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Health impacts of air pollution

Since the onset of the industrial revolution, there has been a steady change in the composition of the atmosphere mainly due to the combustion of fossil fuels used for the generation of energy and transportation.

Air pollution is a major environmental health problem affecting the developing and the developed countries alike. The effects of air pollution on health are very complex as there are many different sources and their individual effects vary from one to the other. It is not only the ambient air quality in the cities but also the indoor air quality in the rural and the urban areas that are causing concern. In fact in the developing world the highest air pollution exposures occur in the indoor environment. Air pollutants that are inhaled have serious impact on human health affecting the lungs and the respiratory system; they are also taken up by the blood and pumped all round the body. These pollutants are also deposited on soil, plants, and in the water, further contributing to human exposure. As you read on you can learn about health impacts of specific air pollutants.

 

Common atmospheric pollution sources and their pollutants

Category

Source

Emitting pollutants
Agriculture Open burning Suspended particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds
Mining and quarrying Coal mining; crude oil and gas production; stone quarrying Suspended particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, volatile organic compounds
Power generation Electricity; gas; steam Suspended particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, sulphur trioxide, lead
Transport Combustion engines Suspended particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, lead
Community service Municipal incinerators Suspended particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, lead

Sources of air pollution

Air pollutants consist of gaseous pollutants, odours, and SPM, (suspended particulate matter) such as dust, fumes, mist, and smoke. The concentration of these in and near the urban areas causes severe pollution to the surroundings. The largest sources of human-created air pollution are energy generation, transportation, and industries that use a great deal of energy sources. Depending on their source and interactions with other components of the air, they can have different chemical compositions and health impacts. Since these pollutants are generally concentrated in and around urban areas, the outdoor urban pollution levels are far higher than in the rural areas.

Fires are another major source of air pollution and can lead to severe problems if the smoke is inhaled for a period of time. These fires can either be forest fires, oil well fires, burning of leaves in the backyard or as in the case of rural areas, large-scale burning of agricultural waste. Other sources include industries and power plants located in these areas.

 

 

Impact of air pollution on health

The magnitude of the London fog of 1952, which affected such a large number of people, was the first incident that made people aware of the damage done to the atmosphere due to industrialization. The SPM levels increased manifold and resulted in over 4000 deaths.

Indoor air pollution can be particularly hazardous to health as it is released in close proximity to people. It is stated that a pollutant released indoors is many times more likely to reach the lung than that released outdoors. In the developing countries a fairly large portion of the population is dependent on biomass for their energy requirements. These include wood, charcoal, agricultural residue, and animal waste. Open fires used for cooking and heating are commonly found in the household both in the rural and the urban areas. The stove is often at floor level, adding to the risk of accident and the hygiene factor. In addition, they are often not fitted with a chimney to remove the pollutants. In such households the children and women are most likely to be affected, as they are the group that spends more time indoors. The main pollutant in this environment is the SPM. In fact, death due to indoor air pollution, mainly particulate matters, in the rural areas of India are one of the highest in the world. Many of the deaths are due to acute respiratory infections in children; others are due to cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases in adults. If emissions are high and ventilation is poor, household use of coal and biomass can severely affect the indoor air quality.

Pollutant emissions per meal are also very high compared to those of other fuels. Household use of fossil fuel is also fairly common in the developing countries, particularly coal—both bituminous and lignite. These are particularly damaging as they burn inefficiently and emit considerable quantities of air pollutants. If emissions are high and ventilation poor, then the exposure levels to the gases emitted are far higher. The most harmful of the gases and agents that are emitted are particulate matter, carbon dioxide, polycyclic organic matter, and formaldehyde. The indoor concentrations of these are far higher than the acceptable levels and is cause for concern in rural areas.


Health impact of specific air pollutants

Some of these gases can seriously and adversely affect the health of the population and should be given due attention by the concerned authority. The gases mentioned below are mainly outdoor air pollutants but some of them can and do occur indoor depending on the source and the circumstances.

Tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke generates a wide range of harmful chemicals and is a major cause of ill health, as it is known to cause cancer, not only to the smoker but affecting passive smokers too. It is well-known that smoking affects the passive smoker (the person who is in the vicinity of a smoker and is not himself/herself a smoker) ranging from burning sensation in the eyes or nose, and throat irritation, to cancer, bronchitis, severe asthma, and a decrease in lung function.
Biological pollutants. These are mostly allergens that can cause asthma, hay fever, and other allergic diseases.
Volatile organic compounds. Volatile compounds can cause irritation of the eye, nose and throat. In severe cases there may be headaches, nausea, and loss of coordination. In the longer run, some of them are suspected to cause damage to the liver and other parts of the body.
Formaldehyde. Exposure causes irritation to the eyes, nose and may cause allergies in some people.
Lead. Prolonged exposure can cause damage to the nervous system, digestive problems, and in some cases cause cancer. It is especially hazardous to small children.
Radon. A radioactive gas that can accumulate inside the house, it originates from the rocks and soil under the house and its level is dominated by the outdoor air and also to some extent the other gases being emitted indoors. Exposure to this gas increases the risk of lung cancer.
Ozone. Exposure to this gas makes our eyes itch, burn, and water and it has also been associated with increase in respiratory disorders such as asthma. It lowers our resistance to colds and pneumonia.
Oxides of nitrogen. This gas can make children susceptible to respiratory diseases in the winters.
Carbon monoxide. CO (carbon monoxide) combines with haemoglobin to lessen the amount of oxygen that enters our blood through our lungs. The binding with other haeme proteins causes changes in the function of the affected organs such as the brain and the cardiovascular system, and also the developing foetus. It can impair our concentration, slow our reflexes, and make us confused and sleepy.
Sulphur dioxide. SO2 (sulphur dioxide) in the air is caused due to the rise in combustion of fossil fuels. It can oxidize and form sulphuric acid mist. SO2 in the air leads to diseases of the lung and other lung disorders such as wheezing and shortness of breath. Long-term effects are more difficult to ascertain as SO2 exposure is often combined with that of SPM.
SPM (suspended particulate matter). Suspended matter consists of dust, fumes, mist and smoke. The main chemical component of SPM that is of major concern is lead, others being nickel, arsenic, and those present in diesel exhaust. These particles when breathed in, lodge in our lung tissues and cause lung damage and respiratory problems. The importance of SPM as a major pollutant needs special emphasis as a) it affects more people globally than any other pollutant on a continuing basis; b) there is more monitoring data available on this than any other pollutant; and c) more epidemiological evidence has been collected on the exposure to this than to any other pollutant.

 

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