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WHAT IS AIR POLLUTION?

Air pollution is a general term for a variety of substances and gases in our air that pose risks to health. Pollutants and irritants include nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic substances such as mercury, and some naturally occurring substances such as pollen. The combination of nitrogen oxides and VOCs in the presence of sunlight forms ozone, the major constituent of smog. Ozone has been shown to exacerbate asthma and cause shortness of breath and lung damage.

Most air pollution comes from human-made sources such as fossil fuel combustion, transportation, power plant emissions and emissions from other industrial processes. Burning fossil fuels for electricity generation is the single greatest source of air pollution in the United States. Fossil fuel combustion produces many pollutants including nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, hydrocarbons, mercury and particulates. These pollutants can cause serious health problems including asthma, irritation of the lungs, bronchitis, pneumonia, decreased resistance to respiratory infections, and even early death.

Some pollutants also cause certain environmental conditions, such as acid rain and climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions are a primary contributor to climate change. According to climate scientists, if carbon dioxide levels continue to increase, the planet will become warmer in the next century, affecting human health and the environment. Increases in temperature will most likely result in a variety of impacts including more heat-related illness, more severe weather events such as floods and droughts and resulting damage, and an increase in cases of vector-borne and water-borne diseases, and sea-level rise. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides are important constituents of acid rain, which destroys lakes and rivers, diminishes crop yields, and deteriorates buildings.

Some air pollutants are toxic. Also known as hazardous air pollutants, these pollutants are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects. Examples of toxic air pollutants include VOCs such as benzene, which is found in gasoline, persistent organic compounds such as dioxin, and metals such as mercury and lead.

In the United States, air pollution is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under authority given by Congress in the Clean Air Act. Health based standards are set for criteria pollutants. Criteria pollutants include ozone, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide. Areas that are out of compliance with these standards are known as non-attainment areas.

Excerpt from www.envirohealthaction.org


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