Sources and Effects of the 9 Major Air Pollutants

Updated on July 11, 2018
JR Cuevas profile image

JR has a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and studied Environmental Engineering as a section of their curriculum.

What Is Air Pollution?

Air pollution takes place when a large quantity of dust, soot, bacteria, and other harmful gases get into the air and is considered the most harmful form of pollution. There are four principal sources of air pollution. The first cause is mobile sources such as cars, buses, planes, trucks, and trains. Secondly, the stationary sources such as power plants, oil refineries, industrial facilities, and factories. Third are area sources such as cities, agricultural areas, and wood burning fireplaces. The last main causes of air pollution are the natural sources such as wind-blown dust, forest fires, and volcanoes.

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Mobile Sources of Air PollutionStationary Sources of Air Pollution: FactoriesArea Sources of Air PollutionNatural Sources of Air Pollution: Forest FiresNatural Sources of Air Pollution: Erupting VolcanoesNatural Sources of Air Pollution: Wood Burning PlacesMobile Sources of Air PollutionMobile Sources of Air PollutionArea Sources of Air Pollution: Agricultural Areas
Mobile Sources of Air Pollution
Mobile Sources of Air Pollution | Source
Stationary Sources of Air Pollution: Factories
Stationary Sources of Air Pollution: Factories | Source
Area Sources of Air Pollution
Area Sources of Air Pollution | Source
Natural Sources of Air Pollution: Forest Fires
Natural Sources of Air Pollution: Forest Fires | Source
Natural Sources of Air Pollution: Erupting Volcanoes
Natural Sources of Air Pollution: Erupting Volcanoes | Source
Natural Sources of Air Pollution: Wood Burning Places
Natural Sources of Air Pollution: Wood Burning Places | Source
Mobile Sources of Air Pollution
Mobile Sources of Air Pollution | Source
Mobile Sources of Air Pollution
Mobile Sources of Air Pollution | Source
Area Sources of Air Pollution: Agricultural Areas
Area Sources of Air Pollution: Agricultural Areas | Source

Deadliest Air Pollution Recorded in History

Have you heard the story of "The Great Smog of London"? During the first week of December in 1952, London became unusually cold. Residents did not recognize that it was something serious. Then, the air began condensing into fog early on December 5. The fog mixed with smoke from domestic fires and vehicular and factory emissions made the smog so thick that they took many parts of London to a standstill.

Public officials did not recognize that the great smog was the most deadly air pollution until records showed up. The air pollution happened in London caused different diseases like Bronchitis and Pneumonia wherein 4000 people died in the first five days and almost 8000 recorded deaths in the next several months. As a result of the disaster, they passed its first Clean Air Act of 1956. Below is a video of a brief explanation of why such a tragedy occurred.

Air Pollutant Classification

There are two classifications for air pollutants, the primary and secondary pollutants. Usually, all primary pollutants come from direct principal sources such as mobile, stationary, and agricultural sources of air pollution. On the other hand, secondary pollutants form when two or more primary pollutants react in the atmosphere.

Classifications of Air Pollutants
Classifications of Air Pollutants | Source

Primary air pollutants are air pollutants emitted directly from sources to the atmosphere. Some of the examples of primary pollutants are NOx from automobile exhaust, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, most hydrocarbons, and most suspended particles.

Secondary air pollutants are the products of primary pollutants chemically bonded. One typical example of secondary pollutants is acid rain formed when sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides react with water. Additional examples of secondary air pollutants are nitric acid, sulfur trioxide, sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide, ozone, nitrates, sulfates, and other salts.

Nine (9) Major Air Pollutants

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for general air pollutants. The nine major air pollutants are:

  • Ozone (O3)
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO)
  • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
  • Particulate Matter
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
  • Toxic Air Pollutants
  • Stratospheric Ozone Depleters
  • Greenhouse Gases
  • Lead

1. Ozone

Ozone (O3) is a secondary pollutant gas produced when two primary pollutants react in sunlight and stagnant air. Another term for ozone is bad ozone. The elements that form ozone are nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and ultraviolet radiation. That is why ozone is abundant during summer because of the high amount of sunlight present.

You can find ozone in two places. First is near the ground (the troposphere) which is a significant part of smog and the second one is higher in the air (the stratosphere) which helps in blocking the radiation from the sun.

Sources of Ozone
Effects of Ozone
Burning gasoline
Asthma attacks
Coal and other fossil fuels
Sore throats
Volatile compounds from factories
Coughs
Volatile compounds from trees
Breathing difficulty
Ultraviolet radiation
Premature death
 
Destroy plants and crops
Sources and Effects of Ozone as Air Pollutant
Sources of Ozone
Sources of Ozone | Source

2. Carbon Monoxide

Carbon Monoxide is a primary pollutant gas that comes from the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon monoxide is an air pollutant that is odorless and colorless. It is recognized as a dangerous gas since you cannot see or smell it. When you become exposed to carbon monoxide, the molecules of the gas will displace the oxygen in your body that could lead to poisoning.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide
Effects of Carbon Monoxide
Engines of cars
Oxygen loss in the body
Furnaces
Dizziness
Heaters
Tiredness
Factories that burn fossil fuels
Headaches
Stove top
Triggers heart diseases
Clothing dryer
Collapse
Hot water heater
Nausea
Sources and Effects of Carbon Monoxide as Air Pollutant
Sources of Carbon Monoxide
Sources of Carbon Monoxide | Source

3. Nitrogen Dioxide

Nitrogen Dioxide is a reddish-brown gas that also comes from the burning of fossil fuels. It belongs to the group of gases called nitrogen oxides (NOx). The are two ways a nitrogen dioxide forms - burning nitrogen in fuel, or nitrogen in the air reacting with oxygen at very high temperatures. Nitrogen dioxide can also respond in the atmosphere forming ozone, acid rain, and particles.

Sources of Nitrogen Dioxide
Effects of Nitrogen Dioxide
Power plants
Coughs
Car engines
Breathlessness
Nitrogen reacts with oxygen
Respiratory infections
 
Acid rain
Sources and Effects of Nitrogen Dioxide as Air Pollutant

4. Particulate Matter

Particulate Matter or Particle Pollution can either be a solid or liquid matter suspended in the air. The sizes of particulate matter must be less than 0.1 millimeters wide to remain in the atmosphere. Particulate Matter has two types - coarse particles and fine particles.

Sources of Particulate Matter
Effects of Particulate Matter
Road dust
Asthma
Seaspray
Respiratory Problems
Construction debris
Premature death
Burning of fuel
 
Power plants
 
Sources and Effects of Particulate Matter as Air Pollutant
Sources of Particulate Matter
Sources of Particulate Matter | Source

5. Sulfur Dioxide

Sulfur Dioxide is a corrosive gas that cannot be noticed or smelled at base levels but can have a "rotten egg" smell at above levels. Sulfur dioxides are compounds of sulfur and oxygen molecules. Like nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide can respond to the atmosphere to form acid rain as well. Electric power companies that burn coal are a principal source of sulfur oxides.

Sources of Sulfur Dioxide
Effects of Sulfur Dioxide
Burning of coal in power plants
Breathlessness
Burning of oil in power plants
Asthma
Factories making papers, chemicals, or fuel
Emphysema
 
Eye, nose, and throat irritations
 
Damage infrastructures
Sources and Effects of Sulfur Dioxide as Air Pollutant

6. Toxic Air Pollutants

There are some other toxic air pollutants which contain chemicals suspected to cause cancer. Examples are benzene, arsenic, asbestos, dioxin, perchloroethylene, and methylene chloride. Perchloroethylene is a hazardous air pollutant emitted from dry cleaning facilities while methylene chloride comes from solvent and paint industries.

Sources of Toxic Air Pollutants
Effects of Toxic Air Pollutants
Chemical plants
Cancer
Building materials
Cancer
Food and Water Supplies
Birth deficiency
 
Breathing problems
Sources and Effects of Toxic Air Pollutants

7. Stratospheric Ozone Depleters

Stratospheric Ozone Depleters are substances that can deplete the ozone layer in the stratosphere. These substances are chlorofluorocarbons, halons, and other chemicals comprising bromine and chlorine.

Sources of Stratospheric Ozone Depleters
Effects of Stratospheric Ozone Depleters
Conditioners
Skin cancer
Refrigerators
Eye problems
Aerosol cans
Harm plants and animals
Fire extinguishers
 
Industrial Solvents
 
Sources and Effects of Stratospheric Ozone Depleters as Air Pollutant
Sources of Stratospheric Ozone Depleters
Sources of Stratospheric Ozone Depleters | Source

8. Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse gases are gases that absorb and emit radiant energy from the sun acting like a glass in a greenhouse. It stays upright in the air for a very long time confining the sunlight causing the planet to become warm. There are some significant greenhouse gases that we need to survive - carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide is the most significant greenhouse gas among the three. Without carbon dioxide, plants cannot produce food essential for us humans to live.

Sources of Greenhouse Gases
Effects of Greenhouse Gases
Burned fossil fuels
Temperature changes
Cows
Higher sea levels
Rice paddies
Forest decomposition
Industrial sources
Coast damage
Decaying plants
Health problems
Sources and Effects of Greenhouse Gases as Air Pollutant

9. Lead

Lead is a highly toxic elemental blue-gray metal found naturally in the environment and manufactured products.

Sources of Lead
Effects of Lead
Unleaded gasoline
Damages central nerve system
Power plants
Damages mental development of children
Lead paint
Lower IQ for children
Lead pipes
Kidney problem
 
Heart attacks
 
Strokes
Sources and Effects of Lead as Air Pollutant

Which among the air pollutants do you think is on extreme levels?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Ray

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      • JR Cuevas profile imageAUTHOR

        Ray 

        4 months ago from Philippines

        Hey, bradmaster. Thanks!

        Before the crisis happened, the cold weather in London was in extreme level and worsen by the anticyclone experienced that time. Due to extreme coldness, residents were forced to increase the burning of coal to keep themselves warmer. The result of burning coals thicken the smog over the city and that was the main cause of the tragedy. Before WWII, they were using high-quality hard coals. But due to the need of recovering the economy fast after the war, the government decided to export the high quality ones. Now, the post-war local coal products used by residents were low grade and rich in sulfur. The amount of sulfur dioxide in the smoke worsen the smog in the city.

        WWII ended several years before the incident so maybe London recovered somehow from the debris and the spread of particulate matter all over the place. But, I do believe that airborne pollutants from the war were somehow still present when the incident happened and had a little impact to the great smog.

        For your second question, I included methane under greenhouse gases.

        Hope I answered your question. Have a great day!

      • bradmasterOCcal profile image

        Brad Masters 

        4 months ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD

        John

        Very well done article.

        I do have two questions.

        "Public officials did not recognize that the great smog was the most deadly air pollution until records showed up. The air pollution happened in London caused different diseases like Bronchitis and Pneumonia wherein 4000 people died in the first five days and almost 8000 recorded deaths in the next several months. As a result of the disaster, they passed its first Clean Air Act of 1956. Below is a video of a brief explanation of why such a tragedy occurred."

        B:

        Why wasn't it worse during WWII when London and other cities were under firebombing attacks by the Germans.

        Second, Why isn't Methane on your list?

        Thanks

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