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What Is Air Pollution?

The Importance Of Air

Other planets have sunlight, but the Earth is the only planet we know that has air and water. Without air and water, the Earth would be unable to sustain life.

A diverse community of plant and animal life has thrived on this planet for millions of years, sustained by the sun and supported by the soil, water and air.

Definition of air pollution

Air pollution occurs when the air contains gases, dust, fumes or odour in harmful amounts. That is, amounts which could be harmful to the health or comfort of humans and animals or which could cause damage to plants and materials.

The substances that cause air pollution are called pollutants. Pollutants that are pumped into our atmosphere and directly pollute the air are called primary pollutants. Primary pollutant examples include carbon monoxide from car exhausts and sulfur dioxide from the combustion of coal.

Further pollution can arise if primary pollutants in the atmosphere undergo chemical reactions. The resulting compounds are called secondary pollutants. Photochemical smog is an example of this.

Historical explanation

In the days before the proliferation of large cities and industry, nature's own systems kept the air fairly clean. Wind mixed and dispersed the gases, rain washed the dust and other easily dissolved substances to the ground and plants absorbed carbon dioxide and replaced it with oxygen.

With increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, humans started to release more wastes into the atmosphere than nature could cope with.

Since then, more pollution has been added to the air by industrial, commercial and domestic sources. As these sources are usually found in major cities, the gases that are produced are usually concentrated in the air around them. The adverse effects of air pollution were graphically illustrated in London in 1952 when, in just a few days, an estimated 4000 people died from effects of fine particle pollution.

It is when these concentrated gases exceed safe limits that we have a pollution problem. Nature can no longer manage air pollution without our help.

More about pollutants

Air pollutants mainly occur as a result of gaseous discharges from industry and motor vehicles. There are also natural sources such as wind-blown dust and smoke from fires.

Some forms of air pollution create global problems, such as upper atmosphere ozone depletion and global warming. These problems are very complex, and require international cooperative efforts to find solutions.

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