Although the sky appears limitless on a clear day, our atmosphere is actually a thin envelope surrounding the earth. Just 8 kilometers above the surface, we would suffocate, much like a fish out of water. But even with this knowledge, air pollution is not a new thing to us.
We first started pumping pollutants into the atmosphere back when we were still living in caves, with smoke from cooking fires unable to escape due to a lack of ventilation.
Fast forward a few thousand years and the issue becomes of much greater concern, with far deadlier chemicals in the air and which are causing a huge range of health issues and on a significantly larger scale.
Air pollution facts: the current situation worldwide
Our air is dirty. Worldwide, nine out of ten people breathe polluted air. It has become dirtier and dirtier since the industrial age began in the 1880s.
The Industrial era is when most people probably think air pollution really started, as technological advances brought vast numbers of factories to the big cites as well as smog that brought with it death in great numbers.
Although a number of Parliamentary Acts were introduced to minimize the negative impacts of factory emissions, the use of nicknames such as the ‘Big Smoke’ for London and ‘Auld Reekie’ for Edinburgh suggest that they weren’t entirely successful.
The crisis came to the forefront of European consciousness in December 1952 when a smog from chemicals reacting from coal burning emissions killed 4,000 people . It was this last event which caused the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1956 and which moved factories out of the cities and into rural areas.
It came to the forefront of American consciousness in 1948 when a Pennsylvania town was enveloped in smog from steel and lead smelters, causing 14,000 residents to suffer severe breathing and cardiovascular problems and killing 48 people. Individual states reacted, but significant national legislation was not passed until 1970 .
While developed countries are beginning to understand how dire the situation is for the entire human race and to set emission limits on polluters, it may be too little too late.
Countries like the United States are not making the strides they could if it would not be for powerful industry lobbyists and corrupt politicians and many developing countries have not found a leadership with the vision and capability of developing infrastructure while respecting environmental considerations.
A recent study by the World Health Organization reported that over the past six years, that while some progress has been made in parts of Europe and the Americas, globally, ambient air pollution levels have not declined globally .
We are all in this together. Air systems do not respect political boundaries.
For example, acid rain has been shown to fall thousands of miles from the factories that emit the acidic chemicals .
We must take action in concert.
Polluted air is pervasive in our biosphere. Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world and unsurprisingly, it is also famously polluted. Its label as the most dangerous city in the world for children comes not only due to the sheer number of inhabitants and associated sources of emissions, but also from its geography.
The city is located in the crater of an extinct volcano around 2,000 meters above sea level, with the reduced oxygen levels at that altitude leading to incomplete fuel combustion in engines and to higher emissions of a number of pollutants. The intense sun then turns these potent gases into a suffocating blanket of smog which perpetually hangs over the city, impacting negatively on its millions of inhabitants, in terms of both health and social effects, such as decreased productivity and increased burdens on the health system.
It’s a nightmare image but one which is unfortunately repeated the world over, in cities as diverse as Ahwaz in Iran, Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and Ludhiana in India.
And while marginal air quality is found more in poor and developing countries like India, China and Pakistan and better air quality in higher income countries like those in Europe, still, a recent study showed that the air over Europe is polluted enough to shorten the average life span between 2 and 24 months .
Although steps are being taken to improve matters in many countries, with the introduction of alternate energy sources, the problem remains unsolved in many (especially developing) countries which lack the technology and finances to implement such changes.
For these unfortunate citizens, air pollution casts a pall over their entire lives which they are unlikely to ever escape.
Causes of air pollution
The following are some of the primary causes and effects of air pollution in our world.
The reason that we are taught measures like “turn off the lights when you leave the room” and are encouraged to buy Energy Saver appliances, the reason why halogen bulbs were phased out in favor of LEDs, the reason for turning down back the thermostat at night, is that producing electricity and heat contributes heavily to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions .
Industrial plants that produce metals like steel or aluminum or process lead or plastics, that manufacture chemicals, refine petroleum, manufacture cement or consumer goods release pollutants, many toxic in and of themselves and others harmful simply due to their size and propensity to disrupt our ability to breathe.
Burning fossil fuels
Burning fossil fuels emits hazardous gases, greenhouse gases and particulate matter into the air.
Power plants and factories contribute, but the primary contributor is traffic, personal vehicles, construction vehicles, public transportation vehicles and tractor-trailer trucks used to transport goods.
Agribusiness is a five trillion-dollar industry around the globe.
Ammonia-based fertilizers are released into the air, as well as toxic pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.
The beef industry is an especially large culprit. The carbon footprint due to growing and providing animal feed as well as methane from gassy cows is not pretty.
Mining involves drilling and blasting, extraction and transportation, each responsible for the release of particulate matter and release of dangerous gases into the atmosphere.
As the population grows, urban and suburban areas are expanding. Excavation and building machinery burn fossil fuels, emitting toxic gases and particulate matter and demolition and construction also emit a lot of dirt and dust into the atmosphere.
In some parts of the world, waste is disposed of by burning it. This releases toxic gases and particulates into the atmosphere.
At its worst, indoor air pollution includes the burning of fossil fuels for cooking or heat, a large problem in developing countries.
But developed countries also contribute to indoor air pollution by routinely using many toxic substances then released into the environment, including the many cleaning solvents and aerosols a typical householder uses, as well as paints and paint thinners which are highly volatile and emit toxic gases.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are gases which are emitted from a variety of indoor sources, with concentrations typically higher indoors that outside.
One of the most common VOCs is formaldehyde, which is found in building materials such as plywood, while it is also emitted from the burning of gas, wood and kerosene as well as a variety of other sources. A colourless gas with a strong smell, formaldehyde is known to cause nausea and skin problems in low amounts, but with higher concentrations damaging lungs, kidneys, liver and the central nervous system and potentially even cancer.
In fact, the ozone layer has thinned from the release of chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol cans used for many household and domestic products before they became regulated as well as halons, refrigerants. The ozone layer is no longer as effective protecting us from the sun’s strong ultraviolet rays and has been linked to more skin cancers and higher incidences of cataracts (eye damage) .
Forest fires and volcanoes can both emit smoke, heavy with particulate emissions.
When rocks in the earth’s surface decay, they can release radon.
Effects of air pollution
Particulate matter includes fine or coarse particles which can enter the lungs and cause breathing problems. The finer the diameter, the more likely it is to find its way into respiration pathways and cause inflammation and obstruction.
Most countries that regulate air quality set regulations for the quantity of inhalable particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller and 10 micrometers and smaller in diameter that an industry is allowed to emit. This is a standard air quality measurement across the world.
Not only industry and construction contribute to the particulate matter in the atmosphere. The ammonia that enters the air as a gas from heavily fertilized fields and livestock waste combines with other pollutants, primarily the nitrogen oxides and sulfates from auto emissions, power plants and factories to create very fine particulate matter.
A recent study concluded that this small particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers and less is responsible for 3.3 million premature deaths annually .
More allergens: Increased pollen and mold
Studies now are showing that due to the extra carbon dioxide in the air and the longer growing seasons due to climate change, that pollen-producing plants, especially ragweed are growing larger and becoming more potent as an allergen, effecting more people more seriously.
Additionally, more flooding has been associated with global warming, which generally results in more mold spores growing and spreading more rapidly in the increased warmth .
Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases. The energy production sector is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 35 percent of the gases contributing to the thinning of our ozone layer and the earth’s warming. Agriculture contributes around 24 percent, industry 21 percent, transport 14 percent and the building sector 6.4 percent .
Have a look at this graph of greenhouse gas emissions by sector:
Global warming itself creates more air pollution problems. Photochemical smog, or “bad ozone”, is formed at the ground level when the chemicals emitted by car exhaust, power plants and factories react in the presence of ultraviolet light .
Livestock account for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, with greater than half of that from gassy cows . The cattle industry is looking to alternative feeds as the cattle do not seem to be digesting the cheaper to grow corn as well as their natural diet of a mixture of grasses and they are looking at selective breeding as findings also suggest the genetic propensity of certain breeds to have digestive problems.
When sulfuric or nitric acid, both common emissions from of fossil fuel combustion, combine with water vapor, the vapor becomes acidic. Acid deposition, commonly called acid rain, though it can be rain, snow, hail, fog or even dust, is when the acid content is carried down from the sky.
Acid eats away at rocks, discoloring buildings and eroding statues. It can damage  and even kill trees and deprive frogs of their food source .
The shells of shellfish and oyster and coral reefs disintegrate and die.
A recent experiment measuring the sediment below coral reefs showed that at the present rate of acidification, the sediment from which coral reefs are created will completely disintegrate in the next few decades in areas already loaded with anthropogenic stress like near Hawaii.
The more pristine reef systems will last longer, but too, will disintegrate from the ocean’s acidity. Coral reefs are known as the “rain forests of the sea” when it comes to biodiversity. They are home to twenty-five percent of marine life: seaweeds, bacteria, fungi, reptiles, crustaceans and over 4,000 species of fish .
For example, pteropods are tiny creatures fed on by whales but when exposed to water with higher levels of pH and carbonate, their shells dissolve.
Acidification impacts the performance of algae as well  and we rely on algae for 70-80 percent of our oxygen .
Atmospheric fallout from chemicals emitted from burning fossil fuels also contributes to eutrophication, the overloading of the ocean with nutrients causing a toxic algal bloom and creating dead zones in the water.
Power plants, factories and industrial plants are also major contributors to air pollution, spitting out everything from sulphur dioxide, mercury, acid gases, nitrogen oxides, to particulates and which can have numerous dramatic effects on human health.
Mercury for example, is known to cause neurological damage, such as reduced IQ, in unborn babies and young children who are exposed to emissions. Metals like arsenic, nickel and chromium can cause cancer, while acid gases cause lung damage and contribute to asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases, and with particulates causing premature death and a range of lung and heart diseases.
Air pollution is responsible for five and a half million deaths a year .
It is responsible for:
- birth defects
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders
- heart and bladder disease
- liver, breast, lung and pancreatic cancers
- inflammation of the brain and neural system
Air pollution has been found to exacerbate many other preexisting conditions as well.
Contamination of food chain
Some of the diseases caused by air pollution are indirect.
For example, “Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins” or PBTs as they are commonly known are very toxic chemicals that are carried by the wind and precipitation and not only persist in the environment, they bio-accumulate, that is, increase in concentration on the tissues of the organism eating the source of the toxin, probably initially a plant, then a small fish and on up the chain until it reaches the human dinner plate.
Over 2,000 U.S. water bodies are covered by fish consumption advisories, warning people not to eat the fish because of contamination with chemicals, usually PBTs.
PBTs, like mercury and DDT have been linked to neurological disorders, birth defects and cancers .
The EPA estimates that in many parts of the United States, pollution has reduced visibility the (distance and clarity) by 70 percent. Because fine particles can stay suspended in the air and be carried long distances, the visibility problems faced by the National Park Services in Rocky Mountains National Park are difficult for them to control singlehandedly as much of the haze is likely due to factory pollutants hundreds of miles away .
Beijing and surrounding areas are subject to heavy smog causing visibility of less than 100 meters .
The heavy smog in Delhi frequently prompts train and flight cancellations  and causes pile-up auto accidents as well .
Steps to control air pollution
The most obvious step to controlling air pollution is to build an infrastructure based on clean, renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels.
Another obvious step to controlling air pollution is setting stringent emission levels on industry and enforcing them.
Transportation vehicles must also be used that rely on clean energy.
The agriculture industry must not be allowed to continue its thoughtless ravaging of the planet by dumping insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and ammonia-rich fertilizers into the environment.
True, food is a priority with an expanding population, but alternative methods can be found to solve the problems in food production such as employing sustainable agriculture techniques like crop rotation, cover crops and companion planting, methods that improve the soil and preserve biodiversity.
Failing regulation, an efficient way to do this would be to tax each product it produces with the dollar amount associated with its cost to the environment. True, the value of a lost planet is hard to quantify, but a formula could be arrived at which represents the cost to clean up the pollution it causes. That may prompt the needed innovation.
Methane emissions from the beef cattle industry should be regulated as smokestack emissions are, that is, a threshold set. This will encourage the innovation needed to address the problem. Or the cost of beef may rise prohibitively, but perhaps that is what is needed to effectuate a change in our diets and demands.
For those staples needed to feed the hungry, without the competition of cheap “food” provided by agribusiness, local markets have a better chance of stepping in. There are some places where governments may need to step in and foot the tab if local markets are not able to provide adequately.
A significant obstacle to change in America must be noted here. It is often skirted due to political overtones, but it is a very real cultural phenomenon that will not be overcome without recognition.
As with recent popular military interventions, this population, self-proclaimed patriots and much of it rural and actually struggling to meet the standard of living television shows enshrine, flash shining badges of independence and righteousness. All the while, their vulnerabilities are being exploited and manipulated by capitalists and lobbyists with an agenda for short-term profits, while pirating away the habitability of the planet.
Thankfully, most of the rest of the world sees the blind spots of pure capitalism and does not place making money above a sustainable planet.
Scientists like those supporting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are working together, setting benchmarks for the reduction of air pollution. The IPCC is a nonpolitical scientific research arm of the United Nations supporting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a convention setting non-binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual member countries and outlines a mechanism for establishing binding treaties .
The House of Representatives in the Netherlands passed a bill this summer to reduce it greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent by 2050, exceeding the goals of the Paris Agreement , while the President of the United States has announced his intention to withdraw the US from the agreement as inside the United States, rollbacks on emission standards for the coal industry are being pushed through legislation .