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Air pollution | Effects, Causes, Definition, & Facts

Air pollution | Effects, Causes, Definition, & Facts

Image of man with soot for air pollution

There are some things we observe very easily- the smile or sadness in the faces of our loved ones, activities on our social media accounts, email, bank accounts, etc. When it comes to our surroundings, we also seem to more easily notice some things- things like the weather, when it’s extremely hot or cold, rainy, snowy, and so on. We notice heavy rains and strong winds and the days when the sun seems extremely hot and the nights seem extremely cold. But there are some things we don’t notice, where the smoke from our cigarettes, car exhausts, generators, etc goes. It seems to just vanish into thin air right? Well, wrong. That smoke and a lot of gaseous substances that we pay no attention to, actually accumulate in the atmosphere creating for us a monstrous problem we don’t seem to notice- air pollution.


Air pollution is a mix of harmful substances from both human-made and natural sources released into the air. It is the presence of substances in the atmosphere which are harmful to the health of humans and other living things.


Air pollution kills about 7 million people worldwide every year. WHO data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe polluted air. Low and middle-income countries are the most affected. 


There are several causes of air pollution. These include:

  1. Vehicle emissions, fuel oils, and natural gas to heat homes, by-products of manufacturing and power generation, especially coal-fueled power plants, and fumes from chemical production, are the primary sources of human-made air pollution.
  1. 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
  1. Traffic-Related Air Pollution, from motor vehicle emissions, maybe the most recognizable form of air pollution. It contains 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Volatile organic compounds (VOC) vaporize at room temperature. 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(the burning process).


Air pollution has many adverse health effects. Some of these include:

  1. Respiratory Disease:

Air pollution can affect lung development and may cause emphysema, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

  1. Cardiovascular Disease:

Fine particulate matter can impair blood vessel function and speed up calcification(hardening) in arteries, resulting in higher chances of cardiovascular disease.

  1. Cancers:

Occupational exposure to benzene, an industrial chemical, and component of gasoline, can cause leukemia and is associated with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and lung cancer.


Air pollution affects everyone’s health, but certain groups may be harmed more easily. These groups are:

  1. People living in urban areas: Almost 9 out of 10 people who live in urban areas worldwide are affected by air pollution.
  1. Children: The NIEHS-funded Children’s Health Study at the University of Southern California revealed that:
  • 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.
  1. The elderly and poor people are more susceptible. 


Fighting air pollution is everybody’s responsibility. We all have a role to play and we all need to do more to reduce air pollution. Coordinated efforts with active involvement of all the sectors are important. This includes the Government (national, state, and local governments), cities, communities, and individuals.

  • The role of the government: 
  1. Reduce emissions and set national standards that meet WHO air quality guidelines. 
  2. Invest in research and education about clean air and air pollution.
  • The role of cities and local communities: 
  1. To ensure that public policies across sectors factor in public health, with sufficient data and tools to assess them.
  • The role of individuals:
  1. Continue to stand up for their right to healthy and sustainable environments.
  2. Hold the government accountable.

 Every individual can follow these tips every day to reduce pollution:

  1. Conserve energy – at home, at work, everywhere.
  2. Use public transportation, bike, or walk whenever possible.
  3. Follow gasoline refueling instructions for efficient vapor recovery, being careful not to spill fuel, and always tighten your gas cap securely.
  4. Consider purchasing portable gasoline containers labeled “spill-proof,” where available.
  5. Keep cars, boats, and other engines properly tuned.
  6. Be sure your tires are properly inflated.
  7. Use environmentally safe paints and cleaning products whenever possible.
  8. Mulch or compost leaves and yard waste.
  9. Consider using gas logs instead of wood
  10. Quit smoking indoors or best still quit smoking altogether.

All of us – those in government, business, and individuals are accountable. We are all accountable. Think and rethink, about the way you live and consume and make positive choices for yourself, your children, and your children’s children.

One person at a time, we can make the atmosphere safe again.

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