Cleaning up Our Dirty Air

The atmosphere is the most vital resource for all life on Earth. It is a sheltering blanket from harmful cosmic rays, it provides a medium that we can breathe, and is one of the reasons why humans and other living beings are in existence. Two important layers of the atmosphere are the troposphere and the stratosphere. In these two layers, we can observe the effects of air pollution as well as global climate change due to the anthropogenic release of greenhouse gasses. If we start protecting any one part of Earth’s vital resources, we must start with the atmosphere, for if it lose its abilities to protect us and we pollute it indiscriminately, we will have no foreseeable future on Earth. There are solutions to problems such as climate change and air pollution, but they must be implemented correctly in order for us to continue to live on Earth in any sort of long term capacity.

South Asian brown clouds cover the spectrum of air pollution, being both harmful to humans, but at the same time they slow the melting of glaciers. Which would be worse?

The South Asian brown clouds cover the spectrum of air pollution, being both harmful to humans, and at the same time speeding up the melting of the ice in the Himalayas

The troposphere contains the majority of the earth’s air mass and is the layer where weather occurs due to the rising and falling of air currents, temperature and greenhouse gasses among other processes. Climate is the average of weather over a period of 30 years or more. Most of the air that we breathe in is made up of nitrogen and oxygen which, as mentioned earlier, are vital elements to life on Earth. The stratosphere, the layer of air above the troposphere, contains less matter than the troposphere but its concentration of ozone is much higher. The ozone layer is located in this part of the atmosphere, and it performs a useful task of deflecting harmful UVA and UVB rays from harming life on earth. Without the ozone layer, living organisms would develop skin and eye cancers, cataracts and immune system damage.

Air pollution is the presence of chemicals in the atmosphere in concentrations high enough to cause harm to organisms or alter the climate. Pollution enters the atmosphere naturally as dust from wildfires, volcanoes, etc. but the majority of air pollution is the excessive amount that humans release from burning fossil fuels in various capacities. Pollutants are classified in two ways: as primary pollutants and secondary pollutants.  Primary pollutants are chemicals or substances emitted directly into the air from natural processes and human activities at concentrations high enough to cause harm. Some chemicals react in the atmosphere with other pollutants and they form secondary pollutants. Although many would think that the majority of air pollution is found by urban areas, in reality prevailing winds take the pollution all over the world. Arctic haze, or air pollutants that flows north from Europe, Asia and North America to the poles, causes many problems.

Arctic haze is an example of how air pollution does not simply stay in the place that it was released

Arctic haze is an example of how air pollution does not simply stay in the place that it was released

 

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), the quality of outdoor air in more-developed countries has improved markedly since legislation was put into place but unfortunately another problem that is beginning to develop is indoor air pollution. When areas are poorly ventilated and cigarette smoke or wood-burning stoves are used inside, indoor air pollution is created. This type of air pollution has spread to nearly 2 million people yearly.

The different air pollutants both indoors and outside include such offenders as carbon monoxide, which is a colorless, odorless, and highly toxic gas formed during the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. Most commonly it affects the binding of oxygen with hemoglobin which can cause headaches, nausea, and death.

Carbon dioxide is also a colorless, odorless gas which is formed from the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests. It does not affect human health directly but it is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change which does contribute to the poor health of people, as will be discussed later.

A carbon monoxide detector in the home will provide a peace of mind in the case of any leaks.

A carbon monoxide detector in the home will provide a peace of mind in the case of any leaks.

Another air pollutant is nitrogen oxide, a colorless gas that forms when nitrogen and oxygen react in high temperature in automobile engines or coal power plants. Sometimes it forms a reddish brown gas in the air called nitrogen dioxide and sometimes it forms nitric acid in water which contributes to acid deposition. Both NO and NO2 contribute to the formation of photochemical smog, which forms in sunlight particularly in areas of high traffic. A greenhouse gas called N2O is also emitted from fertilizers and animal wastes and from the burning of fossil fuels. All of the nitrogen oxides can irritate the respiratory system as well as suppress plant growth and reduce visibility.

Nitrogen Dioxide, which can form from the emissions of automobiles, is a harmful air pollutant

Nitrogen Dioxide, which can form from the emissions of automobiles, is a harmful air pollutant

Sulfur dioxide is a primary pollutant released that is colorless but it has an irritating odor. Although it is released by natural processes, the majority of it is released by the combustion of sulfur-containing coal in power plants, oil refining and smelting. When SO2 reaches the atmosphere it can be converted to aerosols, or microscopic suspended particles. The sulfuric acid that forms is then deposited by precipitation. Sulfur in all of these forms can irritate the respiratory system, damage crops, soil, and aquatic life as well as man-made structures. In fact, they are a main component of the South Asian Brown Clouds that have formed due to the burning of coal and other processes.

Acid deposition can harm acres of forest because of its effects on the virility of the soil

Acid deposition can harm acres of forest because of its effects on the virility of the soil

Suspended particulate matter is also considered an air pollutant because, although the majority of particulates come from natural sources, there are a lot of particulates released from power plants and motor vehicles. This particulate matter that ranges in size from 10 micrometers to less than 2.5 is also a component of the South Asian Brown clouds. Indoor air pollution comes from particulate matter as well-as often stoves and cigarette smoke release this matter into the air. Health problems from inside air pollution is a big problem.

Ozone, although beneficial to human survival in the stratosphere, is detrimental to human health in the troposphere. A major component of photochemical smog, tropospheric ozone can cause respiratory problems.

The difference between stratospheric and tropospheric ozone may be small but the different effects on the environment aren't

The difference between stratospheric and tropospheric ozone may be small but its variation in effects is not

Finally, Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are compounds that exist as gases in the atmosphere or evaporate from sources on Earth. Methane is an example of a VOC. It is emitted by rice paddies, landfills, oil and natural gas wells and cows. As a greenhouse gas it is 20 times more effective at warming the atmosphere than CO2 is. Liquids that evaporate such as benzene and dry-cleaning agents are also harmful VOCs.

Many of these pollutants make up industrial smog, an unhealthy mix of sulfur dioxide, suspended sulfuric acid, and other suspended solid particles. Most carbon in oil and coal is turned into carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and unburned particulate matter is released as soot. Urban industrial smog is a bigger problem in undeveloped countries where coal and heavy oil is burned in large power and industrial plants where it is blown into rural areas. Although problems in the United States have been greatly reduced, other countries like the Ukraine and industrial centers of China have more problems because they have lax pollution controls and have seen a marked increase in deaths due to outdoor and indoor air pollution. If coal is transitioned away from soon the number of illnesses from this smog can greatly decline.

Industrial centers of China have huge problems with pollution that manifest in the form of health problems and the deterioration of natural resources

Industrial centers of China have huge problems with pollution that manifest in the form of health problems and the deterioration of natural resources

Another type of smog is photochemical smog, which is a mixture of primary and secondary pollutants formed under the influence of UV rays from the sun. Basically hotter days lead to more smog because sunlight greatly influences the formation of this smog. Cities like Los Angeles are most susceptible to this problem because they are hot and sunny. Other factors such as precipitation and temperature inversion also contribute to the formation of photochemical smog.

Although many of the older pollutants have been regulated places like Los Angeles still have smog problems

Although many of the older pollutants have been regulated, cities like Los Angeles still have smog problems

Acid deposition, as mentioned earlier is formed from SO2 in the atmosphere released from coal-burning power plants. It is mainly a regional air pollution problem but it still does much damage to soil and even man-made structures. China is the top emitter of sulfur dioxide, which causes harm to its own crops and thus threatens food security in East Asia. Across the world, acid deposition also hinders tree growth and accelerates the leaching of plant nutrients from the soil. If a buffer was placed into soil, such as calcium carbonate in the form of limestone, the impact acid deposition has on soil may be reduced. The best way to reduce the problem is to simply reduce coal-burning power plants and the number of motor vehicles on the road. Also, a tax could be put on the emission of SO2. In 2009, the Chinese government announced that by 2010, it would reduce its SO2 emissions by 10% from 2005 levels. It remains to be seen if this measure has helped.

Indoor air pollution is a bigger problem in the United States than outdoor air pollution. The EPA lists it as one of the top sources of cancer risk and it causes 6,000 premature cancer deaths per year. The greatest risk is to pregnant women, the elderly, sick, and children under 5. Pollutants range from pesticide residue and lead particles to fungal spores and animal droppings that are tracked into the home. All of these particulates can be reduced by way of ventilation.

Formaldehyde became controversial when it was discovered in the trailers provided by FEMA to the Hurricane Katrina victims

Formaldehyde became controversial when it was discovered in the trailers provided by FEMA to the Hurricane Katrina victims

Formaldehyde is released by many common home furnishings, such as curtains. If people want to limit exposure to the particular pollutant, then buying formaldehyde-free furnishings is a good start. Radon on the other hand, which seeps into the house from underground rock deposits, is radioactive and can cause many problems. If you test your house for radon, which only 20% of United States households do, and it is found to be leaking into your home then fixing the cracks in your foundation and increasing ventilation will be recommended solutions.

Radon tests such as these are not overly expensive and can save homeowners from later medical problems

Radon tests such as these are not overly expensive and can save homeowners from later medical problems

Although our bodies do have natural responses to irritants in the respiratory system, the amount of pollutants in the air often overwhelms the body’s ability to filter them. Cigarette smoke and the tar in cigarettes contributes to lung cancer, and more than 96% of Americans get cancer from breathing soot-laden diesel fumes. The Clean Air Act of 1970 did help establish air pollution regulation, but more work needs to be done to not only ensure the primary standard of human health, but also the secondary standard of environmental and property damage. The Toxic Release Inventory is one source of legislature that will hold industry responsible for reporting what toxic chemicals are released in the process of manufacture and will allow individuals and local groups to evaluate potential threats that there companies pose.

Climate change is a problem that also has begun in the atmosphere but has already begun to affect global systems worldwide. Many people have trouble discerning the differences between climate and weather, but they are not the same. Considerable scientific evidence has indicated that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming because of a combination of natural and human activities and this will lead to significant changes in our way of life into the future.

A graph showing the correlation between carbon dioxide and average global temperature

A graph showing the correlation between carbon dioxide and average global temperature

The natural greenhouse effect warms the atmosphere and keeps it hospitable for living creatures, however a problem arises when we begin to burn fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gasses at a faster rate than ever before in history.  This warms things quicker than ever before. Carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, CFC’s and more are all greenhouse gasses that help contribute to the overall anthropogenic climate change. Ice core analysis also reveals that about 70% of methane ( CH4) emissions during the last 275 years are the result of human activities such as raising cattle and sheep, extracting fossil fuels, creating landfills, and flooding land to create reservoirs. This is a trend that has not happened before in the history of the planet.

Rice paddies are natural sources of atmospheric methane

Rice paddies are natural sources of atmospheric methane

Nitrous oxide ( N2O) levels have risen about 20% during the last 275 years, mostly as a result of the increased use of nitrogen fertilizers. This gas accounts for about 9% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, but each molecule of N2O has 298 times the warming potential of a molecule of CO2. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC) was established in 1988 to document past climate changes and project future changes and predicts dire consequences if we do not rectify things. The body has concluded

Earth has warmed about 0.74ºC between 1906 and 2005, a much larger amount than ever before in that short period of time.

Although there are many who still deny that climate change is happening, the overwhelming evidence to the contrary continues to prove them wrong.

A graph showing the sources of emissions of nitrogen oxide

A graph showing the sources of emissions of nitrogen oxide by humans

Scientists agree that there is a tipping point of which we cannot surpass or we will be on a sure path to our own destruction. Our concerted efforts right now are aimed at preventing the earth from reaching the tipping point of 450ppm of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere. Although we have put much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere there are still also other factors in play such as the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2 that have pushed us back some time from that estimated tipping point.

Some of the effects of climate change that we are experiencing and will see into the future are changing climate patterns in some areas that are not necessarily warmer including severe drought due to the rate of evaporation exceeding that of precipitation for a long period of time. Up to 45% of the world could experience extreme drought by 2059. In addition, more ice and snow will melt in a positive feedback loop as the ice and snow of the arctic loss helps keep the Earth cool. Methane will be released when permafrost in the tundra melts, which will also contribute a positive feedback loop.

Methane is released from permafrost during the spring thaws and this can be exacerbated by climate change

Methane is released naturally from permafrost during the spring thaws but this release can be exacerbated by climate change

In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey report concluded that the world’s average sea level would most likely rise 0.8– 2 meters (3– 6.5 feet) by the end of this century-3 to 5 times the increase estimated in the 2007 IPCC report- and will probably keep rising for centuries. Extreme weather will also increase in frequency due to the fact that a warmer atmosphere will be able to hold more water. Biodiversity will decrease, as the IPCC estimated in a 1997 study.   Approximately 30% of the land-based plant and animal species assessed so far could disappear if the average global temperature change exceeds 1.5– 2.5 º but species of fungi and insects are set to increase. Also, although there will be more regions open to the growing of agriculture, the net production of food across the world will decrease due to the lack of viability of the soil that would be used. Agriculture in tropical regions will decline markedly.

Hurricanes and other extreme weather will increase with climate change

Hurricanes and other extreme weather will increase with climate change

Human health will also decline and frequent heat waves in some areas will increase the number of heat-related illnesses and deaths. The increased amount of fungi and insects will lead to more disease as well. Microbes that cause dengue fever and yellow fever will spread to areas that they never had before as mosquitoes carry them to warmer temperatures. In general climate change will create environmental refugees who are forced to migrate due to increased drought, hunger, flooding and drought. Already, these conditions have killed more than 300,000 people according to the UN secretary Kofi Annan.

Kofi Annan, former UN secretary, believed that climate change was one of the greatest troubles of our time and needed to be faced head on

Kofi Annan, former UN secretary, believed that climate change was one of the greatest troubles of our time and needed to be faced head on

Although the predictions of climate change effects look bleak, there are definitely ways that we can slow projected climate change. We must first think globally, so an international effort must be put into place with international cooperation. Also, since climate disruption poses a threat to the global economy, it makes sense that international policy makers come up with an effective international agreement to deal with climate change.

Some solutions include improving energy efficiency to reduce fossil fuel use, shifting from nonrenewable carbon-based fossil fuels to a mix of low-carbon renewable energy resources, stopping trees from being cut down in tropical forests and planting trees, and shifting to more sustainable and climate-friendly agriculture. Collecting greenhouse gases can help reduce the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to slow projected climate change. A massive tree-planting campaign and restoration of wetlands may be necessary as well as planting switch-grass and other perennials which remove CO2 from the atmosphere and puts it in the soil.

Wetlands are great removers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

Wetlands are great removers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

Some alternative solutions to deal with the effects of climate change does not necessarily remove carbon from the atmosphere. Instead the effects of climate change can be combated by injecting aerosols into the atmosphere in order to combat the incoming solar radiation and cool it as well as using mirrors that would reflect incoming sunlight to lower the temperature of the atmosphere. Even if any of these solutions did work, however, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would not decrease but continue rising and adding to climate disruption. There is no guarantee that these solutions will work however, and there is too much money and resources needed to fund it so these solutions are not necessarily the ones that should be used.

 

Iron fertilization of the ocean is one proposed solution to combat the carbon buildup, but it may have unforeseen consequences

Iron fertilization of the ocean is one proposed solution to combat the carbon buildup, but it may have unforeseen consequences

Instead, taxes and fees on carbon dioxide and strict regulation on methane may be the best way to prevent further greenhouse gas emissions. Placing a cap on emissions is also a great idea because polluters can emit pollutants and let permits be traded in the marketplace. Government subsidies for low-carbon renewable energy sources and more sustainable agriculture is also an option. There has been regulation such as the Kyoto Protocol, which went into effect in February 2005 that requires the participating countries to cut their emissions of CO2, CH4, and N2O to an average of 5.2% below 1990s by 2012, but unfortunately the United States did not take part in the treaty as it required economic growth to be curbed. Unfortunately the Degrowth movement that would have encouraged us to join was not taken seriously by leading economists.

Depleting the ozone layer is also an environmental problem that stems from air pollution. CFC’s that are used in refrigeration are the main causes for the depletion of the ozone layer. As mentioned earlier the ozone layer is vital for our continued life on Earth. With CFC’s depleting its concentration, problems such as increased skin cancer rates, cataracts and more will develop from the harmful UV rays that now can reach living things. The Montreal Protocol was one piece of legislature that worked to lower the ozone depleting substances and has done so remarkably well. Unfortunately ozone depletion is linked to climate change because the heating of the atmosphere prevents the ozone layer’s recovery.

Although CFC's have been pretty much removed from industrial use worldwide, ozone depletion is still a problem

Although CFC’s have been pretty much removed from industrial use worldwide, ozone depletion is still a problem

To conclude, it is clear that climate change is a clear and present danger. It is the biggest problem that Earth as a community has faced and it will truly require vast, institutional changes on the parts of people across the globe. What we can do is considerably reduce our carbon emissions and ready ourselves to adapt to the conditions that will be apparent across the globe this century. Air pollution is also something that we will have to face head-on as a global community as it is vital that everyone have the right to clean air. These problems do seem insurmountable, but with strict changes they can be ameliorated.

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