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Air Pollution: Cause and Effect


Air pollution commonly referred to as ‘smog’, a contraction of the words smoke and fog, contributes to the greenhouse effect and is a significant health hazard to those in U.S. cities that contain numerous vehicles and are located in warm, dry climates. While the world awaits the inevitable far-reaching effects associated with greenhouse gas emissions, people’s lungs are being poisoned as the plants they depend on for near-term survival are being destroyed.

Air Pollution Causes

Air pollution is the result of fossil fuel emissions that are burned by factories, vehicles and electricity-producing power plants to name a few sources. The vast majority of this excessive fuel consumption and its poisonous, pollutant and greenhouse-enhancing byproducts are located in the U.S., Europe and Russia. Other pollutant gases expelled into the atmosphere include methane, which is released when vegetation is burned during land clearing, during oil exploration activities and the coal-mining process; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which is the substance that cools refrigerators and provides the propulsion in aerosol cans and nitrous oxide (N2O) which is the lesser cause of CO2 (Breuer, 1980).

The most concerning air pollutant is CO2. It is generated from both man-made and natural processes. It is estimated that man-made influences represents about half of the CO2 output. Motor vehicles are a major cause of air pollution as is fuel burned for the heating of homes and powering industry along with the toxins emitted from stacks at coal-burning power plants. “Vehicles produce high levels of carbon monoxides (CO) and a major source of hydrocarbons (HC) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), whereas, fuel combustion in stationary sources is the dominant source of sulfur dioxide (SO2)” (Breuer, 1980, p. 70).

The Effects of Air Pollution

The effects of air pollution are far-reaching and cannot be escaped by staying inside the home as indoor air pollution can be harmful, caused by such things as poor ventilation, mold and microbe-harboring air conditioning systems and ducts. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that “toxic chemicals found in the air of almost every American home are three times more likely to cause some type of cancer than outdoor air pollutants” (Miller, 1990, p. 488).

Pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides cause immediate and irreparable damage to the leaf pores of plants and trees. Persistent exposure of leaves to air pollutants breaks down the waxy coating which normally acts to prevent too much water loss and helps protects the leaves from diseases, pests, drought and frost. “In the Midwestern United States, crop losses of wheat, corn, soybeans, and peanuts from damage by ozone and acid deposition amount to about $5 billion a year” (Miller, 1990, p. 498).

If the population of the planet were to immediately discontinue polluting the air with carbon dioxide emissions, climate changes would still continue long into the future. This is “because of the long lifetimes of carbon dioxide (centuries) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and because of the thermal inertia of the oceans. The oceans overturn very slowly and take hundreds of years to adjust fully to changes, so that manifestations of changes that have already occurred are not yet fully seen” (Trenberth 1997).


The consensus of scientists over the past quarter century, especially the last decade, has warned that if the population of the planet were to immediately discontinue polluting the air with automobile and other greenhouse emissions, climate changes would still continue long into the future. Air pollution is man made. The solution can and must be as well.

Works Cited

Breuer, Georg. “Air in Danger: Ecological Perspectives of the Atmosphere.” New York: Cambridge University Press. (1980).

Miller, G. Tyler. “Living in the Environment: An Introduction to Environmental Science.” Belmont: Wadsworth. (1990).

Trenberth, Kevin E. “Global Warming: It’s Happening.” National Center for Atmospheric Research. (1997). Web.