The air we breathe is made up of many things. First of all, it contains oxygen, nitrogen, argon, water, carbon dioxide and traces of other gases. The air also contains particles that may be an irritant, but for the most part, do not harm us. However, some man-made pollutants can affect our health considerably. Although nature can cause some of the pollutants such as the smoke from wild fires due to lightning, or dust from volcanic eruptions, the vast majority of pollutants in the air are man-made. Once these pollutants reach a point where they can significantly affect our health, it become air pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for overseeing the quality of air we breathe.
Particles that are contained in the air vary in size. Those that are less than 10 microns are the most cause for concern since they are actually inhaled into our lungs. As we breathe, the hairs in our nose and nasal passages remove particles that are larger than 10 microns, but those that are smaller can pass through to our lungs where they can affect our health. Common problems are irritation to the eyes, throat and chest area. For those who have respiratory conditions, these particles can aggravate asthma and bronchitis. They can also affect our immune system and alter our capacity to resist infection. These conditions are more prevalent in areas where dust, pollen, and molds are constantly in the air.
The Ozone is a natural component of the atmosphere, and a gas that allows life to exist on Earth. In the stratosphere, the ozone layer screens out the ultraviolet radiation that can damage or kill living cells. Ozone is necessary at higher levels of the atmosphere, but when ozone is near the ground it can become dangerous. Ground-level ozone is toxic to plants and can irritate the lining of the lungs.
Air pollutants that are considered hazardous come from a variety of sources such as the burning of hazardous waste, landfill fires, the burning of wood and coal, exhaust from automobiles, smoking, solvents used in household chemicals, chemicals from agriculture, and chemicals released into the air from such industries as synthetic rubber manufacturers, oil refiners and so forth. Hazardous air pollutants can affect our health in a number of ways. They can vary from minor skin, eye and throat irritations and headaches to more serious nerve and organ damage which can increase our risk of cancer and other serious diseases. The longer these pollutants are breathed the more serious the health risks become. Some of these effects may be short term and can be overcome once the pollutants are no longer present, or an individual moves away from the area. Long term effects may be with the individual for the rest of their life even when pollutants are no longer present.
Carbon Monoxide can be introduced into the air through natural processes such as volcanoes and fires, as well as by human activities through the burning of carbon-containing fuels and industrial processes. Large amounts of carbon monoxide occur when the combustion of fossil fuels are incomplete. These include petroleum used in cars, the burning of wood and coal, and smoking tobacco indoors. When we breathe carbon monoxide it attaches to the hemoglobin molecules in our bloodstream that are responsible for carrying oxygen through our body and to our tissues. Carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that our bodies receive, which can have profound affects on our brain and heart. Being exposed to low amounts of carbon monoxide can leave you feeling dizzy, weak, nauseous, and disoriented. Being exposed to high levels can cause one to go into a coma, lose consciousness and quite possibly death.
Nitrogen Dioxide occurs mainly from the burning of coal, oil, and gas. Nitrogen dioxide can affect the respiratory system and can decreases the lung's ability to fight against bacteria. Nitrogen dioxide is the main cause of the summer brown smog that can hang over an area.
Sulphur Dioxide is produced through the combustion of fossil fuels that contain sulphur, such as oil and coal, and by some industrial and manufacturing processes. It occurs naturally through geothermal activity. Sulphur dioxide in the air can cause, or aggravate, some respiratory health problems such as asthma and bronchitis and can bring on wheezing, coughing, and asthma attacks.
Today, the levels of emissions of these pollutants have been greatly controlled by EPA standards and most cars are now designed to release less carbon monoxide into the air. The world's governments are also working together to diminish pollution since air pollution is not just a local problem, but rather a global problem. As air circulates the Earth it carries pollution far and wide.