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Air Pollution and Dangerous Gases
Excerpt from the report, Public Benefits of Renewable Energy Use<
Union of Concerned Scientist

Clean air is essential to life and good health. Air pollution aggravates asthma, the number one children's health problem. Air pollution also causes disease and even premature death among vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, and people with lung disease. A 1996 analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council of studies by the American Cancer Society and Harvard Medical School suggests that small particles in the air may be responsible for as many as 64,000 deaths each year from heart and lung disease. Air pollution is responsible for more deaths than motor vehicle accidents, and ranks higher than many other serious health threats.

Sulfur oxides
Electricity production, primarily from burning coal, is the source of most emissions of sulfur oxides (SOx), as the figure shows. These chemicals are the main cause of acid rain, which can make lakes and rivers too acidic for plant and animal life. Acid rain also damages crops and buildings. National reductions in sulfur oxides required by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 may not be sufficient to end damage from acid rain in the northeastern United States. SO2 is also a primary source of fine particles in the air.

Nitrogen oxides
Burning fossil fuels either to produce electricity or to power transportation emits nitrogen oxides (NOx) into the air. In the presence of sunlight, nitrogen oxides combine with other chemicals to form ground-level ozone (smog). Both nitrogen oxides and ozone can irritate the lungs, cause bronchitis and pneumonia, and decrease resistance to respiratory infections. In addition, research shows that ozone may be harmful even at levels allowed by federal air standards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a new rule reducing nitrogen oxide emissions from 0.12 parts per million to 0.08 parts per million. States have until 2003 to submit plans for meeting the new standard and up to 12 years to achieve it.

Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important of the greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming by trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere. Electricity generation is, as the figure shows, the largest industrial source of carbon dioxide emissions and a close second to the transportation sector.

Samples from air bubbles trapped deep in ice from Antarctica show that carbon dioxide and global temperature have been closely linked for 160,000 years. Over the last 150 years, burning fossil fuels has resulted in the highest levels of carbon dioxide ever recorded. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- an authoritative international scientific body -- concluded that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate." All 10 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years. The 1990s have already been warmer than the 1980s -- the warmest previous decade on record, according to the Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

Without action, carbon dioxide levels would double in the next 50 to 100 years, increasing global temperatures by 1.8 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat trapped in the atmosphere would cause expansion of the ocean's volume as surface water warms and melt some glaciers. A two-foot rise in sea level could flood 5,000 square miles of dry land in the United States, and another 5,000 square miles of coastal wetlands, as the figure shows. From 17 to 43 percent of coastal wetland-prime fish and bird habitat-could be lost. Building dikes and barriers could reduce flooding of dry land, but would increase wetland loss. Impacts on island nations and low-lying countries, like Egypt and Bangladesh, would be much worse.

Altered weather patterns from changes in climate may result in more extreme weather events. Some areas will suffer more drought and others more flooding, putting crop production under great stress in some regions. The character of our forests could change dramatically. Other expected impacts include an increase in heat-related deaths, increased loss of animal and plant species, and the spread of pests and diseases into new regions with less resistance to them.

In 1997, at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, the developed nations of the world agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The United States agreed to 7 percent reductions from 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. Senate ratification of this agreement remains uncertain, however.

Other air pollutants
Burning fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, produces a host of other air pollutants in addition to those discussed above. Among them are:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO), which can cause headaches and place additional stress on people with heart disease
  • Hydrocarbons (HC), which come from unburned fossil fuels and contribute to smog
  • Large particles such as dust, soot, smoke, and other suspended matter, which are respiratory irritants
  • Small (so-called "fine") particles, which have been linked to chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature deaths

Large particles (10 microns in diameter) are regulated by the Clean Air Act. In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency published a new rule limiting emissions of fine particles (2.5 microns). States have until 2005 to 2008 to submit plans to the EPA for meeting the standard, and another 12 years to actually comply.

In addition, coal and oil contain air toxics-metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead. Although only trace amounts of these metals are present in coal and oil, they are difficult to catch using pollution-control equipment. Utility coal burning accounts for 40,000 tons of toxic air pollutants per year. For example, coal plants are responsible for over a third of the 150 tons of mercury that are released into the air each year.

Once deposited in nature, toxic metals can accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and humans. They can cause severe health problems, such as mental retardation, nervous system damage, and developmental disorders. Due to the accumulation of toxic metals in fish- some of it as a result of air pollution - 35 states have advisories against eating fish caught in lakes and rivers. Children and pregnant women are the most at risk.


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