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Air Quality and Health: A Guide to Air Pollution

When a substance enters the air or atmosphere that is harmful to humans, living things, or the environment, it is called air pollution. Air pollution can consist of primary pollutants, harmful things that go directly into the air, or secondary air pollutants, which are made when chemicals already in the atmosphere react with each other or with sunlight. Common air pollutants include greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides. Other pollutants include smog, lead, mercury, sulfur oxides, dust, ash, carbon monoxide, and ozone. Air pollution is a global problem that cannot be solved by one country alone, as one country's pollution can affect others around the world. Because of this, it is the responsibility of every nation to take part in fighting air pollution and creating a cleaner environment.

What Causes Air Pollution?

Air pollution comes from a variety of sources, both natural and human-made. Nature often pollutes the air with volcanic eruptions, radiation from underground sources, forest fires, and dust storms. Volcanic eruptions, for example, can release sulfur dioxide, ash, hydrogen fluoride, and carbon dioxide, while forest fires produce smoke, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and ozone. A wide range of human activities produce air pollution as well. Some human-made sources include factories, power plants, landfills, transportation, and deforestation. Human activities produce the same pollutants as natural events in addition to smog, methane, nitrous oxides, lead, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and mercury. The consumption of fossil fuels is one of the most egregious examples of human contributions to air pollution.

Environmental and Human Health Hazards of Air Pollution

The damage that air pollution can inflict upon human health and the environment is tremendous. Sulfuric emissions from vehicles and fossil-fuel-based power plants can result in acid rain, which can damage property as well as kill plant and animal life. The burning of fossil fuel, which largely comes from transportation and power plants, contributes not only to smog but also the warming of Earth's atmosphere, which is causing catastrophic climate change. Global warming also creates larger areas of warm temperatures, allowing pests to extend their habitats into new areas, making them a greater threat to people and crops. Air pollution can also inhibit the foraging ability of bees, which are necessary for the pollination and survival of a large number of plants, including crops that we use for food. The health risks of air pollution for humans include not only heart disease and respiratory ailments like asthma but things that can result from spending less time outside and more time sitting indoors, like social isolation, obesity, and diabetes. Air pollution may also lead to mental problems such as dementia and psychological distress. Carbon dioxide is a form of air pollution that can also raise acid levels in the oceans, resulting in the death of plankton, which is an important part of the oceanic food chain.

Air Pollution by the Numbers

According to National Geographic, air pollution is responsible for more than four million deaths per year worldwide. The American Lung Association found that more than 40 percent of Americans live with polluted air as of 2018. In addition, nearly 140 million Americans face the elevated possibility of disease or even death due to air pollution. In the United States, cities in California consistently rank high in terms of pollution in multiple categories. According to a 2013 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 200,000 Americans die every year from health complications caused by air pollution due to vehicle emissions.

The Clean Air Act

In response to the growing crisis of air pollution, the United States government issued the Clean Air Act in 1963. The first version of this law was aimed at researching the cause of air pollution. In 1970, a revision of the law was passed that opened the door for nationwide and statewide legislation to combat harmful human-made atmospheric emissions. The Clean Air Act of 1970, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, also established federal air quality standards, improved enforcement of pollution control laws, and provided for controls on vehicle emissions. The 1977 and 1990 amendments to this law further strengthened and broadened the scope of federal pollution controls as well as strengthened enforcement of anti-pollution laws.

The effects of the Clean Air Act on reducing pollution have been significant. It has helped to reduce harmful gases from factories, and by enacting emissions controls for vehicles, it has cut down on smog and slowed the pace of global warming. Cities like Los Angeles, which were once infamous for their smog, now enjoy clearer skies as a result of federal and state pollution regulations. The Clean Air Act has saved trillions of dollars in health-care costs that would otherwise be incurred as a result of exposure to air pollution. Even though Americans have increased the number of miles driven by 400 percent since 1970, Clean Air Act regulations have reduced emissions from cars by more than 90 percent.

How to Control Air Pollution

Citizens and their governments can still take many steps to alleviate the problem of air pollution. Recycling programs reduce air pollution by sending fewer items to landfills, and recycling paper and other wood-based products can reduce the need for deforestation. Paperless documents and electronic billing also help to reduce the demand for paper, which in turn means fewer trees are cut down. Conserving electricity in the home reduces the use of fuel by power plants, which in turn means less smog and greenhouse gases will enter the atmosphere. Carpooling helps burn less gasoline for transportation, while electric cars and gasoline-electric hybrid cars amount to a partial reduction in or total elimination of greenhouse gas emissions. Governments can switch from power plants that run on fossil fuel to solar, hydroelectric, or wind power for large-scale reductions in harmful emissions. In addition, nationwide public transportation programs lessen the number of vehicles on the road, and more efficient city planning can cut down on sprawl, which can reduce commute times and automotive fuel consumption.