forests have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This has increased the greenhouse effect, and average temperatures across the globe are rising. The decade that began in the year 2000 was the warmest on record. This increase in worldwide average temperatures, caused in part by human activity, is called global warming . Global warming is causing ice sheets and glaciers to melt. The melting ice is causing sea levels to rise at a rate of two millimeters (0.09 inches) per year. The rising seas will eventually flood low-lying coastal regions . Entire nations, such as the islands of Maldives, are threatened by this climate change . Global warming also contributes to the phenomenon of ocean acidification . Ocean acidification is the process of ocean waters absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Fewer organisms can survive in warmer, less salty waters. The ocean food web is threatened as plants and animals such as coral fail to adapt to more acidic oceans. Scientists have predicted that global warming will cause an increase in severe storms . It will also cause more droughts in some regions and more flooding in others. The change in average temperatures is already shrinking some habitats, the regions where plants and animals naturally live. Polar bears hunt seals from sea ice in the Arctic. The melting ice is forcing polar bears to travel farther to find food , and their numbers are shrinking. People and governments can respond quickly and effectively to reduce air pollution. Chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a dangerous form of air pollution that governments worked to reduce in the 1980s and 1990s. CFCs are found in gases that cool refrigerators, in foam products, and in aerosol cans . CFCs damage the ozone layer , a region in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The ozone layer protects Earth by absorbing much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation . When people are exposed to more ultraviolet radiation, they are more likely to develop skin cancer, eye diseases, and other illnesses. In the 1980s, scientists noticed that the ozone layer over Antarctica was thinning. This is often called the “ ozone hole .” No one lives permanently in Antarctica. But Australia, the home of more than 22 million people, lies at the edge of the hole. In the 1990s, the Australian government began an effort to warn people of the dangers of too much sun. Many countries, including the United States, now severely limit the production of CFCs. Water Pollution Some polluted water looks muddy, smells bad, and has garbage floating in it. Some polluted water looks clean, but is filled with harmful chemicals you can’t see or smell. Polluted water is unsafe for drinking and swimming. Some people who drink polluted water are exposed to hazardous chemicals that may make them sick years later. Others consume bacteria and other tiny aquatic organisms that cause disease. The United Nations estimates that 4,000 children die every day from drinking dirty water. Sometimes, polluted water harms people indirectly. They get sick because the fish that live in polluted water are unsafe to eat. They have too many pollutants in their flesh. There are some natural sources of water pollution. Oil and natural gas, for example, can leak into oceans and lakes from natural underground sources. These sites are called petroleum seeps . The world’s largest petroleum seep is the Coal Oil Point Seep, off the coast of the U.S. state of California. The Coal Oil Point Seep releases so much oil that tar balls wash up on nearby beaches . Tar balls are small, sticky pieces of pollution that eventually decompose in the ocean.

Human activity also contributes to water pollution. Chemicals and oils from factories are sometimes dumped or seep into waterways. These chemicals are called runoff. Chemicals in runoff can create a toxic environment for aquatic life. Runoff can also help create a fertile environment for cyanobacteria , also called blue-green algae . Cyanobacteria reproduce rapidly, creating a harmful algal bloom (HAB) . Harmful algal blooms prevent organisms such as plants and fish from living in the ocean. They are associated with “ dead zones ” in the world’s lakes and rivers, places where little life exists below surface water. Mining and drilling can also contribute to water pollution. Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a major contributor to pollution of rivers and streams near coal mines . Acid helps miners remove coal from the surrounding rocks . The acid is washed into streams and rivers, where it reacts with rocks and sand. It releases chemical sulfur from the rocks and sand, creating a river rich in sulfuric acid . Sulfuric acid is toxic to plants, fish, and other aquatic organisms. Sulfuric acid is also toxic to people, making rivers polluted by AMD dangerous sources of water for drinking and hygiene . Oil spills are another source of water pollution. In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing oil to gush from the ocean floor. In the following months, hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spewed into the gulf waters. The spill produced large plumes of oil under the sea and an oil slick on the surface as large as 24,000 square kilometers (9,100 square miles). The oil slick coated wetlands in the U.S. states of Louisiana and Mississippi, killing marsh plants and aquatic organisms such as crabs and fish. Birds, such as pelicans , became coated in oil and were unable to fly or access food. More than two million animals died as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Buried chemical waste can also pollute water supplies. For many years, people disposed of chemical wastes carelessly, not realizing its dangers. In the 1970s, people living in the Love Canal area in Niagara Falls, New York, suffered from extremely high rates of cancer and birth defects . It was discovered that a chemical waste dump had poisoned the area’s water. In 1978, 800 families living in Love Canal had to a bandon their homes. If not disposed of properly, radioactive waste from nuclear power plants can escape into the environment. Radioactive waste can harm living things and pollute the water. Sewage that has not been properly treated is a common source of water pollution. Many cities around the world have poor sewage systems and sewage treatment plants. Delhi, the capital of India, is home to more than 21 million people. More than half the sewage and other waste produced in the city are dumped into the Yamuna River. This pollution makes the river dangerous to use as a source of water for drinking or hygiene. It also reduces the river’s fishery , resulting in less food for the local community. A major source of water pollution is fertilizer used in agriculture . Fertilizer is material added to soil to make plants grow larger and faster. Fertilizers usually contain large amounts of the elements nitrogen and phosphorus , which help plants grow. Rainwater washes fertilizer into streams and lakes. There, the nitrogen and phosphorus cause cyanobacteria to form harmful algal blooms. Rain washes other pollutants into streams and lakes. It picks up animal waste from cattle ranches. Cars drip oil onto the street, and rain carries it into storm drains , which lead to waterways such as rivers and seas. Rain sometimes washes chemical pesticides off of plants and into streams. Pesticides can also seep into groundwater , the water beneath the surface of the Earth. Heat can pollute water. Power plants, for example, produce a huge amount of heat. Power plants are often located on rivers so they can use the water as a coolant . Cool water circulates through the plant, absorbing heat. The heated water is then returned to the river. Aquatic creatures are sensitive to changes in temperature. Some fish, for example, can only live in cold water. Warmer river temperatures prevent fish eggs from hatching. Warmer river water also contributes to harmful algal blooms. Another type of water pollution is simple garbage. The Citarum River in Indonesia, for example, has so much garbage floating in it that you cannot see the water. Floating trash makes the river difficult to fish in. Aquatic animals such as fish and turtles mistake trash, such as plastic bags, for food. Plastic bags and twine can kill many ocean creatures. Chemical pollutants in trash can also pollute the water, making it toxic for fish and people who use the river as a source of drinking water. The fish that are caught in a polluted river often have high levels of chemical toxins in their flesh. People absorb these toxins as they eat the fish. Garbage also fouls the ocean. Many plastic bottles and other pieces of trash are thrown overboard from boats. The wind blows trash out to sea. Ocean currents carry plastics and other floating trash to certain places on the globe, where it cannot escape. The largest of these areas, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. According to some estimates, this garbage patch is the size of Texas. The trash is a threat to fish and seabirds, which mistake the plastic for food. Many of the plastics are covered with chemical pollutants. Land Pollution Many of the same pollutants that foul the water also harm the land. Mining sometimes leaves the soil contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural fields are blown by the wind. They can harm plants, animals, and sometimes people. Some fruits and vegetables absorb the pesticides that help them grow. When people consume the fruits and vegetables, the pesticides enter their bodies. Some pesticides can cause cancer and other diseases. A pesticide called DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was once commonly used to kill insects, especially mosquitoes. In many parts of the world, mosquitoes carry a disease called malaria , which kills a million people every year. Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize for his understanding of how DDT can control insects and other pests. DDT is responsible for reducing malaria in places such as Taiwan and Sri Lanka. In 1962, American biologist Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring , which discussed the dangers of DDT. She argued that it could contribute to cancer in humans. She also explained how it was destroying bird eggs, which caused the number of bald eagles, brown pelicans, and ospreys to drop. In 1972, the United States banned the use of DDT. Many other countries also banned it. But DDT didn’t disappear entirely. Today, many governments support the use of DDT because it remains the most effective way to combat malaria. Trash is another form of land pollution. Around the world, paper, cans, glass jars, plastic products, and junked cars and appliances mar the landscape. Litter makes it difficult for plants and other producers in the food web to create nutrients . Animals can die if they mistakenly eat plastic. Garbage often contains dangerous pollutants such as oils, chemicals, and ink. These pollutants can leech into the soil and harm plants, animals, and people. Inefficient garbage collection systems contribute to land pollution. Often, the garbage is picked up and brought to a dump, or landfill . Garbage is buried in landfills. Sometimes, communities produce so much garbage that their landfills are filling up. They are running out of places to dump their trash. A massive landfill near Quezon City, Philippines, was the site of a land pollution tragedy in 2000. Hundreds of people lived on the slopes of the Quezon City landfill. These people made their living from recycling and selling items found in the landfill. However, the landfill was not secure. Heavy rains caused a trash landslide, killing 218 people. Sometimes, landfills are not completely sealed off from the land around them. Pollutants from the landfill leak into the earth in which they are buried. Plants that grow in the earth may be contaminated, and the herbivores that eat the plants also become contaminated. So do the predators that consume the herbivores. This process, where a chemical builds up in each level of the food web, is called bioaccumulation . Pollutants leaked from landfills also leak into local groundwater supplies. There, the aquatic food web (from microscopic algae to fish to predators such as sharks or eagles) can suffer from bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals. Some communities do not have adequate garbage collection systems, and trash lines the side of roads. In other places, garbage washes up on beaches. Kamilo Beach, in the U.S. state of Hawai'i, is littered with plastic bags and bottles carried in by the tide . The trash is dangerous to ocean life and reduces economic activity in the area. Tourism is Hawai'i’s largest industry . Polluted beaches discourage tourists from investing in the area’s hotels, restaurants, and recreational activities. Some cities incinerate , or burn, their garbage. Incinerating trash gets rid of it, but it can release dangerous heavy metals and chemicals into the air. So while trash incinerators can help with the problem of land pollution, they sometimes add to the problem of air pollution. Reducing Pollution Around the world, people and governments are making efforts to combat pollution. Recycling, for instance, is becoming more common. In recycling, trash is processed so its useful materials can be used again. Glass, aluminum cans, and many types of plastic can be melted and reused . Paper can be broken down and turned into new paper. Recycling reduces the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills, incinerators, and waterways. Austria and Switzerland have the highest recycling rates. These nations recycle between 50 and 60 percent of their garbage. The United States recycles about 30 percent of its garbage. Governments can combat pollution by passing laws that limit the amount and types of chemicals factories and agribusinesses are allowed to use. The smoke from coal-burning power plants can be filtered. People and businesses that illegally dump pollutants into the land, water, and air can be fined for millions of dollars. Some government programs, such as the Superfund program in the United States, can force polluters to clean up the sites they polluted. International agreements can also reduce pollution. The Kyoto Protocol , a United Nations agreement to limit the emission of greenhouse gases, has been signed by 191 countries. The United States, the world’s second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, did not sign the agreement. Other countries, such as China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, have not met their goals. Still, many gains have been made. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River, in the U.S. state of Ohio, was so clogged with oil and trash that it caught on fire. The fire helped spur the Clean Water Act of 1972. This law limited what pollutants could be released into water and set standards for how clean water should be. Today, the Cuyahoga River is much cleaner. Fish have returned to regions of the river where they once could not survive. But even as some rivers are becoming cleaner, others are becoming more polluted. As countries around the world become wealthier, some forms of pollution increase. Countries with growing economies usually need more power plants, which produce more pollutants. Reducing pollution requires environmental, political, and economic leadership. Developed nations must work to reduce and recycle their materials, while developing nations must work to strengthen their economies without destroying the environment. Developed and developing countries must work together toward the common goal of protecting the environment for future use.

How Long Does It Last? Different materials decompose at different rates. How long does it take for these common types of trash to break down?

Indoor Air Pollution The air inside your house can be polluted. Air and carpet cleaners, insect sprays, and cigarettes are all sources of indoor air pollution.

Light Pollution Light pollution is the excess amount of light in the night sky. Light pollution, also called photopollution, is almost always found in urban areas. Light pollution can disrupt ecosystems by confusing the distinction between night and day. Nocturnal animals, those that are active at night, may venture out during the day, while diurnal animals, which are active during daylight hours, may remain active well into the night. Feeding and sleep patterns may be confused. Light pollution also indicates an excess use of energy. The dark-sky movement is a campaign by people to reduce light pollution. This would reduce energy use, allow ecosystems to function more normally, and allow scientists and stargazers to observe the atmosphere.

Noise Pollution Noise pollution is the constant presence of loud, disruptive noises in an area. Usually, noise pollution is caused by construction or nearby transportation facilities, such as airports. Noise pollution is unpleasant, and can be dangerous. Some songbirds, such as robins, are unable to communicate or find food in the presence of heavy noise pollution. The sound waves produced by some noise pollutants can disrupt the sonar used by marine animals to communicate or locate food.

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December 14, 2022

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Your Environment. Your Health.

Air pollution and your health, what is niehs doing, further reading, introduction.

father holding son while looking at smokestack

Air Pollution

Air pollution is a familiar environmental health hazard. We know what we’re looking at when brown haze settles over a city, exhaust billows across a busy highway, or a plume rises from a smokestack. Some air pollution is not seen, but its pungent smell alerts you.

It is a major threat to global health and prosperity. Air pollution, in all forms, is responsible for more than 6.5 million deaths each year globally , a number that has increased over the past two decades.

What Is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a mix of hazardous substances from both human-made and natural sources.

Vehicle emissions, fuel oils and natural gas to heat homes, by-products of manufacturing and power generation, particularly coal-fueled power plants, and fumes from chemical production are the primary sources of human-made air pollution.

Nature releases hazardous substances into the air, such as smoke from wildfires, which are often caused by people; ash and gases from volcanic eruptions; and gases, like methane, which are emitted from decomposing organic matter in soils.

Traffic-Related Air Pollution (TRAP), a mixture of gasses and particles, has most of the elements of human-made air pollution: ground-level ozone, various forms of carbon, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and fine particulate matter.

Ozone , an atmospheric gas, is often called smog when at ground level. It is created when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, and other sources chemically react in the presence of sunlight.

Noxious gases , which include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur oxides (SOx), are components of motor vehicle emissions and byproducts of industrial processes.

EPA Pollution

Image courtesy of EPA

Particulate matter (PM) is composed of chemicals such as sulfates, nitrates, carbon, or mineral dusts. Vehicle and industrial emissions from fossil fuel combustion, cigarette smoke, and burning organic matter, such as wildfires, all contain PM.

A subset of PM, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is 30 times thinner than a human hair. It can be inhaled deeply into lung tissue and contribute to serious health problems. PM 2.5 accounts for most health effects due to air pollution in the U.S.

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) vaporize at or near room temperature—hence, the designation volatile. They are called organic because they contain carbon. VOCs are given off by paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, some furnishings, and even craft materials like glue. Gasoline and natural gas are major sources of VOCs, which are released during combustion.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are organic compounds containing carbon and hydrogen. Of more than 100 PAHs known to be widespread in the environment, 15 are listed in the Report on Carcinogens . In addition to combustion, many industrial processes, such as iron, steel, and rubber product manufacturing, as well as power generation, also produce PAHs as a by-product. PAHs are also found in particulate matter.

Air Pollution and Climate Change

Air pollution and climate change affect each other through complex interactions in the atmosphere. Air pollution is intricately linked with climate change because both problems come largely from the same sources, such as emissions from burning fossil fuels. Both are threats to people’s health and the environment worldwide. Read more: Health Impacts of Air Quality .

Over its 50-plus year history, NIEHS has been a leader in air pollution research. The institute continues to fund and conduct research into how air pollution affects health and the population groups who are most affected.

How does air pollution affect our health?

When the National Ambient Air Quality Standards were established in 1970, air pollution was regarded primarily as a threat to respiratory health. In 1993, NIEHS researchers published the landmark Six Cities Study , which established an association between fine particulate matter and mortality.

Air pollution exposure is associated with oxidative stress and inflammation in human cells, which may lay a foundation for chronic diseases and cancer. In 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization (WHO) classified air pollution as a human carcinogen .

Research on air pollution and health effects continually advances. Public health concern now includes cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, diabetes mellitus, obesity, and reproductive, neurological, and immune system disorders

  • A large study of more than 57,000 women found living near major roadways may increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer .
  • The NIEHS Sister Study found other airborne toxic substances, especially methylene chloride, which is used in aerosol products and paint removers, are also associated with increased risk of breast cancer .
  • Occupational exposure to benzene, an industrial chemical and component of gasoline, can cause leukemia and is associated with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma .
  • A long-term study, 2000-2016, found an association between lung cancer incidence and increased reliance on coal for energy generation.

Cardiovascular Disease

  • Fine particulate matter can impair blood vessel function and speed up calcification in arteries .
  • NIEHS researchers established links between short-term daily exposure by post-menopausal women to nitrogen oxides and increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke .
  • For some older Americans, exposure to TRAP can result in lowered levels of high-density lipoprotein , sometimes called good cholesterol, increasing their risk for cardiovascular disease.
  • According to a National Toxicology Program (NTP) report , TRAP exposure also increases a pregnant woman’s risk for dangerous changes in blood pressure, known as hypertensive disorders, which are a leading cause of pre-term birth, low birth weight, and maternal and fetal illness and death.

Respiratory Disease

  • Air pollution can affect lung development and is implicated in the development of emphysema , asthma, and other respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Increases in asthma prevalence and severity are linked to urbanization and outdoor air pollution. Children living in low-income urban areas tend to have more asthma cases than others. Research published in 2023 tied two air pollutants, ozone and PM2.5, to asthma-related changes in children’s airways.
  • PM and nitrogen oxide are linked to chronic bronchitis .
  • In 2020, a major public health challenge was confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires across the western U.S. Building on a well-established connection between air pollution and respiratory-tract infections, a study linked wildfire smoke with additional COVID-19 cases and deaths .

Whom does air pollution affect the most?

Air pollution affects everyone’s health, but certain groups may be harmed more. Almost 9 out of 10 people who live in urban areas worldwide are affected by air pollution.

The NIEHS-funded Children’s Health Study at the University of Southern California is one of the largest studies of the long-term effects of air pollution on children’s respiratory health. Among its findings:

  • Higher air pollution levels increase short-term respiratory infections, which lead to more school absences.
  • Children who play several outdoor sports and live in high ozone communities are more likely to develop asthma.
  • Children living near busy roads are at increased risk for asthma.
  • Children with asthma who were exposed to high levels of air pollutants were more likely to develop bronchitis symptoms.
  • Living in communities with higher pollution levels can cause lung damage .

Cars releasing smoke and a pregnant woman standing

Other studies on women and children

  • NIEHS-funded researchers from the University of California, Davis, Environmental Health Sciences Center are conducting the Bio-Specimen and Fire Effects (B-SAFE) Study . This ongoing project seeks to discover if and how recent wildfires and their smoke affected pregnant women and their babies. Begun in 2017, study participants are pregnant women who were living in Northern California when the 2018, 2019, or 2020 wildfires occurred there.
  • Breathing PM 2.5, even at relatively low levels, may alter the size of a child's developing brain , which may ultimately increase the risk for cognitive and emotional problems later in adolescence.
  • Prenatal exposure to PAHs was associated with brain development effects, slower processing speed, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, and other neurobehavioral problems in urban youth .
  • In New York City, prenatal exposure to air pollution may play a role in childhood ADHD-related behavior problems.
  • Prenatal exposure to particulate matter was associated with low birth weight .
  • Women exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter during pregnancy, particularly in the third trimester, may have up to twice the risk of having a child with autism .
  • Second and third trimester exposure to PM 2.5 might increase the chance of those children having high blood pressure in early life .
  • In California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, women who were exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, or nitrogen dioxide during their first 8 weeks of pregnancy were more likely to have a baby with neural tube defects .
  • In Marietta, Ohio, home to a ferromanganese refinery, manganese concentrations in blood and hair, a biomarker of air pollution exposure, were associated with lower child IQ scores .

Older adults

  • Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are a public health challenge for aging populations. NIEHS-funded researchers at the University of Washington identified a link between air pollution and dementias. This well-conducted study adds considerable evidence that ambient air fine particles increase risk of dementias .  Conversely, a multi-year study published in 2022 shows improved air quality is associated with lower risk of dementia in older women. The researchers also stated this decline in dementia risk was equivalent to taking nearly 2 1/2 years off the age of the women studied.
  • Air pollution was linked to a greater chance of developing several neurological disorders , including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and other dementias. Hospital admissions data from 63 million older adults in the U.S., obtained over 17 years (2000-2016), was analyzed along with estimated PM 2.5 concentrations by zip code to conduct the study.
  • In older adults, long-term exposure to TRAP may significantly hasten physical disabilities . The risk is more pronounced among racial minorities and lower-income people.
  • Osteoporosis affects women more than men. A large study associated high levels of air pollutants with bone damage , particularly in the lumbar spine, among postmenopausal women. This study expands previous findings linking air pollution and bone damage.
  • Nutrients may counter some harmful effects from air pollution. A 2020 study found omega-3 fatty acids , obtained by eating certain fish, may protect against PM 2.5-associated brain shrinkage in older women.

Rural dwellers

  • An NIEHS-funded study found that concentrations of PM 2.5 in rural Washington State were comparable to urban Seattle. In this study, as regional PM 2.5 increased, there were increased asthma symptoms , such as limitation of activities, more wheezing, and more nighttime waking, in rural children.
  • In the rural U.S., large-scale animal feeding operations might compromise regional air quality through emission of pollutants, such as ammonia gas. A study found acute lung function problems in children with asthma in such areas.

Different genes

Your genes play a role in respiratory health. NIEHS-funded research discovered that people with specific gene variants , which made them more likely to have lung inflammation, had a greater chance of suffering from asthma if they lived close to major roadways.

NIEHS and community involvement

NIEHS supports community participation in the research process and encourages collaborative approaches that build capacity in communities to address environmental health concerns. Community-engaged research and citizen science are two types of collaborative research approaches.

For example, NIEHS helps residents of Imperial County, California track air pollution through a network of 40 community-run monitors. In this county, long-term improvements in air quality were associated with significant lung-function improvement in children.

In another example, NIEHS grant recipients developed community-level tactics and public policies for reducing exposure to TRAP:

  • Using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration.
  • Building land-use buffers and vegetation barriers.
  • Improving urban design with gardens, parks, and street-side trees.
  • Creating active-travel options, such as bicycling and walking paths.

THE (Trade, Health, Environment) Impact Project brings together researchers and community groups to find solutions for communities affected by trade-related pollution, such as ports and roadways with trucking.

Join an asthma study!

The goal of the Natural History of Asthma with Longitudinal Environmental Sampling (NHALES) study is to help scientists understand how bacteria and other factors in the environment affect people who have moderate to severe asthma.

Who can participate?

  • Moderate to severe asthmatics.
  • Males and females, aged 18-60.
  • Females should not be pregnant or breastfeeding at the start of the study, but may still participate if they become pregnant during the study.
  • Nonsmokers who are also not around significant amounts of secondhand smoke.
  • No history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, cystic fibrosis (CF), pulmonary fibrosis, non-CF bronchiectasis, sarcoidosis, unstable angina, or pulmonary hypertension.
  • Not allergic to methacholine.
  • Able to provide your own transportation to clinic visits on the NIEHS campus in North Carolina. For more information about this study: NHALES: Asthma Study Tel 855-MYNIEHS (855-696-4347) [email protected]

Why improving air quality matters

  • Air pollution and birth outcomes are linked as global public health concerns. Researchers analyzed indoor and outdoor air pollution data from all inhabited continents along with key pregnancy outcomes. Their findings indicate efforts to reduce PM2.5 exposure could lead to significant reductions in the number of low-birth weight and pre-term birth infants worldwide . Air pollution reduction would be especially beneficial for children born in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Among children in Southern California, decreases in ambient nitrogen dioxide and PM 2.5 were associated with fewer cases of asthma .
  • An NIEHS-funded study found that a mixture of several B vitamins may protect DNA from changes attributable to PM 2.5 air pollution.
  • Bronchitis symptoms declined as pollution levels dropped in the Los Angeles region.
  • Improving air quality may improve cognitive function and reduce dementia risk, according to studies supported in part by NIH and the Alzheimer's Association.
  • When fossil-fuel power plants close, nearby air pollution is reduced. A study found the incidence of preterm births went down within 5 kilometers of retired coal and oil-powered plant locations.

Stories from the Environmental Factor (NIEHS newsletter)

  • Burning Plastic Can Affect Air Quality, Public Health (August 2022)
  • Interventions Needed to Slow Climate-driven Air Pollution, Researchers Note (March 2022)
  • Air Pollution and Forever Chemicals Continue to Pose Health Risks (March 2022)
  • Air Pollution Affects Children’s Brain Structure (February 2022)
  • Increasing Evidence Links Air Pollution With Breast Cancer (November 2021)
  • Fine Particulate Air Pollution Associated With Higher Dementia Risk (September 2021)
  • Better Air Quality May Lower Dementia Risk Among Older Women (August 2021)
  • Environmentally Persistent Free Radicals May Affect Lung Health (May 2021)
  • Indoor Air a Neglected Source of Chemical, Particulate Exposures (May 2021)
  • Wildfire Severity Increases, Experts Call for Coordinated Federal Response (May 2021)
  • Air Quality Monitoring Innovations Merit Small Business Recognition (February 2021)
  • Climate Change Worsens Air Pollution, Extreme Weather, Expert Says (July 2020)
  • Pregnancy Hypertension Risk Increased by Traffic-related Air Pollution (January 2020)

Printable Fact Sheets

Fact sheets.

Air Pollution and Your Health

Climate Change and Human Health

Lung Health and Your Environment

Lung Health and Your Environment


Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH)

  • When Wildfires Hit Close to Home is about NIEHS-funded research on the complexity of urban wildfires and how they may affect human health.
  • Wildfire Smoke and Children's Health

Additional Resources

  • AirNow , a tool developed in partnership by several government agencies, allows you to monitor air quality in real time anywhere in the U.S. Simply enter your zip code as indicated on the website.
  • EPA's Air Sensor Toolbox provides information on the operation and use of air-sensor monitoring systems for technology developers, air-quality managers, citizen scientists, and the public.
  • How Smoke From Fires Can Affect Your Health – To limit your exposure to smoke, the EPA offers steps you can take to protect yourself.
  • NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative – This solutions-focused research initiative aims to reduce the health consequences associated with extreme weather events and evolving climate conditions. NIH has a strong history of creating innovative tools, technologies, and data-driven solutions to address global environmental problems.
  • Smoke-ready Toolbox for Wildfires is a compendium of resources from the EPA to help educate you about the risks of smoke exposure and actions that protect your health.
  • Wildfire Smoke Collection – The journal Environmental Health Perspectives has published high-impact papers and reviews exploring exposure and resulting health effects related to wildfires.

Related Health Topics

  • Exposure Science
  • Gene and Environment Interaction
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Air Pollution

Girl (7-9) using inhaler, outdoors - Air Pollution

Climate change is projected to harm human health by increasing ground-level ozone and/or particulate matter air pollution in some locations. Ground-level ozone (a key component of smog) is associated with many health problems, such as diminished lung function, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for asthma, and increases in premature deaths.

Factors that affect ozone formation include heat, concentrations of precursor chemicals, and methane emissions. Particulate matter concentrations are affected by wildfire emissions and air stagnation episodes, among other factors. By increasing these different factors, climate change is projected to lead to increased concentrations of ozone and particulate matter in some regions. Increases in global temperatures could cause associated increases in premature deaths related to worsened ozone and particle pollution.

Estimates that assume no change in regulatory controls or population characteristics have ranged from 1,000 to 4,300 additional premature deaths nationally per year by 2050 from combined ozone and particle health effects. Less certainty exists about the responses of airborne particles to climate change than the response of ozone. Health-related costs of the current effects of ozone air pollution exceeding national standards have been estimated at $6.5 billion (in 2008 U.S. dollars) nationwide, based on a U.S. assessment of health impacts from ozone levels during 2000–2002.

Watch a short video about air quality changes, and learn what communities can do to prepare .

CDC Air Pollution Resources:

  • Air Quality  – information and resources on air pollutants, particle pollution, and other relevant topics
  • Asthma  – guidance on asthma symptoms, triggers, and management
  • Air Quality and Asthma Data – Tracking Portal  – interactive maps, tables, and charts
  • Climate Change Decreases the Quality of the Air We Breathe pdf icon [PDF – 110 KB]

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Actions You Can Take to Reduce Air Pollution

Follow these tips every day to reduce pollution:.

On Days when High Ozone Levels are Expected, Take these Extra Steps to Reduce Pollution:

On Days when High Particle Levels are Expected, Take these Extra Steps to Reduce Pollution:

You can also take steps to minimize your exposure to air pollution and protection your health.

Contact Us to ask a question, provide feedback, or report a problem.

Improving air quality ‘key’ to confronting global environmental crises

Pollution fills the skyline of the Chinese city of Shanghai at dusk.

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With environmental events becoming increasingly interconnected, a new global report on air pollution published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on Thursday underscores that improved air quality is “key to tackling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste”.

“Yet, air quality continues to deteriorate despite the increase in laws and regulations seeking to address air pollution”, UNEP chief Inger Andersen said in the foreword to the Global Assessment of Air Pollution Legislation  (GAAPL).

Findings on air quality legislation in 194 countries and the European Union (EU), reveal that despite the international movement of pollutants which impact air quality, only one third of the countries studied, have legal mechanisms for managing or addressing transboundary air pollution.

Our 🆕 report finds that 🔴 1/3 of the world’s countries have no legally mandated outdoor air quality standards. 🔴 Where such laws exist, standards vary widely & often misalign with @ WHO guidelines.Learn more⤵️ #BeatAirPollution #WorldCleanAirDay UN Environment Programme UNEP

Legal measures

Using Air Quality Guidelines  developed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the report examines legal measures for determining whether air quality standards are being met and what procedures exist if they are not.

According to the study, 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution and 31 per cent have yet to adopt legally mandated ambient air quality standards (AAQS).

Moreover, 37 per cent of States do not legally require national air quality monitoring mechanisms, which are critical to understand how air quality affects national populations.

And despite that, air pollution knows no borders , the analysis also shows that only one third of countries studied, have legal mechanisms for managing or addressing transboundary air pollution.

Progress made

While significant challenges remain, the report importantly draws attention to the progress various countries have made, which the UN chief upheld, “can serve as the basis for strong air quality governance systems that protect human health and well-being and address the triple planetary crisis”.

“Many countries now have constitutional provisions that potentially allow for the establishment of rights to clean air in law”, she said. “Information on air quality is a well-established right in many countries and, in various parts of the world, public interest litigation is improving air quality policies”.

Better governance critical

Recognizing that there is no silver bullet to address the air pollution crisis , the report emphasizes that robust air quality governance is critical to attaining air quality standards and public health goals that can be achieved through developing legislation for air quality control, that integrates accountability, enforceability, transparency, and public participation.

Citing “a lack of enforcement capacity” as a key reason for the poor implementation of air quality laws”, the UNEP chief said the assessment was “the start of efforts to assist Member States in implementing pollution reduction measures grounded in science-based, integrated and coherent regulatory frameworks and policies”.

“All countries must raise their ambition on mitigation”, she stated.


The GAAPL provides recommendations to strengthen air quality governance as well as guides countries to effectively address air pollution and contribute to achieving the  Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Air quality commitments include a common legal framework globally for AAQS and key regional international legal instruments on air quality, particularly in the EU, which require individual signatory countries to develop relatively robust legal systems of air quality control.

Following this assessment, practical guidance is being developed by UNEP under the  Montevideo Environmental Law Programme  to expand its assistance to countries to address the air pollution crisis.

Direct technical support to States, involving development and implementation of legal frameworks for air pollution, is also being planned, with complementary capacity-building, including for judges, prosecutors and other enforcement officials.

“ The air we breathe is a fundamental public good, and Governments must do more to ensure it is clean and safe ”, said Ms. Andersen. “UNEP is committed to expanding its assistance to countries in addressing the pollution crisis, thereby protecting the health and well-being of all.”

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What Causes Air Pollution?

problem and solution for air pollution

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Air pollution happens when solid and liquid particles—called aerosols —and certain gases end up in our air. These particles and gases can be bad for the planet and for our health, so keeping track of them is important.

Where do aerosols come from?

Any particle that gets picked up into the air or is formed from chemical reactions in the air can be an aerosol. Many aerosols enter the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels—such as coal and petroleum—and wood. These particles can come from many sources, including car exhaust, factories and even wildfires. Some of the particles and gases come directly from these sources, but others form through chemical reactions in the air.

Aerosols can come from other places, too, such as ash from an erupting volcano. Dust, pollen from plants and mold spores are also examples of aerosols.

This animation uses NASA data to show how ash from a volcano in Chile travels around the world in our atmosphere. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

What else causes air pollution?

Certain gases in the atmosphere can cause air pollution. For example, in cities, a gas called ozone is a major cause of air pollution. Ozone is also a greenhouse gas that can be both good and bad for our environment. It all depends where it is in Earth’s atmosphere .

problem and solution for air pollution

Ozone high up in our atmosphere is a good thing. It helps block harmful energy from the Sun, called radiation . But, when ozone is closer to the ground, it can be really bad for our health. Ground level ozone is created when sunlight reacts with certain chemicals that come from sources of burning fossil fuels, such as factories or car exhaust.

When particles in the air combine with ozone, they create smog. Smog is a type of air pollution that looks like smoky fog and makes it difficult to see.

problem and solution for air pollution

Smog is a type of air pollution in cities that makes it difficult to see outside. Here are images of Beijing on a clear day after a rain (left) and on a smoggy day (right). Credit: Bobak via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

How does air pollution affect Earth’s climate?

Aerosols can impact how the Sun’s light hits Earth. For example, some aerosols reflect sunlight while others absorb sunlight. It depends on the color of the particle.

problem and solution for air pollution

Dark surfaces—whether it’s a black t-shirt or a dark particle in the atmosphere—absorb the Sun's heat. Lighter-colored surfaces reflect heat from the Sun.

A white t-shirt reflects the Sun on a hot day, making you feel cooler. In the same way, light-colored particles that reflect the Sun’s light and heat away from Earth can make the global temperature cooler. Dark-colored particles that absorb the Sun’s light can make the global temperature warmer.

How does air pollution affect our health?

Breathing in polluted air can be very bad for our health. Long-term exposure to air pollution has been associated with diseases of the heart and lungs, cancers and other health problems. That’s why it’s important for us to monitor air pollution.

How is NASA monitoring air pollution?

NASA uses satellites orbiting Earth to keep an eye on air pollution. In fact, air quality forecasters use information about aerosols from NASA’s Aqua , Terra and Suomi-NPP satellites.

NASA also is developing a new instrument called the Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, or MAIA , to fly aboard a future spacecraft mission. MAIA will help scientists understand the size, makeup and quantity of aerosols in our air. Eventually, scientists will be able to compare this information with health records. This can help us better understand the relationship between aerosol pollution and human health.

Related NASA Missions

problem and solution for air pollution

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The Clean Air Act: Solving Air Pollution Problems with Science and Technology

Scientific studies show air pollution harms people's health and the environment.

image of air monitoring equipment at an air field

National Air Quality Standards Are Based on Science

Under the Clean Air Act, science is the foundation for setting health-based air quality standards for certain common air pollutants.

Setting air quality standards for common air pollutants based on protection of public health and welfare

EPA sets these standards based on periodic review of the latest peer-reviewed studies of each pollutant's health and environmental effects, with assistance from the  Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee  (CASAC).  <Learn more about the National Ambient Air Quality Standards >

National Air Emissions Standards Are Based on Technology Performance

Under the Act, EPA and states (depending on the program) set emissions limits for motor vehicles and industrial facilities. In most programs, these limits are set using data on the emissions performance and costs of available technologies. <Learn more about setting emissions standards based on technology performance>

The Act Helps to Spur Advances in Clean Technology

The challenge of cleaning the air has helped to spur development of cleaner technologies such as smokestack scrubbers, the catalytic converter, and low-VOC paints. <Learn more about the development of clean technologies>

Scientific and Technical Foundations of Clean Air Act Programs - More Resources

In implementing the Clean Air Act, EPA gathers and synthesizes scientific information on air pollution effects , and serves as a clearinghouse of data on emissions, air quality, and air pollution controls . EPA scientists and technical experts conduct state-of-the-art analyses of air pollution problems and policies using a variety of technical tools.

Technical tools for policy analysis

EPA and states conduct  air quality modeling  to project future levels of air pollution based on anticipated changes in emissions.  Risk assessment  is used to quantify risks of cancer and other effects of hazardous air pollutants (see  National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment ), as well as non-cancer risks of common pollutants. EPA conducts cost-benefit analyses to compare the  costs and benefits  to society of alternative regulatory approaches.

Emissions and air quality data


34 Causes, Effects and Solutions for Air Pollution

“ Love is in the air but the air is highly polluted”

Amit Abraham

Air Pollution: Causes, Effects & Solutions

causes, effects and solutions for air pollution

Air pollution can be defined as the introduction of excessive quantities of substances, gases, particles or biological molecules into the earth’s atmosphere.

There are many different indices to measure air pollution across countries, the most popular one being the air quality index in the U.S.

Air pollution may have negative impacts on humans in the form of allergies, diseases or even death.

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It also has an adverse effect on animals and plants as well as on the whole ecological system.

Air pollution can be caused by both natural processes as well as by human behavior.

According to the World Health Organization, 7 million people die from air pollution each year .

Thus, more people die each year from air pollution than from automobile accidents.

In the following, we will examine the causes, effects as well as solutions to the air pollution problem.

Audio Lesson

Types of air pollution, carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (vocs), particulate matter, persistent free radicals, toxic metals, chlorofluorocarbons (cfcs), radioactive material.

Although it is a natural component of the atmosphere and essential for plant life, carbon dioxide can be harmful to the environment in the sense that it is a greenhouse gas and thus contributes to global warming.

Sulfur oxides, especially sulfur dioxide, is produced in various industrial processes like in the combustion of coal and petroleum, as well as in nature through volcanoes.

Nitrogen oxides, especially nitrogen dioxide, is produced in industrial processes like in high-temperature combustions as well as in natural processes like electric discharge in thunderstorms.

Carbon monoxide is produced through the combustion of fuels like wood, coal or natural gas.

It can cause lung diseases and also has an adverse impact on animals and the whole natural environment.

VOCs are categorized as either non-methane or methane.

Both are rated as greenhouse gases and thus contribute to global warming. Some VOCs are also suspected to cause cancer.

Particulate matter can be defined as liquid or tiny particles of solid suspended in a gas.

Particulates occur both naturally as well as from man-made behavior.

Natural causes are dust storms, volcanoes, grassland or forest fires, sea spray and living vegetation.

Humans cause particulate matter by the burning of fossil fuels in industrial processes, power plants and vehicles.

An excessive concentration of particles in the air can cause heart and lung diseases as well as cancer.

This group of air pollutants can cause cardiopulmonary diseases.

Toxic metals such as mercury and lead are also a source of air pollution.

CFCs are emitted, among others, by aerosol sprays, refrigerators and air conditioning and cause harmful effects to the ozone layer which in turn can lead to skin cancer and eye diseases. It can also hurt plants and other creatures.

Ammonia is mainly produced by agricultural waste.

Although it is important for the production of fertilizer and pharmaceuticals, it can also have caustic and hazardous effects on the environment.

Odors can be caused by industrial processes, garbage and sewage and may pose negative effects on humans.

Radioactive material is produced by nuclear explosions as well as through the natural decay of radon.

In high concentrations, nuclear material causes severe health problems like cancer and other diseases.

problem and solution for air pollution

Causes of Air Pollution

Radioactive decay, marine vessels, waste deposition in landfills, military sources, fossil fuels, agriculture, private households.

Dust is composed of fine particles of solid matter.

Dust is usually emitted through natural processes, usually in areas with little or no vegetation.

Animals produce methane in their digestion process.

The emission of methane causes air pollution and also contributes to the global warming issue.

Although a big fraction of methane emission can be attributed to livestock from domesticated farming practices, some of it also occurs from wild animals which also emit methane in their daily habits.

Radon is a radioactive element that naturally occurs inside our earth.

From there, it can reach our groundwater and eventually also our air.

Radon is produced in the process of radioactive decay and is considered as health hazard.

Wildfires often occur in areas with dry climate.

They are often caused by human behavior like the incorrect disposal of cigarettes.

There are some cases where wildfires are also started intentionally.

For example, it is quite common for farmers in the Amazon Rainforest to burn down large areas of forest in order to get more space for farming purposes.

Wildfires can cause carbon monoxide and smoke.

Large concentrations of carbon monoxide can lead to serious health problems and even death of humans.

Vegetation often emits large amounts of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), especially on warmer days, which react with sulfur-oxides and nitrogen-oxides.

VOCs can thus contribute to an increase in ozone levels.

Volcanic activity can cause ash particulates, chlorine and sulfur to enter the air.

Especially in eruptions, large amounts of these substances are released into the air which could even lead to a temporary flight stop in the affected area.

Aircraft is a big source of air pollution.

Airplanes emit large amounts of nitrogen-dioxide as well as carbon dioxide which in turn contributes to global warming.

Especially in the last decades, the number of flights increased significantly.

More and more people are traveling to foreign countries. In addition, many people also travel by plane for business purposes.

Thus, the number of flights worldwide and therefore the level of air pollution from aircraft increased substantially in the last decades.

The use of vehicles of all sorts is another great cause of air pollution.

Emissions from cars and other vehicles increase the levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and thus increase the global warming process.

In our culture, it is quite common that almost everyone of us owns at least one car.

Especially in suburbs or in rural areas, people rely on their cars to be able to commute to work.

However, even in areas where there is good public transport, people are usually more likely to use their cars since this feels more convenient to them.

Therefore, the emissions from cars and other vehicles increase with a steady rate, which leads to an increase in air pollution and also contributes to the global warming problem.

Marine vessels burn fossil fuels and thus emit several air pollution gases.

These include nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

These gases not only contribute to global warming but are also harmful to public health.

The deposition of waste in landfills generates methane which even has a much higher global warming potential than CO2 and therefore ranks as one of the most harmful greenhouse gases.

However, the total amount of methane emitted in our atmosphere compared to the amount of CO2 is relatively low.

Thus, CO2 is still the most harmful greenhouse gas in absolute terms.

Nuclear weapons, rocketry and toxic gases can also contribute to air pollution.

Many countries do weapon tests on a regular basis, either for training purposes or also to threaten other countries.

By doing so, harmful substances are released into the air, which can cause air pollution and other adverse effects on the environment.

The combustion of fossil fuels is a main source of air pollution.

Fossil fuels are used in the production of energy and other products.

Moreover, vehicles like cars, ships, trains and airplanes are heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

Since the burning of fossil fuels is our main source of energy in our daily lives, it has a large adverse impact on air pollution.

When fossil fuels are burned, they release methane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and particulates into the atmosphere which in turn leads to acid rain, smog and contributes to the greenhouse effect.

During the mining process through blasting, drilling hauling, collection, and transportation, the air is polluted with chemicals and dust which in turn affects the health of miners and of the residents in the polluted area.

The effect of coal mining is especially serious since large amounts of gases including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and methane (CH4) are released in the air.

The production of ammonia as by-product of agricultural activities heavily contributes to the air pollution problem.

Ammonia is caused by livestock waste and heavily fertilized fields.

In combination with pollutants from combustion of power plants and industrial processes like sulfates and nitrogen oxides they create tiny solid particles or aerosols.

These particles can cause heart and lung diseases.

Industries and power plants produce large amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other chemicals.

Since we need these industries for our daily energy demand and food supply, industrial processes contribute heavily to the air pollution issue.

Especially since the industrial revolution period, air pollution from industries has become a serious problem.

Since the prices for goods dropped significantly due to mass production, people were able to afford many more things than prior to the industrial revolution period.

Although this development sounds positive at first glance, it also implies adverse environmental effects.

An increase in production also leads to an increase in air pollution and usually also leads to all other kinds of pollution.

Private households contribute to the air pollution process through their use of cars and other vehicles as well as through their consumption behavior.

People usually prefer to take their cars even for small distances instead of walking or using public transport since it is usually considered to be more convenient.

Moreover, many people are quite picky regarding their consumption behavior.

Food that would still be good for consumption purposes is often disposed of in the garbage if it has minor blemishes.

This daily behavior of people leads to an enormous level of air pollution and thus harms our environment in a significant way.

problem and solution for air pollution

Effects of Air Pollution

Cardiovascular diseases, lung diseases, effects on the central nervous system, global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, effects on animals, effects on agriculture, economic effects.

According to the World Health Organization , 7 million people die from air pollution each year.

9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.

The country with the highest death rate from air pollution is India.

Children are more at risk than adults since their respiratory organs are not yet fully developed.

Air pollution plays a major role in the development of cardiovascular diseases.

Air pollution can also cause strokes, especially in countries with high pollution concentration.

This problem is especially severe for people working in jobs where they are exposed to high concentrations of harmful substances.

For instance, a construction worker who works in an environment with high levels of dust and doesn’t use protection masks or other mitigating devices may have a high probability for strokes and other cardiovascular diseases since he is inhaling large amounts of harmful substances on a daily basis.

Air pollution can cause lung diseases like COPD including chronic bronchitis and emphysema or asthma.

Especially people who are exposed to high concentrations of dust or other harmful substances in the air are at a higher risk to suffer from lung diseases.

This is even more true in countries that do not have high protection standards for workers.

For example, in many developing countries, people do not protect themselves properly when they are working with harmful substances or when they are exposed to contaminated air.

Exposure to polluted air also increases the probability of lung cancer.

The exposure to contaminated air is considered to be able to affect the human DNA structure and thus to cause health issues like cancer or other diseases.

The central nervous system can also be adversely affected by air pollution and thus can, among others, damage the brain and other neurological functions.

Examples of this kind of health problem are Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.

The combustion of fossil fuels leads to a release of sulfur and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere which in turn leads to the formation of acid rain.

Acid rain can affect the whole ecosystem in an adverse way, since it has harmful effects on humans, plants, animals and the water cycle.

Global warming is one of the biggest challenges to humanity.

One cause of global warming is air pollution.

The consequences of global warming are disastrous.

Global warming adversely affects all living organisms.

It contributes, among others, to the melting of ice and thus to a rise in the sea level as well in an increase in temperature.

Through air pollution, the ozone layer is eventually depleted which can cause skin cancer or eye-related diseases.

Through the emission of harmful gases from industrial processes or vehicles, substances related to bromine and chlorine are emitted into the air.

These substances are known to contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer .

Thus, air pollution is a cause of the ozone depletion problem.

Animals are also affected by air pollution.

Since they have to breathe, they inhale toxic elements in the air and thus are also vulnerable to diseases caused by these toxic substances.

Especially in areas with high concentrations of polluted air, the life expectancy of animals is lower than in clean air areas since these animals are at higher risk for serious diseases related to air pollution.

There can also be agricultural pollution from air pollution.

For example, crop yields could be adversely affected by high concentration of harmful chemicals in the air.

Moreover, air pollution causes acid rain which in turn may harm the growth of plants and also decrease crop yields.

According to a joint study of the World Bank and the University of Washington , the worldwide cost of air pollution amounts to 5 trillion USD per year.

This includes the loss in productivity as well as the loss in life quality through polluted air.

The air pollution issue is especially severe in developing countries.

Small children under age 5 in developing countries are more than 60 times as likely to die from air pollution than children in high-income countries.

Since there are many additional costs of air pollution like health costs that have not been taken into account in this study, the real costs are much higher than 5 trillion USD per year.

problem and solution for air pollution

Solutions to the Air Pollution Problem

Change in energy consumption behavior, reduce material consumption, avoid the use of cars, reuse and recycle, biodigesters, use of energy-efficient devices, convince others.

To mitigate the air pollution problem, it is crucial to reduce our energy demand since energy production is a cause of air pollution.

This can be accomplished in many forms.

For example, people can turn off their lights or other electronic devices when they don’t use them.

All kinds of products of our daily life are manufactured in industries which use large amounts of energy.

Therefore, if we reduce our need for material things, we could contribute significantly to less air pollution.

In order to reduce air pollution, using public transport instead of cars can be an effective measure.

Even better would be a switch to bicycles to further reduce the air pollution problem.

Especially in rural areas, switching from cars to public transport can be quite difficult since the public transport infrastructure may often be quite bad.

However, for people living in areas with good public transport infrastructure, a switch from cars to public transport should not be a big deal at all.

Moreover, using car-sharing or other carpooling methods may be a good way to reduce air pollution even further.

Instead of throwing away things you don’t use anymore, try to find another purpose for them.

If you are sure you do not want to use them anymore, find another person who still wants to use your item.

With this procedure, waste and the implied air pollution can be reduced.

Biodigesters can contribute to a reduction in air pollution, especially in poor countries where slash and burn is prevalent.

This way, a useless commodity can be turned into income through the production of energy out of plants.

Switching to more energy-efficient household appliances would further reduce energy consumption and thus would reduce air pollution.

Energy-efficient devices are usually not much more expensive than energy-consuming devices.

Thus, almost everyone should be able to afford energy-efficient household devices.

All the measures mentioned above could reduce the problem of air pollution.

We can all contribute a small part to the reduction in energy consumption and thus to less air pollution.

However, not only our own behavior makes a difference, we also have to convince other people that it is worth to reduce their energy demand.

If everyone convinces enough people, every single person can make a significant direct and indirect contribution to mitigate the air pollution problem.

Air pollution is a serious problem in our nowadays society. It is caused by our industries but also by our own daily behavior.

It is estimated that air pollution is accountable for about 7 million people dying per year.

Children are usually more affected than adults since their respiratory organs are not fully developed yet.

Air pollution can cause several health problems and diseases like cancer.

It also contributes to the global warming issue due to the emission of large amounts of CO2 and methane.

In order to mitigate the air pollution problem and to reduce global inequality , we have to change our daily behavior.

This means switching from the use of cars to public transport and also saving energy if we do not urgently need it.

We all can contribute our part to less air pollution and also raise the awareness of others on this issue.

Thus, the air pollution problem can hopefully be reduced drastically in the future.

If you are interested, please check out further air pollution facts .

problem and solution for air pollution

About the author

My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people of all ages about our environmental problems and how everyone can make a contribution to mitigate these issues.

As I went to university and got my Master’s degree in Economics, I did plenty of research in the field of Development Economics.

After finishing university, I traveled around the world. From this time on, I wanted to make a contribution to ensure a livable future for the next generations in every part of our beautiful planet.

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Earth and Human

Earth and Human

Air Pollution: Causes, Effects and Solutions

Nina Howell

You must have heard various news regarding the increasing levels of smog and decreased visibility.

Despite this, air pollution has been around for a long time, only getting worse. Breathing in this polluted air can have many negative health consequences for us. It can also affect the ozone layer and have global impacts.

This is why it is a good idea to keep yourself informed about air pollution, its causes, effects, and possible solutions.

Let’s get right into it!

Table of Contents

What is Air Pollution?

As the name suggests, air pollution is characterized by the presence of unwanted and harmful particles or gases in the air supply. Breathing in this air can lead to a multitude of health complications. The most common pollutants are smoke, soot, pollen, methane, and carbon dioxide.

But this is not the only thing we should be worried about.

Poor air quality can harm all lifeforms, including both plants and animals. The bigger culprit for this air pollution is human interference. However, there are some natural processes that also, add to this.

Main Contaminants in Air that Causes Pollution

According to EPA , the most common culprits of air pollution are nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. The most dangerous contaminants for the United States are ground-level ozone and airborne particles. Carbon monoxide is another common pollutant.

Ground-level ozone does not pollute the air directly. It is formed by a chemical reaction between existing volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). This reaction takes place in the presence of sunlight.

The airborne particles can be categorized in two ways. The first type has impurities with a diameter of fewer than 10 micrometers and is generally inhalable. It includes dust and mold.

The second type is the one with organic compounds, combustion particles, and metals. They have a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less.

Causes of Air Pollution

Now we know what air pollution is and the contaminants present in the polluted air. But where exactly does this pollution come from? What causes air pollution? The following are some of the leading causes of air pollution.

Industrial Exhaust

Factories are responsible for releasing a massive amount of chemicals and gases in the atmosphere. This pollution can include carbon monoxide, organic wastes, chemicals, and hydrocarbons. When these gases are released without going through proper filtering, they can add to air pollution.

Furthermore, the multitude of coal and oil-powered plants release a considerable amount of toxic gases. These toxic gases can contribute to nearly  50% of the mercury, 62% of the arsenic, 60% of sulfur dioxide, and 13% of the nitrogen oxide present in our air.

Household Pollution

Many household cleaning products can emit harmful chemicals into the air. Similarly, some painting supplies can also be responsible for adding to the toxic air around you. Some chemicals make it evident by emitting a strong smell while others can be wholly odor-less but still add to the overall pollution.

Other than this, dust and combustion can also be smaller additions to the air around you. Improper ventilation, as well as smoking cigarettes or cigars, may seem like minor activities, but they can be consistent contributors.

Agricultural or Commercial Waste

Chemicals such as pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers used while farming can also contribute to air pollution. A common byproduct of such agricultural activities is ammonia gas. Ammonia is one of the most hazardous gases present in our atmosphere.

This 2016 study  describes how some emissions generated from farms and ranches are more significant than the combined emission from other man-made sources. Along with ammonia, methane is a common emission generated from agricultural sites.

Similarly, growing commercialization has caused an increase in the number of construction sites. The constant excavations and demolitions can be responsible for adding a lot of unwanted dust and pollution to our air.

Burning Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels include coal or other petroleum products. When these are burned, they emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide. The primary contributors to this emission are vehicles. The exhaust from various cars, trucks, jeeps, trains, and airplanes add to increasing air pollution.

Burning fossil fuels by automobiles contribute to nearly  half of the total air pollution. As the population grows, so do the usage of these vehicles. After all, we rely heavily on them for transportation. However, they can add a lot of carbon monoxide as well as nitrogen oxides to the air around us. This is due to the improper combustion of fossil fuels.

Natural Causes

While human interference makes a significant contribution to air pollution, some of the pollutions is also caused by nature. Natural disasters such as forest fires, volcanoes, and dust storms can be responsible for causing a large amount of pollution. These can also release many harmful chemicals into our atmosphere.

Effects of Air Pollution

Respiratory Problems

Breathing in polluted air can cause a variety of respiratory problems. Air pollution has also been linked with several heart conditions. The pollution does not have to be direct for you to experience the negative impacts. Children are especially at high-risk as they are susceptible to asthma and pneumonia.

The presence of benzene and acetaldehyde in fossil fuel combustion has also been linked to cancer . WHO has reported that air pollution is responsible for nearly 7 million  deaths every year. This polluted air is also linked with lung cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s and dementia .

Global Warming

One of the main effects of air pollution is speeding up global warming. The harmful gases such as carbon monoxide and other greenhouse gases form a kind of blanket in our atmosphere. This blanket traps a lot of the solar rays from leaving our atmosphere. The heat trapped then causes a rise in temperatures all around the world.

Global warming can accelerate the melting of icecaps, icebergs, and is also responsible for the rise in sea levels. These changes can have devastating impacts on wildlife and their habitats. Global warming can also leave us more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Ozone Layer Depletion

Ozone layer depletion goes hand-in-hand with global warming. Due to the increasing levels of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, this layer is thinning. These gases react with the ozone layer and cause, not just thinning but also depletion in certain areas. This layer is vital in protecting us from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.

As we know, fossil fuel combustion can release large amounts of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides into the atmosphere. When water goes through its natural water cycle, the evaporated water can mix with these gases as it condenses. This combination results in an acidic rainfall. Acid rain can be extremely damaging to crops and plant life. The sulfur emissions from this rain can result in chronic lung problems for humans. .

Effect on Marine Life

A high presence of nitrogen in the air can induce a condition called eutrophication. During this condition, a layer of algae develops on the sea’s surface. This growth can have adverse effects on the fish, plants as well as the wildlife that depends on this water supply. You can also see this growth in lakes and ponds.

Effect on Wildlife

Heavy air pollution can disrupt many wildlife habitats. The poor air quality, as well as acid rains, can destroy the sustenance of many species. This can cause birds and animals to relocate. We are in danger of losing many rare species of wildlife due to their inability to acclimatize to these changes.

Solutions of Air Pollution

Switch to Public Transport

As we’ve learned about the effects of exhaust fumes on air quality, the best thing we can do is limit our vehicle usage. Instead of individual cars, we can make it a habit to use more buses and trains to reduce our carbon footprint. Similarly, switching to bicycles as a whole can be beneficial not just to the environment but also to your health.

Conserve Energy

We may not realize how much fossil fuels go into generating our electricity supply every day. To prevent adding to the existing air pollution, we should try to minimize our energy usage. This means switching off the lights and appliances whenever they aren’t in use.

Opt. for Energy-efficient Devices

As an addition to conserving energy, you should also consider switching to more energy-efficient appliances. For instance, CFL lights use a lot less electricity and also last much longer. You should also look into replacing existing appliances with their solar-powered counterparts.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle

The best way to minimize pollution is to make sure you are not adding to the existing waste. This could mean finding multiple uses for an item. In the long haul, you want to reduce the amount of waste you generate. You might not think they will not impact the air quality directly. However, these wastes are bound to end up in a landfill and impact the overall pollution generated.

Switch to Clean Energy

These days clean energy is in. Clean energy has proved that it is much more than just a passing trend. With solar, wind, and geothermal energy on the rise, switching to clean energy has never been easier.

You can find the greener version of nearly every appliance from solar lighting to motion detectors, even water heaters! The government, too, is providing tax breaks along with grants to incentivize the switch to clean energy.

In Summary,

Air pollution affects not just us humans but also plants and wildlife around us. Excessive air pollution can cause an imbalance in our ecosystem itself. The primary source of air pollution in various human activities. We can minimize this by making better and smarter choices with energy in our everyday lives.

(Last Updated on March 20, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

problem and solution for air pollution

Nina Howell is a Rewenable Energy researcher and consultant based out of Houston, Texas Area. She earned her Master's Degree in Energy and Earth Resources from Austin Jackson School of Geosciences in 2010, and a Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Science from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2008. Nina has been working in the energy sector since 2011. She worked as an Energy Supply Analyst from 2011 to 2017 in Bounce Energy and then as a Research and Energy Consultant at GE Renewable Energy from March 2017 to February 2020 . Nina is a mom of 2 beautiful children who are joy to her life. She strongly believes in eco-friendly living and is vocal about renewable energy, environmental issues, water crisis, and sustainable living.

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The little-known unintended consequence of recycling plastics

Breaking down plastics can generate polluting microplastics that wind up in water or the air, one study finds.

problem and solution for air pollution

Instead of helping to tackle the world’s staggering plastic waste problem, recycling may be exacerbating a concerning environmental problem: microplastic pollution.

A recent peer-reviewed study that focused on a recycling facility in the United Kingdom suggests that anywhere between 6 to 13 percent of the plastic processed could end up being released into water or the air as microplastics — ubiquitous tiny particles smaller than five millimeters that have been found everywhere from Antarctic snow to inside human bodies .

“This is such a big gap that nobody’s even considered, let alone actually really researched,” said Erina Brown, a plastics scientist who led the research while at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

The research adds to growing concerns that recycling isn’t as effective of a solution for the plastic pollution problem as many might think. Only a fraction of the plastic produced gets recycled: About 9 percent worldwide and about 5 to 6 percent in the United States, according to some recent estimates.

The study was conducted at a single plastic recycling facility, but experts say its findings shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“It’s a very credible study,” said Judith Enck, a former senior Environmental Protection Agency official under President Barack Obama who now heads the Beyond Plastics advocacy organization. She was not involved in the research. “It’s only one facility, but it raises troubling issues, and it should inspire environmental regulatory agencies to replicate the study at other plastic recycling facilities.”

Why the recycling symbol could end up in the trash bin

How does plastic recycling work?

While there are many different types of plastic, many experts say only things made out of No. 1 and 2 are really recycled effectively in the United States. At recycling facilities, plastic waste is generally sorted, cleaned, chopped up or shredded into bits, melted down and remolded.

It’s unsurprising that this process could produce microplastics, Enck said. “The way plastic recycling facilities operate, there’s a lot of mechanical friction and abrasion,” she said.

Brown and other researchers analyzed the bits of plastic found in the wastewater generated by the unnamed facility. They estimated it could produce up to 6.5 million pounds of microplastic per year, or about 13 percent of the mass of the total amount of plastic the facility receives annually.

The researchers also found high amounts of microplastic when they tested the air at the facility, Brown said.

You’re probably recycling wrong. This quiz will help you sort it out.

Will filters help?

The study also looked at the facility’s wastewater after filters were installed. With filtration, the estimate of microplastics produced dropped to about 3 million pounds a year.

Even with the use of filters at the plant, the researchers estimated that there were up to 75 billion plastic particles per meter cubed in the facility’s wastewater. A majority of the microscopic pieces were smaller than 10 micrometers, about the diameter of a human red blood cell, with more than 80 percent below five micrometers, Brown said.

She noted that the recycling facility studied was “relatively state-of-the-art” and had elected to install filtration. “It’s really important to consider that so many facilities worldwide might not have any filtration,” she said. “They might have some, but it’s not regulated at all.”

While effective filters could help, Brown and other experts said they aren’t the solution.

“I don’t think we can filter our way out of this problem,” Enck said.

More research and better regulation

Enck and other plastics experts not involved in the research said it underscores the need to look into the issue more deeply.

“The findings are certainly alarming enough that it’s worthy of far more investigation and understanding of how widespread of an issue this might be,” said Anja Brandon, associate director of U.S. plastics policy at Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit group.

Unlike other ways microplastic can wind up in the environment, recycling facilities could be identifiable sources, Brandon said.

“We know where the pollution is coming ... and we could take measures to actually do something about it through permitting, through regulation, through all of those kind of rules we have available,” she said. “This is an area we could take action on, provided we learn a little bit more.”

Many of the environmental permitting requirements in the United States are based on decades-old standards that should be updated to reflect with “the best available science,” she added.

Kara Pochiro, a spokesperson for the Association of Plastic Recyclers, an international trade association, said plastic recycling plants don’t all have the same water treatment system as the U.K. facility that was studied. But recyclers, she said, are subject to national, state and local regulations, including environmental laws.

“Every plastics recycling facility works closely with their local municipal plant, including sampling and third-party testing at mutually agreed upon intervals,” she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it will review the study.

Keep recycling

Despite the study’s findings, experts emphasized that the answer isn’t to stop recycling.

“What this study does not tell us ... is that we should stop recycling plastic,” Brandon said. “So long as we are continuing to use plastic, mechanical recycling is really the best end-of-life scenario for these materials to keep us from needing to produce more and more plastic.”

Plastic waste that isn’t reused or recycled generally ends up in landfills or incinerated, Enck said. It’s important, she and other experts said, for people to continue to try reducing the amount of plastic they use.

“This is not a major reason why we have such a significant problem with microplastics in the environment,” she said. “But it’s potentially part of it and there’s an irony to it because it involves recycling.”

This story has been updated with additional comment from the Association of Plastic Recyclers.


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