Effects of the Air Pollutants

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Figure 1 Oiled crow in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill
Figure 1 Oiled crow in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Depending on the nature of the contaminants, dose rate, and duration, air pollution can cause health complications in humans and animals, damage plants, deteriorate materials and property, and affect global climate.

The health effects associated with air pollution are numerous and can vary from burning eyes and nose, irritated throat, and breathing difficulties to more severe effects such as cancer, birth defects, brain and nerve damage, and death. Gaseous pollutants can enter the body through the eyes, skin, or respiratory tract. Depending on the size of the particulate, debris can then be deposited in different areas of the respiratory tract such as the nose, mouth, or lungs. The effects of pollution on animals are similar to those in humans and result in respiratory and eye damage. Water pollutants have a similar effect on aquatic life. Depending on their types and concentrations, toxins and other air pollutants can have significant health consequences over a relatively short duration or even during one-time exposure. A testament to this is the notorious London episode of 1952 which, as a result of thick fog and a high concentration of carbon and sulfate particles, caused many thousands of people to become sick, 4,000 of whom eventually died. The 1984 release of methyl isocyanate from a Union carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India killed 2,500 people and injured numerous others. Another example is the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. In this incident, the huge tanker carrying 1.2 million barrels of Alaskan crude oil ran aground and emptied its cargo into the Prince William Sound. Although no human life was lost in the accident the cost to the environment and local economy was enormous (Figure 1). (2).

Many of the emissions released into the atmosphere are directly or indirectly corrosive and attack buildings and materials at a great cost. Dust and soot particulates, especially in humid air, cause the erosion and soiling of buildings, paintings, and sculptures. Nitrogen and sulfur oxides cause deterioration of cottons and nylon, corrosion of metals, and fading of dyes.

Atmospheric pollution can affect the environment by changing the climate and reducing the visibility. It damages plants by destroying their chlorophyll, which causes yellowing and the dropping of their leaves. It makes lakes, rivers, and aquifers toxic and corrosive, which kills fish and other marine species and damages crops.


(1) Toossi Reza, "Energy and the Environment:Sources, technologies, and impacts", Verve Publishers, 2005

(2) Valdez Spill Toll is Now Called Far Worst,” New York Times, April 18, 1992.

Further Reading

Gore, A., An Inconvenient Truth, Penguin Books, 2007.

Roleff, T., Pollution: Opposing viewpoints, Greenhaven Press, 2000.

Walsh, P. J., Dudney, C. S., Copenhave, E. D., Indoor Air Quality, CRC Press, 1984.

Environmental Science and Technology, published by the American Chemical Society.

External Links

Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov).

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (http://www.osha.gov).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC), (http://www.ipcc..ch).

United Nations Environment Programme (http://www.unep.org).

World Health Organization (WHO) (http://www.who.ch).