Saturday, March 25, 2023

Air Pollution

How Do We Cause Air Pollution?

We cause air pollution directly through our use of electricity, fuels, and transportation.

We also cause air pollution indirectly, when we buy goods and services that use energy in their production and delivery. Most of this air pollution we cause results from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, natural gas, and gasoline to produce electricity and power our vehicles.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a good indicator of how much fossil fuel is burned and how much of other pollutants are emitted as a result. Using carbon dioxide as an example, the average family in the United States causes air pollution in the following ways:

How Much Air Pollution Do We Cause?

An average family in the United States causes the following amounts of air pollution each year:

Climate Change Pollution (CO2) = 85 Tons  
Ozone-Causing Pollution (NOx) = 325 Pounds  
Acid Rain Causing Pollution (SO2) = 411 Pounds
Small Particulate Pollution = 43 Pounds
Toxic Lead Pollution (Pb) = 1.2 Ounces
Toxic Mercury Pollution (Hg) = 0.04 Ounces

Find out how much pollution is caused by your household electricity use with the Cleaner and Greener Pollution Calculator.

And each year, the average individual in the United States causes the following amounts of air pollution:

Climate Change Pollution (CO2) = 27 Tons  
Ozone-Causing Pollution (NOx) = 102 Pounds  
Acid Rain Causing Pollution (SO2) = 129 Pounds
Small Particulate Pollution = 14 Pounds
Toxic Lead Pollution (Pb) = 0.4 Ounces
Toxic Mercury Pollution (Hg) = 0.01 Ounces

That's a LOT of pollution!!

The following table summarizes some sources and effects of these air pollutants.

Sources and Effects of Common Air Pollutants


Anthropogenic Sources

Health Effects

Environmental Effects


Secondary pollutant formed by chemical reaction of VOCs and NOx in the presence of sunlight.

Breathing problems, reduced lung function, asthma, irritates eyes, stuffy nose, reduces resistance to colds and infections, premature aging of lung tissue.

Damages crops, forests, and other vegetation; damages rubber, fabric, and other materials; smog reduces visibility.

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)

Burning of gasoline, natural gas, coal, oil.

(Cars are a major source of NOx.)

Lung damage, respiratory illnesses, ozone (smog) effects.

Ozone (smog) effects; precursor of acid rain which damages trees, lakes, and soil; aerosols can reduce visibility.

Acid rain also causes buildings, statues, and monuments to deteriorate.

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Burning of gasoline, natural gas, coal, oil.

Reduces ability of blood to bring oxygen to body cells and tissues.


Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Fuel combustion, solvents, paint.

(Cars are a major source of VOCs.)

Ozone (smog) effects, cancer, and other serious health problems.

Ozone (smog) effects, vegetation damage.

Particulate Matter

Emitted as particles or formed through chemical reactions; burning of wood, diesel, and other fuels; industrial processes; agriculture (plowing, field burning); unpaved roads.

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; lung damage; bronchitis; cancer; early death.

Source of haze which reduces visibility.

Ashes, smoke, soot, and dust can dirty and discolor structures and property, including clothes and furniture.

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)

Burning of coal and oil, especially high-sulfur coal; industrial processes (paper manufacturing, metal smelting).

Respiratory illness, breathing problems, may cause permanent damage to lungs.

Precursor of acid rain, which can damage trees, lakes, and soil; aerosols can reduce visibility.

Acid rain also causes buildings, statues, and monuments to deteriorate.


Combustion of fossil fuels and leaded gasoline; paint; smelters (metal refineries); battery manufacturing.

Brain and nervous system damage (esp. children), digestive and other problems. Some lead-containing chemicals cause cancer in animals.

Harm to wildlife and livestock.


Fossil fuel combustion, waste disposal, industrial processes (incineration, smelting, chlor-alkali plants), mining.

Liver, kidney, and brain damage; neurological and developmental damage.

Accumulates in food chain.


Health Effects of the Pollution We Cause

Exposure to emissions of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, and ozone-forming nitrogen dioxides are hazardous to public health. Toxic compounds, like mercury and lead, poison organ systems and can lead to brain damage and death. In parts of the country where lakes and waterways have been contaminated with mercury from electric power plants, fish are no longer safe to eat because they, too, are contaminated with heavy metal pollutants. Other pollutants, like ozone and particulate matter, cause respiratory and other health problems, particularly in children and the elderly.


Environmental Effects

Climate change on a global scale has been attributed to increased emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. A global average temperature rise of only 1C could have serious implications. Possible consequences include melting of polar ice caps; an increase in sea level; and increases in precipitation and severe weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, floods, and droughts. Indirect effects include increases in infectious disease, weather-related deaths, and food and water shortages. All these effects put a stress on ecosystems and agriculture, and threaten our planet as a whole.

Other atmospheric effects of air pollution include urban smog and reduced visibility, associated with ozone-forming nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compound emissions. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides combine with water in the atmosphere to cause acid rain, which is detrimental to forests and other vegetation, soil, lakes, and aquatic life. Acid rain also causes monuments and buildings to deteriorate.

Economic Effects

The effects of air pollution on human health and the environment have economic impacts. According to the Healthy People 2000 report [5], each year in the United States:

  • The health costs of human exposure to outdoor air pollutants range from $40 to $50 billion.
  • An estimated 50,000 to 120,000 premature deaths are associated with exposure to air pollutants.
  • People with asthma experience more than 100 million days of restricted activity, costs for asthma exceed $4 billion, and about 4,000 people die of asthma.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) article, "Why is it Better to Buy Green Electricity?"[1], states that acid rain causes $6 billion a year in damage to crops, forests, lakes, and buildings. The potential economic impact of global warming is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. While green sources of electricity may cost more, they do not incur the external costs of traditional fossil fuel-based generation. The EDF article states that:

"Increasing reliance on green sources reduces financial risks such as future regulations, taxes on greenhouse gases, and price fluctuations associated with fossil fuels. Green resources increase U.S. energy self sufficiency, and thus economic security, by reducing reliance on fossil fuel imports. They also help reduce current rapid depletion of natural resources.

Green resources are a good source of jobs and income because they rely on local labor, land, and resources. Rural communities would probably benefit the most from renewable energy development, as wind and biomass energy production is likely to take place in rural areas."

What You Can Do

There are many actions people of all ages can take to reduce their emisisons. To learn more, read the checklist of things you can do in your home and in your school in the Cleaner and Greener Program's "Guide to Air Pollution and the Emissions We Cause." If we all work together, we can make the world a cleaner and greener place to live! Green Marketing and websites provided by Custom Creative

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