What is air pollution? Concept, Causes and Consequences

What is air pollution?

We explain what air pollution is and why it occurs. Negative consequences and possible solutions.

What is air pollution

Industrial activity underproduces gases which, having no use, are released into the atmosphere.

Atmospheric pollution refers to the presence, in the different layers of air that make up the earth’s atmosphere, of substances and forms of energy foreign to their natural constitution and which can represent a source of risks, damage and inconvenience to life as we know it.

Like water or land, the air that makes up the atmosphere also maintains a chemical and energy balance necessary to sustain the conditions that make life possible, and whose alteration has repercussions on other important cycles, such as water.

The presence of gaseous or solid substances in the air distorts this balance, and may have local, regional or even global consequences, such as the greenhouse effect.

Since the Industrial Revolution, human beings have contributed significantly to the adulteration of the content of the atmosphere, and numerous climatic and public health consequences are attributed to this today.

Types of air pollution

Atmospheric pollution is mainly caused by the presence of two forms of pollutants: gaseous and suspended solids.

  • Soft drinks. These are simple or complex substances in various concentrations, which are released into the atmosphere as vapours and light gases, such as those released during the combustion of fossil organic matter (gasoline, coal, oil). These gases remain in the atmosphere and lead to unpredictable and uncontrolled chemical reactions, giving rise to toxic mists, acid rain and other phenomena. Examples of these gases are carbon monoxide, CFC, nitrogen oxides.
  • Suspended solids. These are solid materials that are little affected by gravity, which can remain in the air, deteriorating their quality and being able to be breathed together with the air. Sometimes they’re dark enough and big enough to see, in the form of smoke. Examples are volcanic ash and aerosols.

Another way of classifying these atmospheric pollutants would be natural (those resulting from accidents and environmental effects in which man is not involved, such as volcanoes or meteorites) and artificial (those resulting from the direct or indirect action of man).

Causes of air pollution

Forest fires throw piles of carbon dioxide and smoke into the air.

The causes of air pollution are varied, but mainly have to do with:

  • Volcanic eruptions, which throw ash and subterranean gases into the air.
  • Industrial activity, whose chemical reactions subproduce gases, toxic or not, which when not in use are released into the atmosphere.
  • The use of fossil fuels, such as gasoline and petroleum products, to obtain electrical energy or to mobilize vehicles.
  • The use of CFC aerosols, which have been banned for decades because of their responsibility for the destruction of the ozone layer.
  • Forest fires, which throw piles of carbon dioxide and smoke into the air.

Consequences of air pollution

The main consequences of the deterioration of the atmosphere are:

  • Breathing problems. At the local level, polluted air can affect the health of people and animals when it is breathed in, as it contains carcinogenic, toxic or poisonous chemical substances, the effect of which on the body can be lethal or even prolonged.
  • Acid rain. Many organic elements react in the atmosphere with water vapour and form variants of acid or corrosive mixtures, which are then precipitated to the earth with rain, in what are usually called rains.
  • Water pollution. Air and water pollution are fed back, as water evaporates and can carry various toxic substances with it, which then remain in the atmosphere.
  • Destruction of the ozone layer. Many gases ascend to the upper layers of the atmosphere, where there is the ozone layer (O3) that protects us from the direct impact of the sun’s rays. There, they react with this element and puncture this protective barrier.
  • Greenhouse effect. The accumulation of heavy gases in the atmosphere acts as an artificial barrier that does not allow environmental heat to escape, concentrating it and increasing the temperature of the world.

Solutions for air pollution

Clean technologies are a possible solution to air pollution.

The atmosphere can deal with a certain amount of pollutants, but not at the rate at which we pollute it year after year. The best solutions, then, to help it recover, aim at decreasing the human impact on the air, through:

  • Filters for chimneys and responsible industrial activity.
  • Use alternative energies to fossil fuels.
  • Reduce or eliminate the use of CFC aerosols.
  • Control burns and foresee forest or industrial fires.
  • Promote the recycling of sewage.
  • Investigate “clean” or more environmentally friendly technologies.

Composition of the atmosphere

Broadly speaking, the atmosphere is a homogeneous layer of gases that terrestrial gravity maintains around the planet, serving as a defence against the elements of space (meteors, radiations, cosmic rays, etc.) and as a support for its own (conserves heat, allows the water cycle, provides gaseous elements, etc.).

The atmosphere is composed of several layers of air in which some elements predominate over others, as it moves away from the earth’s surface and loses pressure and temperature. These constituent elements are mainly nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide and water vapour (hydrogen and oxygen).

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