Air Pollution Solutions

While air pollution is a serious problem, it is a problem that we can solve! In the United States and around the world, people are taking action to reduce emissions and improve air quality.

The Clean Air Act: How Laws Can Help Clean Up the Air

Creating policies and passing laws to restrict air pollution has been an important step toward improving air quality. In 1970, fueled by persistent visible smog in many U.S. cities and industrial areas and an increase in health problems caused by air pollution, the Clean Air Act paved the way for numerous efforts to improve air quality in the United States. The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set air quality standards for several hazardous air pollutants reported in the Air Quality Index (AQI) , requires states to have a plan to address air pollution and emissions reduction, and also addresses problems such as acid rain, ozone holes, and greenhouse gas pollution which is causing the climate to warm.

Since the Clean Air Act was passed:

  • The amounts of the six common pollutants in the atmosphere measured by the EPA (particulates, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide) are declining.
  • The risks of premature death, low birth weight, and other health problems due to air pollution have decreased.
  • Vehicle emissions have decreased, despite increases in the number of miles driven each year, due to stricter emissions standards and increased efficiency in vehicle engines.
  • Emissions and toxic pollutants (such as mercury and benzenes) from factories and power plants have decreased, due to new technologies.
  • There is less acid rain, due to decreased power plant emissions.
  • The ozone hole continues to shrink as a result of banning the use of CFCs.
  • Pollution-caused haze in cities and wilderness areas has decreased.

Source: EPA

Most industrialized countries have laws and regulations about air quality. The United Kingdom first passed its Clean Air Act in 1956 following a deadly smog event that killed many London residents. In China, where rapid industrial and urban growth in recent decades resulted in a sharp decrease in air quality, numerous laws about air pollution have been passed, including a frequently updated five-year national plan to meet target reductions in air pollution.

It is important to note that while laws and regulations are helping, the effects of air pollution are still apparent. The decline of toxic air pollutants and health improvements are welcome changes, yet the growing threat of climate change due to fossil fuel emissions remains a problem that still needs to be solved.

There Are Many Solutions to Air Pollution

In order to improve air quality and slow climate warming, change needs to happen on a national and global scale. However, actions at the individual and community level are also important.

  • Burn less coal. Pollution from burning all fossil fuels is harmful to the atmosphere, but burning coal has a larger impact on air pollution than burning oil or gas because it releases more carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and heavy metal pollutants per unit of energy. Also, over one-third of the electricity produced in the world comes from burning coal. As of 2014, the global demand for coal is beginning to decline. In North America, coal plants are being replaced by natural gas. Some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, rely more on nuclear energy, and there is a global increase in electricity supplied by clean, renewable sources like wind, solar, and water.

This is an illustration showing ways that you can help reduce air pollution: wind turbines are a source of renewable energy; drive low pollution vehicles; choose alternative transportation modes, such as walking, riding the bus, or riding a bicycle; refueling in the evening; and around the house choose low VOC products, use less energy, forgo the fire, and mow the grass in the evening.

  • Conserve energy — at home, work, and everywhere! The demand for electricity, which is most often produced by burning fossil fuels, has grown exponentially over the past decades. Conserve energy by turning off lights, buy appliances rated for energy efficiency, and keep the thermostat set higher in the summer and lower in the winter. Whenever possible, invest in renewable energy sources to power your home. Several countries are using renewables, nuclear power, or lower-emission sources like natural gas to meet their increasing power demand. And many countries plan to significantly increase their use of renewable energy sources in the future.
  • Monitor air quality warnings and take action on poor air quality days. On days when pollution levels are high, taking action can help reduce the risk of harm to those who are most vulnerable. Reducing overall car usage and avoiding idling your car can help on days with high levels of ozone pollution. Save refueling and use of gas-powered yard equipment for the evening when it is cooler and ozone levels are lower. On days when particle pollutants are high, avoid burning yard waste and wood. Choosing to carpool or using a clean transportation method is always helpful, especially on days with high levels of air pollution. Check on the air quality in your area at the AirNow website .
  • Take action within your community to find solutions to air pollution. Around the world, many of the current solutions are the result of communities coming together to demand change. Citizens in Shenzhen, China, inspired a switch to electric buses in their city. In Brussels, Belgium, a movement started by parents concerned about poor air quality in schools led to a plan to invest in public transportation and bicycling, along with a ban on fueled cars by 2030. And in many countries, governments are closing coal plants and exploring new sources of energy because of citizens who are concerned about climate warming.

Check out the EPA's website to learn more about actions you can take to reduce air pollution.

  • Air Quality Activities
  • Air Quality Gallery
  • Solving Climate Change

How to fight the next threat to our world: air pollution

The image shows a city swathed in polluted air to illustrate the dangers of air pollution

Air pollution is threatening the health of the planet. Image:  Photo by Kristen Morith on Unsplash

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Rosamund adoo-kissi-debrah.

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  • 99% of the global population breathes in polluted air daily.
  • World leaders must work to clean up the air we all share, we call on them today, the International Clean Air Day for blue skies, to act.
  • Three big changes need to be made to clean up our air.

A global threat has taken hold. It’s almost impossible to escape. It lurks in the air, indoors and outdoors, seeping into every organ of the body. It’s weakening our hearts and lungs, forcing more people to rely on inhalers just to catch their breath. It's burdening already overstretched national healthcare systems.

It sounds like a transmittable disease, but it’s even more widespread. It's air pollution. Some 99% of us worldwide are breathing it every day.

As the healthcare mantra goes, prevention is better than cure. The benefits of cleaner air extend beyond our personal health, to the collective public, environmental and economic health. And, like the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, air pollution calls for speedy, coordinated cross-border political leadership.

During COP26 the World Economic Forum and the Clean Air Fund launched the Alliance for Clean Air , the first global private sector initiative to tackle air pollution.

The Alliance for Clean Air brings together business leaders committed to measuring and reducing value chain air pollutant emissions, investing in innovation, and working with policy makers and peers to champion the social, economic and climate benefits of tackling air pollution.

Announced at COP27, the Alliance for Clean Air announced the release of a guide to help businesses deliver on their commitments to reduce air pollution across value chains and get ahead of sustainability reporting standards.

solution to the problem of air pollution

A Practical Guide For Business Air Pollutant Emission Assessment – developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute, Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and Inter IKEA Group – enables alliance members to quantify the air pollutant emissions along their value chains from key sectors, including electricity generation, transport, industrial processes, agriculture and waste. This has enabled them to consider the impact of their existing climate mitigation strategies on air pollution and ways to increase their ambition through specific air pollution mitigation measures. It is an important contribution that businesses can take to enhance their sustainability strategies.

Also announced at COP27, companies interested in learning more about the business case for tackling air pollution as part of their climate strategies can access a new business action toolkit launched in partnership with Accenture and the Clean Air Fund.

If your company is committed to improving air quality contact us to express interest in working with us.

Polluted air is everywhere. It’s released from wood and kerosene cooking stoves, diesel and petrol vehicles, coal-fired power stations, wildfires, waste incineration and more. It’s closely linked to lung and heart diseases, cancer and asthma, but it can also affect dementia, depression, brain development, premature birth, miscarriage and infertility. It’s killing seven million people a year and shaving over two years off the average life expectancy .

One of those victims is Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, daughter of one of the writers of this blog, Rosamund. Ella died at the age of nine in 2013. Ella is the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate, after a UK coroner’s inquest concluded that illegal levels of air pollution from the traffic near her London home contributed significantly to her acute asthma.

Nearly ten years later, it’s time to finally step up and save the lives of future Ellas. World leaders can make three big changes to protect the air we share. We call on them today, on International Clean Air Day for blue skies, to start acting.

Global Air Quality Guidelines

First, they must follow the World Health Organization’s Global Air Quality Guidelines that protect human health and the environment. These guidelines, updated a year ago, reflect the latest consensus-backed science on air pollutants and health.

If we make them the guiding light for national, regional and local air quality regulation and political decisions, we will save lives. Cutting fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution, for example, emitted from the burning of fossil fuels and wood, in line with WHO guidelines would reduce deaths linked to PM2.5 by 80%. That’s 3.3 million people.

This will also save money. The health damages linked to PM2.5 pollution amounted to $8.1 trillion in 2019, according to the World Bank . That’s 6.1% of global GDP.

The UK has a golden opportunity to act now, by setting air quality targets under the new Environment Act to fully align with WHO science as soon as possible. This is achievable and desirable. If implemented, existing government plans would lead the UK to meet the WHO’s interim guidelines by 2030, according to Imperial College London . This would reduce the number of coronary heart disease cases by 3,000 every year and deliver £380 billion in benefits between 2018 and 2034, in the form of reduced healthcare costs and higher productivity. A concerted, cross-government effort could, therefore, lead the UK to fully achieve these guidelines by 2030 or soon after and reap bigger benefits.

Have you read?

Why extreme heat and air pollution is a deadly combination, indoor air pollution: what causes it and how to tackle it, raise awareness of air pollution.

Second, world leaders must raise awareness of the dangers of air pollution, the benefits of clean air and the solutions to the problem, both across healthcare and society as a whole.

Doctors and nurses can inform patients about the environmental drivers of illness and how to minimise exposure. By recognising air pollution as a global health risk – the way we have with cigarettes – healthcare professionals can help galvanise public understanding and the political will to tackle the problem.

Ella and her family were never warned that nearby traffic pollution could be exacerbating her asthma. A lot more is known now, yet people still don’t fully understand the risks or how to protect themselves. This requires widespread, government-backed public health campaigns and increased monitoring and communication of air-quality levels.

Make health the focus of climate action and social equity

Third, world leaders must put health at the core of climate action and social equity. The fight for clean air can accelerate the reduction of climate-warming emissions, the shift to cheaper and more reliable energy sources and justice for the marginalised and most vulnerable communities.

Low- and middle-income countries bear the biggest burden from dirty air, accounting for 91% of premature deaths linked to all outdoor air pollutants. They’re most reliant on old, inefficient, fossil-fuelled vehicles and energy sources, with fewer alternative options.

We can confront these crises more effectively and fairly if we address them as one – and foster support across all sectors of the economy. Replacing coal- and gas-fired power plants, for example, with solar and wind energy will reduce both air pollution and reliance on the volatile commodity prices that push up our energy bills. Choosing renewables over wood-burning biomass in households and industries will reduce air pollution and conserve land for food farming and trees that absorb carbon dioxide.

COVID-19 has proven humanity’s inbuilt ability to rise up and act to protect the health of our most vulnerable people. We need to do the same with air pollution. Ella lost her right to a healthy life because the traffic near her home periodically exceeded WHO air-quality guidelines. Now we know better. We must act.

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Actions You Can Take to Reduce Air Pollution

Follow these tips every day to reduce pollution:.

  • Conserve energy - at home, at work, everywhere.
  • Look for the ENERGY STAR label when buying home or office equipment.
  • Carpool, use public transportation, bike, or walk whenever possible.
  • Follow gasoline refueling instructions for efficient vapor recovery, being careful not to spill fuel and always tightening your gas cap securely.
  • Consider purchasing portable gasoline containers labeled “spill-proof,” where available.
  • Keep car, boat, and other engines properly tuned.
  • Be sure your tires are properly inflated.
  • Use environmentally safe paints and cleaning products whenever possible.
  • Mulch or compost leaves and yard waste.
  • Consider using gas logs instead of wood.

On Days when High Ozone Levels are Expected, Take these Extra Steps to Reduce Pollution:

  • Choose a cleaner commute - share a ride to work or use public transportation.
  • Combine errands and reduce trips. Walk to errands when possible.
  • Avoid excessive idling of your automobile.
  • Refuel your car in the evening when its cooler.
  • Conserve electricity and set air conditioners no lower than 78 degrees.
  • Defer lawn and gardening chores that use gasoline-powered equipment, or wait until evening.

On Days when High Particle Levels are Expected, Take these Extra Steps to Reduce Pollution:

  • Reduce the number of trips you take in your car.
  • Reduce or eliminate fireplace and wood stove use.
  • Avoid burning leaves, trash, and other materials.
  • Avoid using gas-powered lawn and garden equipment.

You can also take steps to minimize your exposure to air pollution and protection your health.

  • Information on the health effects of ozone
  • Information on the health effects of particles
  • More Air Quality Index Publications

Contact Us to ask a question, provide feedback, or report a problem.

Air Pollution: Everything You Need to Know

How smog, soot, greenhouse gases, and other top air pollutants are affecting the planet—and your health.

Smoke blows out of two tall industrial stacks

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What Is Air Pollution?

What causes air pollution, effects of air pollution, air pollution in the united states, air pollution and environmental justice, controlling air pollution, how to help reduce air pollution, how to protect your health.

Air pollution  refers to the release of pollutants into the air—pollutants that are detrimental to human health and the planet as a whole. According to the  World Health Organization (WHO) , each year, indoor and outdoor air pollution is responsible for nearly seven million deaths around the globe. Ninety-nine percent of human beings currently breathe air that exceeds the WHO’s guideline limits for pollutants, with those living in low- and middle-income countries suffering the most. In the United States, the  Clean Air Act , established in 1970, authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to safeguard public health by regulating the emissions of these harmful air pollutants.

“Most air pollution comes from energy use and production,” says  John Walke , director of the Clean Air team at NRDC. Driving a car on gasoline, heating a home with oil, running a power plant on  fracked gas : In each case, a fossil fuel is burned and harmful chemicals and gases are released into the air.

“We’ve made progress over the last 50 years in improving air quality in the United States, thanks to the Clean Air Act. But climate change will make it harder in the future to meet pollution standards, which are designed to  protect health ,” says Walke.

Air pollution is now the world’s fourth-largest risk factor for early death. According to the 2020  State of Global Air  report —which summarizes the latest scientific understanding of air pollution around the world—4.5 million deaths were linked to outdoor air pollution exposures in 2019, and another 2.2 million deaths were caused by indoor air pollution. The world’s most populous countries, China and India, continue to bear the highest burdens of disease.

“Despite improvements in reducing global average mortality rates from air pollution, this report also serves as a sobering reminder that the climate crisis threatens to worsen air pollution problems significantly,” explains  Vijay Limaye , senior scientist in NRDC’s Science Office. Smog, for instance, is intensified by increased heat, forming when the weather is warmer and there’s more ultraviolet radiation. In addition, climate change increases the production of allergenic air pollutants, including mold (thanks to damp conditions caused by extreme weather and increased flooding) and pollen (due to a longer pollen season). “Climate change–fueled droughts and dry conditions are also setting the stage for dangerous wildfires,” adds Limaye. “ Wildfire smoke can linger for days and pollute the air with particulate matter hundreds of miles downwind.”

The effects of air pollution on the human body vary, depending on the type of pollutant, the length and level of exposure, and other factors, including a person’s individual health risks and the cumulative impacts of multiple pollutants or stressors.

Smog and soot

These are the two most prevalent types of air pollution. Smog (sometimes referred to as ground-level ozone) occurs when emissions from combusting fossil fuels react with sunlight. Soot—a type of  particulate matter —is made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens that are carried in the air. The sources of smog and soot are similar. “Both come from cars and trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators, engines, generally anything that combusts fossil fuels such as coal, gasoline, or natural gas,” Walke says.

Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs, especially those of children, senior citizens, and people who work or exercise outdoors. It’s even worse for people who have asthma or allergies; these extra pollutants can intensify their symptoms and trigger asthma attacks. The tiniest airborne particles in soot are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even hasten death. In  2020, a report from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that COVID-19 mortality rates were higher in areas with more particulate matter pollution than in areas with even slightly less, showing a correlation between the virus’s deadliness and long-term exposure to air pollution. 

These findings also illuminate an important  environmental justice issue . Because highways and polluting facilities have historically been sited in or next to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, the negative effects of this pollution have been  disproportionately experienced by the people who live in these communities.

Hazardous air pollutants

A number of air pollutants pose severe health risks and can sometimes be fatal, even in small amounts. Almost 200 of them are regulated by law; some of the most common are mercury,  lead , dioxins, and benzene. “These are also most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incineration, or—in the case of benzene—found in gasoline,” Walke says. Benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the EPA, can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but also present in small amounts in the air, is another carcinogen that can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions.  Mercury  attacks the central nervous system. In large amounts, lead can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even minimal exposure can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn.

Another category of toxic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are by-products of traffic exhaust and wildfire smoke. In large amounts, they have been linked to eye and lung irritation, blood and liver issues, and even cancer.  In one study , the children of mothers exposed to PAHs during pregnancy showed slower brain-processing speeds and more pronounced symptoms of ADHD.

Greenhouse gases

While these climate pollutants don’t have the direct or immediate impacts on the human body associated with other air pollutants, like smog or hazardous chemicals, they are still harmful to our health. By trapping the earth’s heat in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases lead to warmer temperatures, which in turn lead to the hallmarks of climate change: rising sea levels, more extreme weather, heat-related deaths, and the increased transmission of infectious diseases. In 2021, carbon dioxide accounted for roughly 79 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and methane made up more than 11 percent. “Carbon dioxide comes from combusting fossil fuels, and methane comes from natural and industrial sources, including large amounts that are released during oil and gas drilling,” Walke says. “We emit far larger amounts of carbon dioxide, but methane is significantly more potent, so it’s also very destructive.” 

Another class of greenhouse gases,  hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) , are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in their ability to trap heat. In October 2016, more than 140 countries signed the Kigali Agreement to reduce the use of these chemicals—which are found in air conditioners and refrigerators—and develop greener alternatives over time. (The United States officially signed onto the  Kigali Agreement in 2022.)

Pollen and mold

Mold and allergens from trees, weeds, and grass are also carried in the air, are exacerbated by climate change, and can be hazardous to health. Though they aren’t regulated, they can be considered a form of air pollution. “When homes, schools, or businesses get water damage, mold can grow and produce allergenic airborne pollutants,” says Kim Knowlton, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University and a former NRDC scientist. “ Mold exposure can precipitate asthma attacks  or an allergic response, and some molds can even produce toxins that would be dangerous for anyone to inhale.”

Pollen allergies are worsening  because of climate change . “Lab and field studies are showing that pollen-producing plants—especially ragweed—grow larger and produce more pollen when you increase the amount of carbon dioxide that they grow in,” Knowlton says. “Climate change also extends the pollen production season, and some studies are beginning to suggest that ragweed pollen itself might be becoming a more potent allergen.” If so, more people will suffer runny noses, fevers, itchy eyes, and other symptoms. “And for people with allergies and asthma, pollen peaks can precipitate asthma attacks, which are far more serious and can be life-threatening.”

solution to the problem of air pollution

More than one in three U.S. residents—120 million people—live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the  2023  State of the Air  report by the American Lung Association (ALA). Since the annual report was first published, in 2000, its findings have shown how the Clean Air Act has been able to reduce harmful emissions from transportation, power plants, and manufacturing.

Recent findings, however, reflect how climate change–fueled wildfires and extreme heat are adding to the challenges of protecting public health. The latest report—which focuses on ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution—also finds that people of color are 61 percent more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade in at least one of those categories, and three times more likely to live in a county that fails in all three.

In rankings for each of the three pollution categories covered by the ALA report, California cities occupy the top three slots (i.e., were highest in pollution), despite progress that the Golden State has made in reducing air pollution emissions in the past half century. At the other end of the spectrum, these cities consistently rank among the country’s best for air quality: Burlington, Vermont; Honolulu; and Wilmington, North Carolina. 

No one wants to live next door to an incinerator, oil refinery, port, toxic waste dump, or other polluting site. Yet millions of people around the world do, and this puts them at a much higher risk for respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, neurological damage, cancer, and death. In the United States, people of color are 1.5 times more likely than whites to live in areas with poor air quality, according to the ALA.

Historically, racist zoning policies and discriminatory lending practices known as  redlining  have combined to keep polluting industries and car-choked highways away from white neighborhoods and have turned communities of color—especially low-income and working-class communities of color—into sacrifice zones, where residents are forced to breathe dirty air and suffer the many health problems associated with it. In addition to the increased health risks that come from living in such places, the polluted air can economically harm residents in the form of missed workdays and higher medical costs.

Environmental racism isn't limited to cities and industrial areas. Outdoor laborers, including the estimated three million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States, are among the most vulnerable to air pollution—and they’re also among the least equipped, politically, to pressure employers and lawmakers to affirm their right to breathe clean air.

Recently,  cumulative impact mapping , which uses data on environmental conditions and demographics, has been able to show how some communities are overburdened with layers of issues, like high levels of poverty, unemployment, and pollution. Tools like the  Environmental Justice Screening Method  and the EPA’s  EJScreen  provide evidence of what many environmental justice communities have been explaining for decades: that we need land use and public health reforms to ensure that vulnerable areas are not overburdened and that the people who need resources the most are receiving them.

In the United States, the  Clean Air Act  has been a crucial tool for reducing air pollution since its passage in 1970, although fossil fuel interests aided by industry-friendly lawmakers have frequently attempted to  weaken its many protections. Ensuring that this bedrock environmental law remains intact and properly enforced will always be key to maintaining and improving our air quality.

But the best, most effective way to control air pollution is to speed up our transition to cleaner fuels and industrial processes. By switching over to renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar power), maximizing fuel efficiency in our vehicles, and replacing more and more of our gasoline-powered cars and trucks with electric versions, we'll be limiting air pollution at its source while also curbing the global warming that heightens so many of its worst health impacts.

And what about the economic costs of controlling air pollution? According to a report on the Clean Air Act commissioned by NRDC, the annual  benefits of cleaner air  are up to 32 times greater than the cost of clean air regulations. Those benefits include up to 370,000 avoided premature deaths, 189,000 fewer hospital admissions for cardiac and respiratory illnesses, and net economic benefits of up to $3.8 trillion for the U.S. economy every year.

“The less gasoline we burn, the better we’re doing to reduce air pollution and the harmful effects of climate change,” Walke explains. “Make good choices about transportation. When you can, ride a bike, walk, or take public transportation. For driving, choose a car that gets better miles per gallon of gas or  buy an electric car .” You can also investigate your power provider options—you may be able to request that your electricity be supplied by wind or solar. Buying your food locally cuts down on the fossil fuels burned in trucking or flying food in from across the world. And most important: “Support leaders who push for clean air and water and responsible steps on climate change,” Walke says.

  • “When you see in the news or hear on the weather report that pollution levels are high, it may be useful to limit the time when children go outside or you go for a jog,” Walke says. Generally, ozone levels tend to be lower in the morning.
  • If you exercise outside, stay as far as you can from heavily trafficked roads. Then shower and wash your clothes to remove fine particles.
  • The air may look clear, but that doesn’t mean it’s pollution free. Utilize tools like the EPA’s air pollution monitor,  AirNow , to get the latest conditions. If the air quality is bad, stay inside with the windows closed.
  • If you live or work in an area that’s prone to wildfires,  stay away from the harmful smoke  as much as you’re able. Consider keeping a small stock of masks to wear when conditions are poor. The most ideal masks for smoke particles will be labelled “NIOSH” (which stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and have either “N95” or “P100” printed on it.
  • If you’re using an air conditioner while outdoor pollution conditions are bad, use the recirculating setting to limit the amount of polluted air that gets inside. 

This story was originally published on November 1, 2016, and has been updated with new information and links.

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How America solved its first air pollution crisis — and why solving the next one will be harder

The history of American air pollution, explained.

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Manhattan covered in heavy smog

The toxic air pollution that wafted over the Northeast earlier this month may have shocked some Americans unaccustomed to the smoky conditions that regularly plague Western states . But the air in cities like Washington, DC, and New York hasn’t always been as clean as it generally is today.

In the 1960s, the consequences of industrial activity, factory pollution, and automobiles were visible in the country’s polluted water and air . Yellow smog and falling ash coated American cities. The air in New York City was so polluted you could touch it, the New York Times reported , and “killer smog” events — short periods of heavy air pollution — were far too common. In the 1950s and ’60s , hundreds of people in NYC died from exposure to air pollution.

A series of ecologically damaging events and increasing education spurred activists and politicians to action and ultimately culminated in the modern environmental movement. The start of the next decade, 1970, marked the first Earth Day , followed soon by some of the most consequential forms of air pollution regulation in the country to date.

Those efforts bore fruit: The significant strides made by the US in the 20th century to combat its environmental crisis succeeded, both visibly in the air throughout major cities and in the health of Americans. Those laws prevented an estimated 230,000 premature deaths over 50 years. And lawmakers have continued to build on the last century’s policies . Just last year, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which invested over $270 million in clean air measures, including increased monitoring of air quality.

But now a growing source of pollution — wildfire smoke — jeopardizes much of this progress.

Smokey Sunrise in New York City

Extreme fire events — like the one that caused this month’s record-breaking air pollution in New York and elsewhere — are exacerbated by climate change , and are “essentially erasing” decades of progress in improving air quality, said David Lu, the co-founder of Clarity Movement , a company providing air quality monitoring solutions. Human-led deforestation, farming, and the burning of fossil fuels are warming our planet , making the climate hotter, drier, and more prone to fires.

“Historically, we were really targeting air pollution coming from man-made sources,” Lu said. “That’s something we can control. Wildfires are a natural disaster.”

In the 20th century, the sources of air pollution were industrial. The country regulated these emissions — making cars and even power plants cleaner. Wildfires are a different beast. A number of factors influence where and how severe a fire is, but we know from our previous progress that social pressure and legislative action can work.

The stakes are too high not to take preventive and reactive measures. Air pollution still kills 7 million people annually, and there is a very real risk that this number could rise.

“Air quality is really just like a canary in the coal mine for climate change,” said Lu. “Getting everybody on board to combat climate change is hard. But everybody, no matter what your political affiliation, cares about air quality because we all are breathing this air.”

An era of change

After 1945, when World War II ended, the US experienced rapid population growth — going from a population of a little over 132 million people in 1940 to over 179 million people in 1960. Simultaneously, America further urbanized and industrialized, and enthusiastically took to the roads and highways. In 1945, there were 26 million automobiles on American roads. By the end of the 1960s, there were 100 million vehicles .

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, car exhaust, power plant pollution, and landfill-related smog blanketed US cities coast to coast, including Los Angeles and New York City. In the US, human-made sources emitted over 92 million tonnes of emissions of nitrogen oxide, non-methane volatile organic compounds, and sulfur dioxide into the air in 1970. Air pollution, especially at this severe level, can cause respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer . And is especially dangerous for children, the elderly, and those with preexisting conditions, like asthma.

To address the public health crisis air pollution poses, Congress enacted federal legislation, targeting the sources, first via the 1963 Clean Air Act — which spurred research into air pollution monitoring and control — and then again through a series of amendments, most notably the 1970 amendment. This amendment authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which President Richard Nixon created that same year, to regulate air pollutant emissions.

solution to the problem of air pollution

The regulations resulted in tremendous progress and lowered certain types of air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, significantly. Since 1970, emissions from nitrogen oxide, non-methane volatile organic compounds, and sulfur dioxide have declined by 63.7 million tonnes to just over 29 million tonnes. The EPA lowered levels of air pollutants by investing in the enforcement of emission-lowering technology, including what Lu calls the “game-changing” implementation of catalytic converters . California tightened the emission standards for vehicles, and by 1975, lead gas had been banned by the federal government for use in cars.

“The stationary sources — factories and power plants — and mobile sources — cars and trucks — all emit much less air pollution than they did back in 1970,” said John Dernbach, a professor of environmental law and sustainability at Widener University Commonwealth Law School and director of the school’s Environmental Law and Sustainability Center . The Clean Air Act is “an incredible success story.”

In the mid-1900s, factories and power plants produced copious amounts of sulfur dioxide, which can cause acid rain . Between 1995 and 2022, the national level of sulfur dioxide emissions decreased by over 90 percent . Levels of lead (a toxic metal) in the air decreased even more significantly — dropping 98 percent between 1980 and 2014.

The Clean Air Act also proved an economic benefit, said Dernbach. In the 20 years following the 1970 Clean Air Act, the EPA estimated the measures saved anywhere between $5.6 trillion and $49.4 trillion in health, welfare, environmental, and productivity costs. Contrary to doom-and-gloom projections, the economy kept growing, cars kept being developed, and we still have access to electricity (the average American household used the same amount of energy it used in the 1970s in 2010, despite increased efficiency).

“Part of the story that we hear is that if you protect the environment, you’re going to hurt the economy,” said Dernbach. “The air pollution story, based on the Clean Air Act, is a story to the contrary. It’s a story where we’ve had substantial economic growth and improved human quality of life and improved public health.”

The smokier future ahead

In accordance with the Clean Air Act, the EPA monitors six primary air pollutants that adversely affect human health and the environment: particulate matter (PM), ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and lead.

While legislation in the 20th century significantly lowered the level of most of these pollutants, particulate matter remains a large and still-growing problem.

Particulate matter, PM, is composed of solid particles and liquid droplets emitted by a number of sources, including electric utilities, boilers, metal smelters, petroleum refineries, and fires. These teeny-tiny particles can also form from chemical reactions in the atmosphere prompted by other forms of pollutants that are released by power plants and cars (such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide).

Some types of PM are visible to the human eye. But other types, including the dangerous PM2.5, are not visible. These particles are 2.5 micrometers and smaller, or 30 times smaller than the diameter of a single piece of hair . Humans can inhale them without ever noticing, and given their size, they can penetrate deep into our lungs and bloodstream.

Because human activity caused much of the country’s air pollution when lawmakers created the Clean Air Act, the EPA targeted human-made polluters (factories, cars, etc), said Lu. The agency prioritized pollutants from these sources and overlooked particulate matter. The EPA did not begin monitoring PM until 1996 .

Since 1999, PM2.5 emissions from human-induced sources of pollution have declined. But the threat of particulate matter is only worsening with the rise of extreme fire events. The average annual acreage burned by wildfires in the US has more than doubled over the past few decades, in part due to climate change . Between 2000 and 2022, an average of over 7 million acres of land burned each year, compared to approximately 2.9 million acres per year between 1983 and 1999, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center . Experts warn that extreme fire events are an inevitable part of the planet’s future.

“Obviously wildfires occur in nature, but their frequency and their severity and everything else is affected by us, by human activity,” said Neil Donahue, a professor of chemistry and director of the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education at Carnegie Mellon University. Emissions from natural sources are called “biogenic” emissions, and emissions from human sources are called “anthropogenic emissions,” he added. “Wildfires are kind of this weird middle other, because they’re from a natural source — in other words, burning trees — but that fire is there in some way or another because of humans.”

“Unfortunately, until we deal with climate change, we’re gonna see more fire and more smoke,” said Michael Flannigan, the research chair for predictive services, emergency management, and fire science at Thompson Rivers University in Canada.

What needs to change now

Today, PM2.5 is likely the “most harmful” air pollutant the EPA regulates, said Lu. But some consequences, especially the long-term effects, remain uncertain. “There’s actually still a very underdeveloped understanding of the health impact of, specifically, wildfire smoke on our health,” said Lu.

Given our underdeveloped knowledge of the pollutant, the EPA continues to update its guidelines on PM2.5 regularly. Earlier this year, the agency tightened its maximum allowable concentration of PM2.5 micrograms per cubic meter in the ambient air from 12 micrograms to between 9 and 10 micrograms . The agency estimates this change could save up to 4,200 lives annually.

Legislative action saved America’s air quality in the past, and today policies exist that we know could help combat PM2.5 emissions.

For example, prescribed burns , community-based fire management , and fuel reduction are all techniques already used by forest management professionals to reduce the severity and risk of PM2.5-causing wildfires. And in 2019, the Environmental Law Institute published Dernbach and co-author Michael Gerrard’s guide on decarbonizing the US, which identifies more than 1,000 legal routes addressing climate change’s effects.

Compared to the 1960s, the public mindset on climate change is actually one of the biggest hurdles to putting these pollutant-reducing actions into effect, said Dernbach.

“Much of the narrative about climate change is about how action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will limit personal freedom,” he said. “The wildfires, and the intense public health issues that they’ve created, should make clear to everyone that there are many ways in which growing greenhouse gas emissions in a changing climate will limit personal freedom.”

One of the reasons the US was able to address air pollution in the past was the sources and solutions were straightforward. Cars create smog, so the US changed the regulations around their fuel consumption and type. Power plants made smog, so the US further managed their outputs. The results of these measures were easily visible.

The sources, solutions, and visible results of the planet’s warming future, while clear, are not as immediate. But worsening wildfire seasons are a visible manifestation of climate change, and one that could spur more needed action on air pollution.

“Air quality is a really terrific method to get people on board with the idea that we have to do something that reduces the speed of climate change,” said Lu. “It’s a Trojan horse, almost.”

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Clean-air rules just can’t keep up with climate change.

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It feels like a sin against the sanctitude of being alive to put a dollar value on one year of a human life. A year spent living instead of dead is obviously priceless, beyond the measure of something so unprofound as money. But it gets a price tag in the world of economic models. Different agencies and organizations use different estimates—no one can seem to agree on the precise going rate. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, a statistical lifetime is valued at about $11.5 million in 2024 dollars. By one new analysis, that translates to about $250,000 per year of living.

That’s important to know, because the EPA is in the business of calculating how much money is lost or saved by preventing people’s early demise through various environmental regulations. Making contaminated water safer and dirty air cleaner costs money, but the country also benefits financially by keeping people alive. In the EPA’s own language, the agency simply estimates how much people are willing to pay to reduce their risk of dying from exposure to an unclean environment.

Polluted air is particularly important to the life-cost calculus. Air pollution is associated with some 100,000 to 200,000 American deaths each year. Particulate matter from burning fossil fuels is responsible for roughly one in five deaths worldwide. In the U.S., those lost life years and other air-pollution-related damages amount to about 5 percent of GDP . The U.S. has largely decided that the cost is worth it, more than made up for by the financial benefits of keeping the economy moving. But a pair of new analyses suggests that we may be getting that calculus wrong—that air pollution is already a silent but severe tax on human life and will get only more costly as the world warms.

In the first report , economists at MIT, the University of Chicago, McMaster University, and the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009—despite causing profound economic hardship—actually increased Americans’ life expectancy. And the economic advantages of those added life-years might even roughly equal the economic costs.

Using county-level data focused on local labor markets, they found that every 1 percent increase in unemployment led to a .5 percent decrease in the death rate. Some regions saw larger benefits than others, and young people, whose lifetime earning power is especially harmed in any recession, were likely still harmed more than helped, at least in the short term. But older Americans, who have naturally higher mortality rates, got especially lucky. Out of every 25 Americans age 55, for instance, one appears to have received an extra year of life. On average, across all age groups, the recession reduced the American mortality rate by 2.3 percent.

The recession officially lasted just 18 months, but life expectancy stayed elevated for at least 10 years. And crucially, the researchers estimate that more than a third of the reduction in deaths resulted from fewer commuters hitting the road, as well as lower industrial activity and electricity generation—in short, a reduction in air pollution.

When the team applied the value of a life-year to the recession-induced longevity, they suddenly saw the recession differently: What Americans lost in income and purchasing power, they gained in life-years, Matthew J. Notowidigdo, an economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and an author of the paper, told me. “From a social-welfare perspective, they kind of even out.”

Remarkably, the recession seemed to even reduce the “ deaths of despair ” typically linked to economic downturns. For each 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate during the recession, deaths from drug overdose, liver disease, and suicide went down 1.4 percent in the years following it. The cleaner air of the Great Recession might have contributed: A recent study of suicide in China found that a major reduction in particulate-matter pollution during the country’s recent crackdown on pollution prevented some 46,000 such deaths in just five years.

The China study is not the first to link dirty air with suicide. And that makes sense, given the many connections researchers are now drawing between air pollution and cognitive outcomes. Ultra-small air-pollution particles known as PM2.5—so named because they are 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter, about 30 times narrower than a human hair—can cross the blood-brain barrier, and are linked to a suite of neurological harms. A 2023 paper found that Americans living in places with the country’s median level of PM2.5 air pollution had a 56 percent higher chance of developing Parkinson’s disease than those living in the cleanest air. High levels of PM2.5 appear to also be related to higher rates of dementia . In children, whose brains are still developing, exposure to PM2.5 has been associated with behavioral and cognitive problems.

Because particulate matter poses such a health risk, the U.S. has for more than half a century enforced rules limiting how much of it can leave tailpipes and smokestacks. Prior to the Clean Air Act, breathing was an outrageously hazardous activity in many towns and cities. On Halloween weekend in 1948, two dozen people suffocated to death in the city of Donora, Pennsylvania, when a windless weather pattern made pollution from the local zinc plant stall over the town.

Each year since the air-quality rules came into force, they have prevented nearly 250,000 premature deaths, staved off nearly 200,000 heart attacks, kept American adults at work a cumulative 17 million days, and boosted school attendance by 5.4 million days. But those benefits are now being swamped by another source of air pollution, one that’s far less directly manageable than cars and power plants: climate change. That’s the conclusion of a new report from the nonprofit First Street Foundation, which found that climate-change-fueled environmental conditions such as wildfires and ozone pollution are already reversing decades of air-quality gains for millions of Americans, a trend that will get worse for at least the next 30 years.

According to First Street, American air got better from the 1970s until 2016. Then, it began to reverse course. As the climate crisis deepens—specifically as more frequent, hotter wildfires bear down on the American West and as temperatures rise across the country—that degradation will continue. By 2054, the report projects, U.S. air quality will have degraded to what it was in 2004, wiping out years of progress. “We’re essentially adding back more premature deaths, we’re adding back more heart attacks,” Jeremy Porter, a demographer who serves as the head of climate implications at First Street, said during a webinar presenting the findings.

Read: A frightening new reason to worry about air pollution

The impacts will be worse across the West, where wildfires are set to cause the greatest increases in PM2.5 pollution. Pierce County, in Washington State, is projected to see 12 more days of poor air quality a year by 2054, the biggest increase in the country. The researchers defined poor air days as those with an Air Quality Index of 101 or above, the threshold at which the EPA says air becomes dangerous for sensitive groups (elderly people, children, and people with certain illnesses) and can impair lung function for a sizable portion of active, healthy people too. “Twelve days doesn’t sound like a lot, but you’re thinking about 12 more days being trapped in your house, not being able to go outside, worrying about the health consequences of being exposed to the poor air quality,” Porter said. California’s San Bernardino County came in second, with nine additional days, and Fresno County would add eight more days.

California is already experiencing the worst of what First Street called the “climate penalty” on air quality. Its number of “hazardous” air-quality days—the worst on the EPA’s Air Quality Index, indicating emergency conditions—increased from three in 2010 to 38 in 2021. “Very unhealthy” days, the next level down from “hazardous,” went from one to 17 over that period. The number of days designated as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” went up, from 15 to 55. And “good” air-quality days, when the air is considered safe for everyone to breathe, declined by 32 percent.

The First Street researchers described California’s situation as a glimpse into the rest of the country’s future under climate change, barring dramatic action to curb it. The East Coast and Great Lakes regions got a taste of that future last summer, when wildfire smoke blown over from Canada’s record burns turned the sky in some places a sickening orange. Notowidigdo told me that last year, he was working on the Great Recession paper when Canadian wildfires sent air quality plummeting in Chicago, where he lives. He and his kids were stuck inside, and wore masks if they had to go out. Still, the bad air got to them through their house’s walls.

Although clean-air rules served their purpose relatively well in the 20th century, today the pollution they regulate is being dwarfed by the consequences of a warming planet. You can’t put scrubbers on a wildfire. But you can cut off the fuel—climate change—coaxing them to get bigger. The faster the American economy moves away from fossil energy, the sooner the burns stop growing.

That transition will be expensive. But the science makes clear that Americans are already paying steep costs, and stand to pay even more in the coming decades. GDP, as Notowidigdo and his colleagues note, may be an incomplete proxy for the true health of society. As long as economic growth is linked to polluting industries, it will come at the cost of human health. As such, we live in a world where economic downturns can paradoxically save lives. But a country powered by clean energy could presumably prosper economically without killing people prematurely.

The air we breathe is worsening because of an expired calculation. Maybe it was always bunk. Now, preserving life depends on how quickly we can correct that equation.

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‘The air that keeps us alive is making us sick’, warn UN experts on Clean Air Day

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International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies , marked on 7 September, takes place in a world where almost all the air we breathe is polluted, and some seven million people die from air pollution every year. Ahead of the Day, UN News spoke to two experts about the scale of the problem, and the solutions that already exist.

For several years, the World Health Organization has warned that practically all the air we breathe is polluted, and that it’s killing around seven million people every year: about 90 per cent of those deaths take place in low and middle-income countries.

In 2019, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution designating 7 September as the “International Day of Clean Air for blue skies”, and stressed the urgent need to raise public awareness at all levels, and to promote and facilitate actions to improve air quality.

Five years on, WHO scientists have concluded that the impact of air pollution kicks in at a much lower level than previously thought; is the international community taking the issue seriously? And, crucially, what can be done to tackle it? 

To discuss the deadly issue, UN News spoke to two experts from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a grouping that is hosted by the UN Environment Programme ( UNEP ):  Martina Otto, head of the Secretariat, and Nathan Borgford-Parnell, Coordinator of Science Affairs.

Martina Otto Air pollution has often been seen as a very local, national problem. There have been efforts by a lot of countries to bring down emissions, but definitely not at the level that is needed. 

And since pollutants are travelling in the air, and often for long distances, we can't solve this by isolated measures. It's the air we share, and that means we also have to share the solutions.

Air pollution in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is leading to a series of health problems for the city's inhabitants.

UN News How has the situation evolved in recent years? 

Nathan Borgford-Parnell Air quality has not improved dramatically over the last decade, and the World Health Organization (WHO), using a very rigorous multi-year process, put out new ambient air quality guidelines last year, which cut the level at which fine particulate matter affects health by half (from 10 microns to five microns).

UN News Low and middle-income countries are identified as being by far the worst affected regions of the world. Why is that?

Nathan Borgford-Parnell The populations there have particular vulnerabilities, linked to the technologies they use for cooking, for heating their homes, for transportation, and the kind of energy that is often used.

Also, there are factors related to the age of populations, and the very young and the very old are particularly vulnerable, often without means and access to healthcare. UN News How would you evaluate the amount of cooperation that's taking place now compared to previous years?

Martina Otto We’ve just completed our third assessment of Africa, which brought the issue to the table of governments. We've used those regional assessments to discuss the issues, and there is appetite to start looking into that and we'll see where it takes us. But we are hopeful to see much more regional cooperation.

It's no longer a blame game. It's about looking together at the solutions, which lie in cooperation. It's a sustainable development issue: the very thing that keeps all of us alive breathing makes us sick as well. 

UN News The right to a clean environment was adopted by the UN General Assembly in July. Why was this important?

Martina Otto Because air pollution is an issue that affects all of us, and disproportionately affects those that are most vulnerable, as Nathan explained. 

There’s also an economic and gender issue to this. For example, air pollution might be bad in a certain city, but the level of pollution depends very much on neighbourhoods as well, where certain industries are located, where the wind is blowing.

We know that pollution is actually greater in poor neighbourhoods, so there is a real issue of environmental injustice.

A transition towards renewables will cut air pollution levels

UN News What concerns you most about the links between climate change and air pollution? 

Nathan Borgford-Parnell What concerns me is that we may not get enough people to recognize that there is no separation between air pollution and climate change.

Wildfires are human driven, yet some people try to act as if they're natural occurrences. But the precipitous increase in wildfires in recent years, and the modelling that says that we're going to continue to see them increasing all over the world in places we couldn't have ever imagined them, shows us that climate change will directly impact the burden of disease from air pollution caused by the wildfires. 

And air pollution impacts the climate: there are no air pollutants that do not impact the climate. None. Greenhouse gases, aerosols, pollutants, they all impact the climate. The links between air pollution and climate change are legion and increasing.

However, the great benefit of the fact that these things are linked, and we can combine the climate and the air quality issues in the public health communities, and push them towards solutions that achieve benefits for all.

That is the empowering message of the Climate and Clean air Coalition, and why people have been so excited to be with us for the last decade.

Vehicle emissions, diesel generators, the burning of biomass and garbage have all contributed to poor air quality in Lagos Lagoon in Nigeria. (file 2016)

UN News The Cop 27 UN climate conference is coming up in November. Will air pollution be an important part of the discussions there?

Martina Otto There will be a number of events around the issue. I think the the message is getting home, in the sense that people can already see the impacts.

We know what we need to do. There are many solutions out there that make economic sense and can get the job done. We just have to get them to scale, and put political will behind that. 

For example, end the open burning of waste which allows methane to escape, and manage waste in a proper way, which is also good sense because there are economic opportunities in that process.

The issue of transport as well, how we design our cities to reduce the need for transport, and make it easier to walk and cycle safely, reducing the need for fossil fuel options by looking at alternative fuels.

There's a long list of solutions, but they're very concrete and they actually improve the way we live in our cities as well.

You can hear the full discussion on the UN’s flagship news podcast, The Lid Is On .

‘Air pollution is denying billions of their rights’: UN chief

  • In his message on this year’s International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, UN Secretary-General António Guterres referred to the landmark decision to recognize the universal right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. However, the UN chief noted that air pollution is denying billions of people of that right, and causing most suffering amongst the poor, especially women and girls, whose health suffers from cooking and heating with dirty fuels. Mr. Guterres called on all countries to work together to combat air pollution, and outlined some of the solutions, namely a swiftly transition away from fossil fuels towards renewables; rapidly moving to zero-emission vehicles and alternative modes of transport; increasing access to clean cooking, heating and cooling; and recycling waste instead of burning it. “These actions would save millions of lives each year, slow climate change and speed up sustainable development”, declared the Secretary-General. “Together, we can reduce air pollution, and keep people and the planet healthy and safe.”  
  • International Day for Clean Air for blue skies
  • air pollution


Air pollution.

Air pollution consists of chemicals or particles in the air that can harm the health of humans, animals, and plants. It also damages buildings.

Biology, Ecology, Earth Science, Geography

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Morgan Stanley

Air pollution consists of chemicals or particles in the air that can harm the health of humans, animals, and plants. It also damages buildings. Pollutants in the air take many forms. They can be gases , solid particles , or liquid droplets. Sources of Air Pollution Pollution enters the Earth's atmosphere in many different ways. Most air pollution is created by people, taking the form of emissions from factories, cars, planes, or aerosol cans . Second-hand cigarette smoke is also considered air pollution . These man-made sources of pollution are called anthropogenic sources . Some types of air pollution , such as smoke from wildfires or ash from volcanoes , occur naturally. These are called natural sources . Air pollution is most common in large cities where emissions from many different sources are concentrated . Sometimes, mountains or tall buildings prevent air pollution from spreading out. This air pollution often appears as a cloud making the air murky. It is called smog . The word " smog " comes from combining the words " smoke " and " fog ." Large cities in poor and developing nations tend to have more air pollution than cities in developed nations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) , some of the worlds most polluted cities are Karachi, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; Beijing, China; Lima, Peru; and Cairo, Egypt. However, many developed nations also have air pollution problems. Los Angeles, California, is nicknamed Smog City. Indoor Air Pollution Air pollution is usually thought of as smoke from large factories or exhaust from vehicles. But there are many types of indoor air pollution as well. Heating a house by burning substances such as kerosene , wood, and coal can contaminate the air inside the house. Ash and smoke make breathing difficult, and they can stick to walls, food, and clothing. Naturally-occurring radon gas , a cancer -causing material, can also build up in homes. Radon is released through the surface of the Earth. Inexpensive systems installed by professionals can reduce radon levels. Some construction materials, including insulation , are also dangerous to people's health. In addition, ventilation , or air movement, in homes and rooms can lead to the spread of toxic mold . A single colony of mold may exist in a damp, cool place in a house, such as between walls. The mold 's spores enter the air and spread throughout the house. People can become sick from breathing in the spores . Effects On Humans People experience a wide range of health effects from being exposed to air pollution . Effects can be broken down into short-term effects and long-term effects . Short-term effects , which are temporary , include illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis . They also include discomfort such as irritation to the nose, throat, eyes, or skin. Air pollution can also cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea . Bad smells made by factories, garbage , or sewer systems are considered air pollution , too. These odors are less serious but still unpleasant . Long-term effects of air pollution can last for years or for an entire lifetime. They can even lead to a person's death. Long-term health effects from air pollution include heart disease , lung cancer , and respiratory diseases such as emphysema . Air pollution can also cause long-term damage to people's nerves , brain, kidneys , liver , and other organs. Some scientists suspect air pollutants cause birth defects . Nearly 2.5 million people die worldwide each year from the effects of outdoor or indoor air pollution . People react differently to different types of air pollution . Young children and older adults, whose immune systems tend to be weaker, are often more sensitive to pollution. Conditions such as asthma , heart disease , and lung disease can be made worse by exposure to air pollution . The length of exposure and amount and type of pollutants are also factors.

Effects On The Environment Like people, animals, and plants, entire ecosystems can suffer effects from air pollution . Haze , like smog , is a visible type of air pollution that obscures shapes and colors. Hazy air pollution can even muffle sounds. Air pollution particles eventually fall back to Earth. Air pollution can directly contaminate the surface of bodies of water and soil . This can kill crops or reduce their yield . It can kill young trees and other plants. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide particles in the air, can create acid rain when they mix with water and oxygen in the atmosphere . These air pollutants come mostly from coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles . When acid rain falls to Earth, it damages plants by changing soil composition ; degrades water quality in rivers, lakes and streams; damages crops ; and can cause buildings and monuments to decay . Like humans, animals can suffer health effects from exposure to air pollution . Birth defects , diseases, and lower reproductive rates have all been attributed to air pollution . Global Warming Global warming is an environmental phenomenon caused by natural and anthropogenic air pollution . It refers to rising air and ocean temperatures around the world. This temperature rise is at least partially caused by an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere . Greenhouse gases trap heat energy in the Earths atmosphere . (Usually, more of Earths heat escapes into space.) Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has had the biggest effect on global warming . Carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels ( coal , gasoline , and natural gas ). Humans have come to rely on fossil fuels to power cars and planes, heat homes, and run factories. Doing these things pollutes the air with carbon dioxide . Other greenhouse gases emitted by natural and artificial sources also include methane , nitrous oxide , and fluorinated gases . Methane is a major emission from coal plants and agricultural processes. Nitrous oxide is a common emission from industrial factories, agriculture, and the burning of fossil fuels in cars. Fluorinated gases , such as hydrofluorocarbons , are emitted by industry. Fluorinated gases are often used instead of gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs have been outlawed in many places because they deplete the ozone layer . Worldwide, many countries have taken steps to reduce or limit greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming . The Kyoto Protocol , first adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, is an agreement between 183 countries that they will work to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions . The United States has not signed that treaty . Regulation In addition to the international Kyoto Protocol , most developed nations have adopted laws to regulate emissions and reduce air pollution . In the United States, debate is under way about a system called cap and trade to limit emissions . This system would cap, or place a limit, on the amount of pollution a company is allowed. Companies that exceeded their cap would have to pay. Companies that polluted less than their cap could trade or sell their remaining pollution allowance to other companies. Cap and trade would essentially pay companies to limit pollution. In 2006 the World Health Organization issued new Air Quality Guidelines. The WHOs guidelines are tougher than most individual countries existing guidelines. The WHO guidelines aim to reduce air pollution -related deaths by 15 percent a year. Reduction Anybody can take steps to reduce air pollution . Millions of people every day make simple changes in their lives to do this. Taking public transportation instead of driving a car, or riding a bike instead of traveling in carbon dioxide - emitting vehicles are a couple of ways to reduce air pollution . Avoiding aerosol cans , recycling yard trimmings instead of burning them, and not smoking cigarettes are others.

Downwinders The United States conducted tests of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site in southern Nevada in the 1950s. These tests sent invisible radioactive particles into the atmosphere. These air pollution particles traveled with wind currents, eventually falling to Earth, sometimes hundreds of miles away in states including Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and Washington. These areas were considered to be "downwind" from the Nevada Test Site. Decades later, people living in those downwind areascalled "downwinders"began developing cancer at above-normal rates. In 1990, the U.S. government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This law entitles some downwinders to payments of $50,000.

Greenhouse Gases There are five major greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere.

  • water vapor
  • carbon dioxide
  • nitrous oxide

London Smog What has come to be known as the London Smog of 1952, or the Great Smog of 1952, was a four-day incident that sickened 100,000 people and caused as many as 12,000 deaths. Very cold weather in December 1952 led residents of London, England, to burn more coal to keep warm. Smoke and other pollutants became trapped by a thick fog that settled over the city. The polluted fog became so thick that people could only see a few meters in front of them.

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The Clean Air Act: Solving Air Pollution Problems with Science and Technology

Scientific studies show air pollution harms people's health and the environment.

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National Air Quality Standards Are Based on Science

Under the Clean Air Act, science is the foundation for setting health-based air quality standards for certain common air pollutants.

Setting air quality standards for common air pollutants based on protection of public health and welfare

EPA sets these standards based on periodic review of the latest peer-reviewed studies of each pollutant's health and environmental effects, with assistance from the  Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee  (CASAC).  <Learn more about the National Ambient Air Quality Standards >

National Air Emissions Standards Are Based on Technology Performance

Under the Act, EPA and states (depending on the program) set emissions limits for motor vehicles and industrial facilities. In most programs, these limits are set using data on the emissions performance and costs of available technologies. <Learn more about setting emissions standards based on technology performance>

The Act Helps to Spur Advances in Clean Technology

The challenge of cleaning the air has helped to spur development of cleaner technologies such as smokestack scrubbers, the catalytic converter, and low-VOC paints. <Learn more about the development of clean technologies>

Scientific and Technical Foundations of Clean Air Act Programs - More Resources

In implementing the Clean Air Act, EPA gathers and synthesizes scientific information on air pollution effects , and serves as a clearinghouse of data on emissions, air quality, and air pollution controls . EPA scientists and technical experts conduct state-of-the-art analyses of air pollution problems and policies using a variety of technical tools.

Technical tools for policy analysis

EPA and states conduct  air quality modeling  to project future levels of air pollution based on anticipated changes in emissions.  Risk assessment  is used to quantify risks of cancer and other effects of hazardous air pollutants (see  National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment ), as well as non-cancer risks of common pollutants. EPA conducts cost-benefit analyses to compare the  costs and benefits  to society of alternative regulatory approaches.

Emissions and air quality data

  • EPA maintains AirData , which provides access to outdoor air quality data collected from state, local and tribal monitoring agencies across the United States. EPA publishes  air emissions factors  and compiles  emissions inventories  submitted by states every three years. This shows which sources emit how much pollution and support air quality modeling efforts. EPA publishes  electronic reporting tool  that sources can use to report stationary source emissions sampling test data to regulatory agencies. States and EPA conduct  air pollution deposition monitoring  to assess progress under the Clean Air Act. EPA's periodic  air trends reports  on air quality and emissions in the United States represent one of the best and longest-running environmental trends assessments in the world. For greenhouse gases, EPA's  Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program  will help us better understand where greenhouse gas emissions come from and will improve our ability to make informed policy, business, and regulatory decisions.
  • Clean Air Act Overview Home
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Air Pollution

Our overview on both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

By Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

This article was first published in October 2017; last revised in January 2021.

Air pollution is one of the world's largest health and environmental problems. It develops in two contexts: indoor (household) air pollution and outdoor air pollution.

In this topic page we look at the aggregate picture of air pollution – both indoor and outdoor. We also have dedicated topic pages that look in more depth at these subjects:

Indoor Air Pollution

Look in detail at the data and research on the health impacts of Indoor Air Pollution, attributed deaths, and its causes across the world

Outdoor Air Pollution

Look in detail at the data and research on exposure to Outdoor Air Pollution, its health impacts and attributed deaths across the world

Look in detail at the data and research on energy consumption, its impacts around the world today, and how this has changed over time

See all interactive charts on Air Pollution ↓

Air pollution is one of the world's leading risk factors for death

Air pollution is responsible for millions of deaths each year.

Air pollution – the combination of outdoor and indoor particulate matter, and ozone – is a risk factor for many of the leading causes of death including heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in its Global Burden of Disease study provide estimates of the number of deaths attributed to the range of risk factors for disease. 1

In the visualization we see the number of deaths per year attributed to each risk factor. This chart is shown for the global total, but can be explored for any country or region using the "change country" toggle.

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death. In low-income countries, it is often very near the top of the list (or is the leading risk factor).

Air pollution contributes to 11.65% of deaths globally

Globally, air pollution contributed to 11.65% of deaths in the latest year. 2

In the map shown here we see the share of deaths attributed to air pollution across the world.

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for disease burden

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death. But its impacts go even further, also being one of the main contributors to global disease burden.

Global disease burden takes into account not only years of life lost to early death, but also the number of years lived in poor health.

In the visualization we see risk factors ranked in order of DALYs – disability-adjusted life years – the metric used to assess disease burden. Again, air pollution is near the top of the list making it one of the leading risk factors for poor health across the world.

Air pollution not only takes years from peoples' lives, but also had large effect on quality while they're still living.

Who is most affected by air pollution?

Death rates from air pollution are highest in low-to-middle income countries.

Air pollution is a health and environmental issue across all countries of the world, but with large differences in severity.

In the interactive map we show death rates from air pollution across the world, measured as the number of deaths per 100,000 people of a given country or region.

The burden of air pollution tends to be greater across both low and middle income countries for two reasons: indoor pollution rates tend to be high in low-income countries due to a reliance on solid fuels for cooking; and outdoor air pollution tends to increase as countries industrialize and shift from low-to-middle incomes.

A map of the number deaths from air pollution by country can be found here .

How are death rates from air pollution changing?

Death rates from air pollution are falling – mainly due to improvements in indoor pollution.

In the visualization we show global death rates from air pollution over time – shown as the total air pollution, in addition to the individual contributions from outdoor and indoor pollution.

Globally we see that in recent decades the death rates from total air pollution has declined: since 1990 death rates have nearly halved. But, as we see from the breakdown, this decline has been primarily driven by improvements in indoor air pollution.

Death rates from indoor air pollution have seen an impressive decline, whilst improvements in outdoor pollution have been much more modest.

You can explore this data for any country or region using the "change country" toggle on the interactive chart.

Interactive charts on air pollution

Murray, C. J., Aravkin, A. Y., Zheng, P., Abbafati, C., Abbas, K. M., Abbasi-Kangevari, M., ... & Borzouei, S. (2020). Global burden of 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019 .  The Lancet ,  396 (10258), 1223-1249.

Here we use the term 'contributes', meaning it was one of the attributed risk factors for a given disease or cause of death. There can be multiple risk factors for a given disease which corroborate or amplify one another when both are present. This means that in some cases, air pollution was not the only risk factor but one of several.

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  • Published: 04 October 2021

A conversation on the impacts and mitigation of air pollution

Nature Communications volume  12 , Article number:  5823 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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Air pollution and the associated health impacts affect millions of people around the world. In this Q&A, Professor Haikun Wang, an expert on the health risks of air pollution and climate change at Nanjing University, shares with Nature Communications their thoughts on the impacts of air pollution and the policies needed to tackle emissions.

solution to the problem of air pollution

1. What aspect of air pollution concerns you the most?

My primary concern is the impacts, especially the health impacts of air pollution and their socioeconomic drivers, such as trade, population aging, income and etc. Air pollution has become a leading environmental risk factor affecting urban and rural populations around the world. The Global Burden of Diseases Study estimates that ambient (outdoor) air pollution of particulate matter and ozone is responsible for nearly 6.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2019. And the majority of these deaths occurred in developing countries with large populations and serious air pollution such as India and China. The health impacts of air pollution are not only affected by the exposure level but are also closely related to the exposed population, social and economic factors, which therefore must be considered in order to formulate effective air pollution control policies to protect human health.

2. What are your thoughts on current policy enforcement, and how well or not this is being achieved?

Substantial health benefits have been achieved around the world through implementing air pollution control policies during the last several decades. For example, the USA Clean Air Act was implemented in the 1970s, and the resulting cleaner air in 2020 has been estimated to prevent ~230,000 deaths. The historical control policies on vehicle emissions in China from 1998 to 2015 have also led to substantial reductions in air pollution impacts - the number of deaths attributable to air pollution in 2015 would have been around 510,000 higher than without those controls. More recently, since the promulgation in 2013 of China’s toughest-ever Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, the PM 2.5 concentration has substantially declined, by around 30% in 2017.

However, there are still major challenges ahead. Developed countries with cleaner air should continue to reduce pollution, because recent epidemiological studies have found that reducing PM 2.5 concentrations further from an already low level would bring much greater health benefits that might cover their cost of pollution control policies. For developing countries, they might bear the impact of pollution transfer from developed countries via outsourcing and international trade, but equally their pollution might also affect other regions through long-range transboundary transportation. The capacity of supporting scientific decision-making, supervision and management also needs to be strengthened to ensure the full implementation of air pollution control policies in developing countries. This highlights the requirement for successful collaboration between scientists, engineers, and policy makers from regional to global scales to develop cost-effective technologies and policies to address these challenges.

3. How effective is voluntary action vs government mandated policy in reducing air pollution?

Scholars and policy makers have debated the effectiveness of voluntary action and government mandated policies in mitigating environmental pollution for many years. I personally think that mandatory powers of government are currently more effective in reducing air pollution. Firms and citizens usually maximize their self-interest but lack the motivation to pay extra money to mitigate air pollution, because the costs of environmental pollution (e.g., negative health impacts of air pollution) are usually not fully evaluated or included in their cost (a.k.a. indirect cost). It could be problematic to expect too much from voluntary actions to reduce air pollution. Of course, mandated policies also have limitations. For example, they might have negative implications on the competitiveness of firms such as causing reduced profits margins. Mandated policies might also be easily influenced by the decisions of individual governments, such as President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. From this perspective, we need to study how to combine the voluntary action with mandated policy more effectively in the future, especially as the public awareness for environmental protection is generally increasing with social-economic development.

4. Socioeconomic factors such as income, education and wealth have been shown to play a key role in public health air pollution impacts. What needs to be done to ensure that policies developed are equitable and just?

Socioeconomic factors could affect air pollution and related health burdens, not only within a country, but also across various countries through trade. Recently, air pollutant emission levels have grown rapidly in some developing countries but stabilized or even decreased in many developed countries. This is partly because developing countries produce and export emission-intensive products to support the consumption in developed countries. Of course, such trade would increase economic efficiency and benefit both developed and developing countries. However, the environmental costs of developing countries are much higher than that of developed countries relative to their respective economic gains. Developing countries experience air pollution exposure inequality through global trade. Similar problems might also exist in domestic trade between developed and developing regions within a country like China.

Such environmental inequalities reflect the different economic development stages of trading partners. Developing countries or regions are often not able to afford technological innovations needed to mitigate pollution. Thus, establishing an effective collaborative framework between developed and developing countries to technologically and financially support pollution control and R&D efforts in developing countries would help to improve the overall quality of their exports while mitigating regional inequality. Additionally, a compensation scheme based on the principle “who benefits, who compensates” may be a practical solution to allocate the ecological burdens equally among countries or regions.

5. Technological advances to mitigate air pollution such as retrofitting coal-fired plants are touted as potential cost-effective solutions. What are the most promising recent advances to mitigate against pollutants?

As fossil fuels are still the major energy source supporting the global economic development, existing coal-fired power plants and fuel vehicles can not be replaced instantly. The traditional end-of-pipe pollution control technologies, or process control technologies, are still very important for air pollution control, especially in some developing countries such as China and India. In the short term, technological advances such as retrofitting coal-fired plants might be cost-effective solutions. However, as more aggressive pollution controls tend to cost more money, the marginal abatement cost usually go up rapidly with emission levels getting lower. This has already happened in some developed countries and also in China’s developed regions like Shanghai. From a technical point of view, clean and low-carbon energy, such as wind and solar energy, should be the ultimate solution to the energy needs and air pollution in the future. Especially in the context of addressing global climate change, application of the low-carbon energies would bring the synergistic effect of reducing CO 2 , CH 4 and other greenhouse gas emissions. Researches have illustrated that renewable energies are more cost-effective compared to traditional fossil fuels if we consider the cost of their impacts (e.g., health impacts).

6. Do you hold out more hope for technological solutions, or political action, as a means to reduce air pollution?

In my opinion, they are equally important. On the one hand, technological solutions are the foundation, which provides us with the basic tools for air pollution control. Good policies and management, on the other hand, can not only accelerate the application of advanced technologies but also make these tools work more efficiently. Developed countries usually have relatively higher social and economic management efficiency. They should focus more on the development of new technologies to achieve further reductions in air pollution, and provide technological support for developing countries. Policy measures should also be strengthened to mitigate direct and indirect pollution transfer accompanied by the outsourcing of emission-intensive industries from developed countries to developing ones. For developing countries, they need to strengthen their political determination to protect the environment and public health, and minimize air pollution while the economy is growing. At the same time, they should learn and adopt advanced technologies and management experiences from developed countries, and maximize the effect of their existing technological solutions.

7. Finally, how would you like collaboration between physical, health and policy scientists working on air pollution to improve?

Air pollution, by definition, includes the emission, transformation, impact, and mitigation of multiple air pollutants, which involves physical, health, and policy sciences. Therefore, we should, at first, understand that a robust collaboration between scientists from these fields is crucial to successfully address air pollution issues. For example, if one has a research issue/objective to evaluate the health effects of a specific air pollution policy, one might need help from other natural and/or social scientists. A comprehensive study on air pollution is usually impossible to be completed by one individual scientist or the scientific community only, and cooperation with the public, policy makers, and even private corporations are sometimes necessary.

Second, the effective cooperation between scientists from different fields (often with different ideologies, methods and tools) is challenging. Sufficient communication with colleagues of different knowledge backgrounds in atmospheric science, public health, and policy analysis is essential. It would help you to understand the tools and data each scientist can bring, and to connect these data and tools effectively across disciplines. Only with this, the technical roadmap and detailed approaches (e.g., including policy scenario analysis–emissions–atmospheric transport–health effects–cost/benefit) can be determined for a study on air pollution policy.

Third, we should also keep in mind that such research that integrates physical, medical, and social sciences on air pollution might never be perfect. But they are the effective (if not the only) solutions to comprehensive issues like air pollution, and the results would become more reliable with the improvement in the individual fields and the collaboration among physical, health and policy scientists.

Finally, data and results should be interpreted and shared by collaborators to keep transparency. Clear communication of research results and their uncertainty with the public and policy makers is also a must. I believe that, with robust scientific results and transparent policy-making process, we can ultimately design and implement more efficient air pollution policies.

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Earth and Human

Air Pollution: Causes, Effects and Solutions

Nina Howell

You must have heard various news regarding the increasing levels of smog and decreased visibility.

Despite this, air pollution has been around for a long time, only getting worse. Breathing in this polluted air can have many negative health consequences for us. It can also affect the ozone layer and have global impacts.

This is why it is a good idea to keep yourself informed about air pollution, its causes, effects, and possible solutions.

Let’s get right into it!

Table of Contents

What is Air Pollution?

As the name suggests, air pollution is characterized by the presence of unwanted and harmful particles or gases in the air supply. Breathing in this air can lead to a multitude of health complications. The most common pollutants are smoke, soot, pollen, methane, and carbon dioxide.

But this is not the only thing we should be worried about.

Poor air quality can harm all lifeforms, including both plants and animals. The bigger culprit for this air pollution is human interference. However, there are some natural processes that also, add to this.

Main Contaminants in Air that Causes Pollution

According to EPA , the most common culprits of air pollution are nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. The most dangerous contaminants for the United States are ground-level ozone and airborne particles. Carbon monoxide is another common pollutant.

Ground-level ozone does not pollute the air directly. It is formed by a chemical reaction between existing volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). This reaction takes place in the presence of sunlight.

The airborne particles can be categorized in two ways. The first type has impurities with a diameter of fewer than 10 micrometers and is generally inhalable. It includes dust and mold.

The second type is the one with organic compounds, combustion particles, and metals. They have a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less.

Causes of Air Pollution

Now we know what air pollution is and the contaminants present in the polluted air. But where exactly does this pollution come from? What causes air pollution? The following are some of the leading causes of air pollution.

Industrial Exhaust

Factories are responsible for releasing a massive amount of chemicals and gases in the atmosphere. This pollution can include carbon monoxide, organic wastes, chemicals, and hydrocarbons. When these gases are released without going through proper filtering, they can add to air pollution.

Furthermore, the multitude of coal and oil-powered plants release a considerable amount of toxic gases. These toxic gases can contribute to nearly  50% of the mercury, 62% of the arsenic, 60% of sulfur dioxide, and 13% of the nitrogen oxide present in our air.

Household Pollution

Many household cleaning products can emit harmful chemicals into the air. Similarly, some painting supplies can also be responsible for adding to the toxic air around you. Some chemicals make it evident by emitting a strong smell while others can be wholly odor-less but still add to the overall pollution.

Other than this, dust and combustion can also be smaller additions to the air around you. Improper ventilation, as well as smoking cigarettes or cigars, may seem like minor activities, but they can be consistent contributors.

Agricultural or Commercial Waste

Chemicals such as pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers used while farming can also contribute to air pollution. A common byproduct of such agricultural activities is ammonia gas. Ammonia is one of the most hazardous gases present in our atmosphere.

This 2016 study  describes how some emissions generated from farms and ranches are more significant than the combined emission from other man-made sources. Along with ammonia, methane is a common emission generated from agricultural sites.

Similarly, growing commercialization has caused an increase in the number of construction sites. The constant excavations and demolitions can be responsible for adding a lot of unwanted dust and pollution to our air.

Burning Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels include coal or other petroleum products. When these are burned, they emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide. The primary contributors to this emission are vehicles. The exhaust from various cars, trucks, jeeps, trains, and airplanes add to increasing air pollution.

Burning fossil fuels by automobiles contribute to nearly  half of the total air pollution. As the population grows, so do the usage of these vehicles. After all, we rely heavily on them for transportation. However, they can add a lot of carbon monoxide as well as nitrogen oxides to the air around us. This is due to the improper combustion of fossil fuels.

Natural Causes

While human interference makes a significant contribution to air pollution, some of the pollutions is also caused by nature. Natural disasters such as forest fires, volcanoes, and dust storms can be responsible for causing a large amount of pollution. These can also release many harmful chemicals into our atmosphere.

Effects of Air Pollution

Respiratory Problems

Breathing in polluted air can cause a variety of respiratory problems. Air pollution has also been linked with several heart conditions. The pollution does not have to be direct for you to experience the negative impacts. Children are especially at high-risk as they are susceptible to asthma and pneumonia.

The presence of benzene and acetaldehyde in fossil fuel combustion has also been linked to cancer . WHO has reported that air pollution is responsible for nearly 7 million  deaths every year. This polluted air is also linked with lung cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s and dementia .

Global Warming

One of the main effects of air pollution is speeding up global warming. The harmful gases such as carbon monoxide and other greenhouse gases form a kind of blanket in our atmosphere. This blanket traps a lot of the solar rays from leaving our atmosphere. The heat trapped then causes a rise in temperatures all around the world.

Global warming can accelerate the melting of icecaps, icebergs, and is also responsible for the rise in sea levels. These changes can have devastating impacts on wildlife and their habitats. Global warming can also leave us more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Ozone Layer Depletion

Ozone layer depletion goes hand-in-hand with global warming. Due to the increasing levels of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, this layer is thinning. These gases react with the ozone layer and cause, not just thinning but also depletion in certain areas. This layer is vital in protecting us from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.

As we know, fossil fuel combustion can release large amounts of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides into the atmosphere. When water goes through its natural water cycle, the evaporated water can mix with these gases as it condenses. This combination results in an acidic rainfall. Acid rain can be extremely damaging to crops and plant life. The sulfur emissions from this rain can result in chronic lung problems for humans. .

Effect on Marine Life

A high presence of nitrogen in the air can induce a condition called eutrophication. During this condition, a layer of algae develops on the sea’s surface. This growth can have adverse effects on the fish, plants as well as the wildlife that depends on this water supply. You can also see this growth in lakes and ponds.

Effect on Wildlife

Heavy air pollution can disrupt many wildlife habitats. The poor air quality, as well as acid rains, can destroy the sustenance of many species. This can cause birds and animals to relocate. We are in danger of losing many rare species of wildlife due to their inability to acclimatize to these changes.

Solutions of Air Pollution

Switch to Public Transport

As we’ve learned about the effects of exhaust fumes on air quality, the best thing we can do is limit our vehicle usage. Instead of individual cars, we can make it a habit to use more buses and trains to reduce our carbon footprint. Similarly, switching to bicycles as a whole can be beneficial not just to the environment but also to your health.

Conserve Energy

We may not realize how much fossil fuels go into generating our electricity supply every day. To prevent adding to the existing air pollution, we should try to minimize our energy usage. This means switching off the lights and appliances whenever they aren’t in use.

Opt. for Energy-efficient Devices

As an addition to conserving energy, you should also consider switching to more energy-efficient appliances. For instance, CFL lights use a lot less electricity and also last much longer. You should also look into replacing existing appliances with their solar-powered counterparts.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle

The best way to minimize pollution is to make sure you are not adding to the existing waste. This could mean finding multiple uses for an item. In the long haul, you want to reduce the amount of waste you generate. You might not think they will not impact the air quality directly. However, these wastes are bound to end up in a landfill and impact the overall pollution generated.

Switch to Clean Energy

These days clean energy is in. Clean energy has proved that it is much more than just a passing trend. With solar, wind, and geothermal energy on the rise, switching to clean energy has never been easier.

You can find the greener version of nearly every appliance from solar lighting to motion detectors, even water heaters! The government, too, is providing tax breaks along with grants to incentivize the switch to clean energy.

In Summary,

Air pollution affects not just us humans but also plants and wildlife around us. Excessive air pollution can cause an imbalance in our ecosystem itself. The primary source of air pollution in various human activities. We can minimize this by making better and smarter choices with energy in our everyday lives.

(Last Updated on March 20, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

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Nina Howell is a Rewenable Energy researcher and consultant based out of Houston, Texas Area. She earned her Master's Degree in Energy and Earth Resources from Austin Jackson School of Geosciences in 2010, and a Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Science from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2008. Nina has been working in the energy sector since 2011. She worked as an Energy Supply Analyst from 2011 to 2017 in Bounce Energy and then as a Research and Energy Consultant at GE Renewable Energy from March 2017 to February 2020 . Nina is a mom of 2 beautiful children who are joy to her life. She strongly believes in eco-friendly living and is vocal about renewable energy, environmental issues, water crisis, and sustainable living.

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February 8, 2024

Air Pollution Threatens Millions of Lives. Now the Sources Are Shifting

As EPA tightens air pollution standards for particulate matter, new research suggests some components of that pollution could worsen with climate change

By Virginia Gewin

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Particle-based ambient air pollution causes more than 4 million premature deaths each year globally, according to the World Health Organization. The tiniest particles—2.5 microns or smaller, known as PM 2.5 —pose the greatest health risk because they can travel deep into the lungs and may even get into the bloodstream.

Although total PM 2.5 levels have decreased 42 percent in the U.S. since 2000 as a result of clean air regulations, scientists are concerned about the health impacts of even low levels of such pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the annual national air quality standard for PM 2.5 from 12 to nine micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m 3 ) this week. EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a press conference that officials estimate the new standard will save up to $46 billion dollars in avoided health care and hospitalization costs by 2032. “Health benefits will include up to 800,000 avoided cases of asthma symptoms, 4,500 avoided premature deaths, and 290,000 avoided lost workdays,” he said. The World Health Organization adopted an even lower 5 µg/m 3 standard in 2021, citing the growing evidence of deadly harm.

Beyond investigating their size, scientists are also digging into the chemistry of airborne particles, which, unlike other regulated pollutants such as lead and ozone, encompass a wide array of solid and liquid particles from soot to nitrate. Some airborne particles are directly emitted from car tailpipes or industrial sources; others form in the atmosphere. And the balance of those is shifting. To help states meet the tougher air standards, scientists will need more detailed studies of particle sources.

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In July 2022, for the first time in more than a decade, teams of scientists conducted an intensive campaign to characterize what’s in the summertime soup of particles that New York City residents breathe. The researchers measured the chemical makeup of PM 2.5 over the course of a month.

The team found that the PM 2.5 was 80 to 83 percent organic, or carbon-based —up from roughly 50 percent in 2001, according to the study, which was published January 22 in ACS ES&T Air . “Over the past 20 years, summertime particulate matter has shifted to organic aerosols due largely to the successful reductions of sulfate and other inorganic compounds,” says Tori Hass-Mitchell, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at Yale University.

Roughly 76 percent of the total organic aerosols measured by the study in New York City were not directly emitted from a source but rather formed in the atmosphere. These so-called secondary organic aerosols are produced when gases, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), oxidize in the atmosphere. VOCs are produced by a wide range of sources such as cars, vegetation and household chemicals, including cosmetics and cleaners , which complicates efforts to identify the most impactful sources.

Hass-Mitchell and colleagues’ paper is the first to include data from the Atmospheric Science and Chemistry Measurement Network ( ASCENT)—a network of 12 sites around the U.S. that is the first long-term monitoring system able to chemically characterize distinct particle types. Sally Ng, who led the design of the $12-million, National Science Foundation–funded network, says Europe has had similar measurement capabilities for more than five years. “It’s time for the U.S. to modernize its air quality measurement infrastructure,” says Ng, an aerosol scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a co-author of the New York City study.

Recent studies have shown that secondary organic aerosols may be linked to serious health problems—especially cardiovascular disease. A study published last September in Environmental Science & Technology found that as organic aerosols oxidize, they produce highly reactive molecules that can break down human cells and cause tissue damage . Oxidized organic aerosols are the most toxic organic component of PM 2.5 , Ng says. And her work suggests that secondary organic aerosols become more toxic the longer they oxidize in the atmosphere.

Havala Pye, an EPA research scientist, co-authored a separate 2021 Nature study that found that secondary organic aerosols are strongly associated with county-level heart and lung disease death rates in the U.S. Secondary organic aerosols were associated with a 6.5 times higher mortality rate than PM 2.5 .

“There’s a good chance the aerosols are becoming more toxic on a per mass basis, and secondary organic aerosols would be part of the reason why,” says Allen Robinson, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, who was not involved in the new research or Pye’s study. In other words, breathing more oxidized aerosols may be more toxic to humans. But the literature looking at health effects of individual components of PM 2.5 is messy, Robinson notes. More work is needed to unravel the impact of complex combinations of different particle sizes and chemistries in PM 2.5 , he explains. Pye also cautions that consistent results from repeated experiments are needed to verify whether secondary organic aerosols carry significantly greater health risks than other particles that make up PM 2.5 .

Will a warming climate worsen air pollution health risks?

Previous studies have found that warmer temperatures can lead to greater production of these secondary organic aerosols. Hass-Mitchell and colleagues found in the new study that secondary organic aerosol production increased by 60 percent and 42 percent in Queens and Manhattan, respectively, during a sweltering five-day heat wave in July 2022. “We should expect higher health burdens as temperatures rise in a warming climate, with potentially more frequent extreme heat events in the future,” Hass-Mitchell says.

“Secondary organic aerosols are an increasingly important contributor to particulate matter in the summertime and urban air quality, and [they have] a temperature sensitivity that is really important to keep in mind in the context of future climate scenarios,” says Drew Gentner, a chemical and environmental engineer at Yale University and senior author of the new paper. These compounds “are becoming more oxidized at higher temperatures,” he adds, and increased temperatures can cause greater emissions of reactive volatile organic compounds.

And as temperatures increase amid climate change, more frequent and severe wildfires have already begun to chip away at air quality gains in western states. Although Hass-Mitchell and colleagues didn’t observe smoke from wildfires in the summer of 2022, they expect that organic aerosols from wildfires—such as those in the smoke that choked much of the Northeast and Midwest last summer—will also play a major role as the climate changes.

Many other cities, such as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Seoul, have also documented an increasing proportion of PM 2.5 from secondary organic aerosols. But the exact mix of natural versus human-produced sources varies widely from city to city. To continue reducing PM 2.5 , “we need to understand the underlying sources and chemistry contributing to secondary organic aerosol production,” Gentner says.

Until the early 2000s, both the tools to measure secondary organic aerosols and the understanding of their formation were limited, says Benjamin Nault, a co-author of the New York City study and a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. Currently, most instruments are designed to measure either the size or the chemistry of aerosols but not both, he says. Scientists rely on models to determine how much secondary organic aerosol comes from, for example, live vegetation, asphalt or cooking. But it’s unclear whether some sources are more harmful than others. “There are different signatures for the chemicals that come from taking a shower versus painting [a house],” he says. “Now we’re trying to understand how they come together in an urban environment.”

And that improved understanding is leading to more nuanced pollution research. “As aerosol studies advance, with increasing capabilities to examine the various chemical components of aerosols, we can ask important questions about the relative impact of those components on air quality, human health and the environment,” Gentner says. “It may be less straightforward to address secondary organic aerosol sources compared to primary sources of pollution, but studies [like ours] demonstrate that secondary organic aerosols are the biggest contributor in some urban areas.”

Reporting for this piece was supported by the Nova Institute for Health.

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4 Causes and Effects of Air Pollution

4 Causes and Effects of Air Pollution

Air pollution refers to the release of pollutants into the air, which can be harmful and impose significant health risks to the population, including increased chances of coronary and respiratory diseases, as well as preliminary deaths. Made up of chemicals and pollutant particles, air pollution is one of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime . Read on to learn about the major causes and effects of air pollution. 

Sources of Air Pollution

1. burning fossil fuels.

The biggest contributors of air pollution are from industry sources and power plants to generate power, as well as fossil fuel motor vehicles. The continuous burning of fossil fuels releases air pollutants, emissions and chemicals into the air and atmosphere. 

In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that about 68 million tons of air pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the US, contributing to the “formation of ozone and particles, the deposition of acids, and visibility impairment.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed limits. Developing and low-income countries experienced the greatest impacts from outdoor air pollution, particularly in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions. 

Climate change has an interrelated relationship with the environment and air pollution. As more air pollutants and greenhouse gases are released, this alters the energy balance between the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface , which leads to global warming. The global temperature increase in turns raises the production of allergenic air pollutants such as mold and extends pollen seasons. 

2. Ozone and Smog

Ozone is a gas that when it forms air pollution and reaches too close to the ground, it significantly reduces visibility. We call this smog. This form of air pollution occurs when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides released from car exhausts and coal power plants. The ozone typically forms a protective layer in the atmosphere to protect the population from ultraviolet radiation (UV), but as it transforms into smog, it is harmful to human health and poses higher risks of respiratory illnesses like asthma and lung cancer. 

3. Weather Conditions

Air pollution and poor air quality can be attributed to changing weather conditions. For example, dust storms in China would carry clouds of industrial pollutants and particulate pollution across the Gobi desert into neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan during spring season. Likewise during periods of high air pressure, air becomes stagnant and pollutants are more concentrated over certain areas. 

4. Heatwaves and Wildfires

Heatwaves not only lead to an increase of temperature, but are some of the causes and effects of air pollution. Hotter, stagnant air during a heat wave increases the concentration of particle pollutants. Extreme heat wave events also have higher risks of large-scale wildfires, which in turn, releases more carbon emissions, smog and pollutants into the air. 

You might also like: 15 Most Polluted Cities in the World

Effects of Air Pollution 

Air pollution contributes to the death of 5 million every year and about 6% of the global population, according to Our World in Data . The lethal combination of outdoor air pollution and toxic emissions from burning fossil fuel has been one of the leading causes of chronic and often terminal health issues including heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and lower respiratory infections. 

The WHO estimates that nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In 2017, close to 15% of population deaths in low income countries like South and East Asia are attributed to air pollution, while the higher income countries experience only about 2%. 

The drastic difference in mortality numbers can be linked to legislations such as the Clean Air Act implemented by high-income countries like the US. Such legislations usually establishes national air quality standards and regulations on hazardous air pollutants. The UK in particular, saw a sharp 60% decline in air pollutant emissions between the 1970 and 2016. 

The environmental effects of air pollution are also vast, ranging from acid rain to contributing to birth defects, reproductive failure, and diseases in wildlife animals. Agriculture is also a victim of air pollution as increased pollutants can affect crop and forest yields, reduce growth  and increased plant susceptibility to disease from increased UV radiation caused by ozone depletion.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, air pollution has once again returned to the spotlight in relation to its role in transmitting virus molecules. Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution. China, being one of the most polluted countries in the world, can potentially link its high death toll during the pandemic to its poor air quality. Although, more research needs to be conducted to make any substantive correlation.

You might also like: History of Air Pollution: Have We Reached the Point of No Return?

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The Overlooked Causes of Air Pollution

February 19, 2024 • 4 min read.

Short bursts of air pollution, often caused by indoor cooking, are being neglected by existing regulations, according to research by Wharton’s Susanna Berkouwer.

Smoggy view of the skyline in Nairobi, Kenya to illustrate the overlooked causes of air pollution

Air pollution, identified by the World Health Organization as the foremost environmental threat to human health, claims between 7 and 9 million lives annually, representing 10%–15% of global deaths.   In response to this critical issue,   Wharton professor of business economics and public policy  Susanna Berkouwer has studied the nuanced causes of air pollution, focusing on the crucial distinctions between short-term exposure peaks and continuous sustained exposure.

“High levels of air pollution significantly decrease life expectancy, but existing regulations primarily focus on the annual or daily averages of pollution, overlooking short-term fluctuations that many people experience. Short bursts of pollution are often caused by indoor cooking,” said Berkouwer.

Their paper , co-authored with the University of Chicago’s Joshua Dean,   argues that shedding light on these nuances is crucial for creating effective environmental regulations to address this global health crisis. Should policies focus on how everyday individuals can reduce peak pollution, or should they address broader, ambient air quality concerns?

“Improved cookstoves have a huge impact in that short window of cooking – but not on the 24-hour average.” — Susanna Berkouwer

Short- and Long-term Air Pollution Impact Your Health Differently

The researchers conducted a field study in Nairobi, Kenya, examining the impact of improved cookstove adoption on pollution and health.   Through randomized subsidies and credit access, they generated random variation in the adoption of improved cookstoves and followed up with participants 3.5 years later, employing high-frequency monitoring techniques and detailed health measurements.

To measure air pollution, each participant in the study wore a backpack with devices that recorded tiny particles and carbon monoxide in the air every minute for 48 hours.   The study found that the improved stove greatly reduced peak cooking emissions by 42%, significantly improving air quality during cooking.   There was also a substantial decrease in average exposure to pollution during cooking in the treatment group using improved stoves compared to the control group (50 micrograms per cubic meter vs. 33 micrograms).

However, the overall impact on daily pollution exposure was much less pronounced, due to the limited time people spent cooking each day (approximately 9% of the time).   “Improved cookstoves have a huge impact in that short window of cooking – but not on the 24-hour average,” Berkouwer said.

When it comes to health impacts, the improved stove led to a statistically significant decrease (0.24 standard deviation) in self-reported respiratory symptoms, including sore throat, headache, cough, and runny nose.   These improvements were not consistently reflected in more clinical health measurements like blood pressure and oxygen levels.

“We find that addressing the short-term peaks really helps resolve the kind of symptoms you’d get if you spend time around a campfire. But we don’t see any impact on longer-term medical diagnoses like pneumonia,” said Berkouwer.

“Providing improved stoves for free would be a considerably cheaper way to reduce carbon emissions than almost any other technology available today.” — Susanna Berkouwer

Climate Policy Needs to Address Diverse Causes of Air Pollution

The results have important policy implications, as they underscore the need for nuanced measures to address the diverse causes of air pollution.   While individual efforts, such as using improved stoves, may offer modest health benefits in the short term, the research suggests that government regulations targeting broader environmental factors could yield more substantial and enduring health improvements. “You might need government intervention to address the ambient pollution — it could be regulating emissions from cars or coal-fired power plants,” Berkouwer said.

Given that billions of people living in cities, especially in poorer countries, face daily exposure to high pollution levels, the study’s implications are global.   More than 90% of pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, affecting around 4 billion people who lack access to improved cookstoves, resulting in sporadic bursts of high pollution.

Additionally, the study is relevant to international development and climate policy, in terms of the impact of subsidies on improved cookstove usage. Offering subsidies between $30–$40 resulted in a 72 percentage point-higher ownership rate after 3.5 years.   Combining that with the findings on reduced emissions, the study estimates that providing improved stoves for free would cost around $4.90 for every ton of carbon dioxide reduced — considerably lower than many other available methods.

People using these improved stoves in urban areas also continue to save money on charcoal, about $86 per year, suggesting that investing in initiatives like improved cookstoves can be an effective and economical strategy for wealthier countries and international organizations to contribute to carbon reduction efforts.   “There’s huge financial benefits to be had,” said Berkouwer. “Providing improved stoves for free would be a considerably cheaper way to reduce carbon emissions than almost any other technology available today.”

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EPA has tightened its target for deadly particle pollution − states need more tools to reach it

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Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University

Disclosure statement

Daniel Cohan has previously received research grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and serves on its Board of Scientific Counselors but is writing in a personal capacity. He worked from 2004-2006 for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and has previously received research funding from the Texas Air Quality Research Program.

Rice University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

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Tens of millions of Americans, including many Texans like me, live in counties that will soon be violating air pollution particle standards for the first time. It’s not that our air is getting dirtier – it’s because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just tightened its cap on the deadliest air pollutant: fine particulate matter , or PM2.5.

The EPA acted because the Clean Air Act requires it to periodically review existing standards for six major air pollutants to ensure that the targets protect public health. Its 2022 scientific review showed that fine particles increase rates of illnesses and death even when inhaled at levels below existing standards.

The EPA estimates that meeting its new standard would yield up to US$77 in health benefits for each $1 of control costs and would save up to 4,500 lives in 2032 .

Now, states must develop plans that meet the standard. As an atmospheric scientist who has studied air pollution for a quarter century, I’m concerned that a lack of detailed measurement data will leave many states flying blind.

Furthermore, the regulatory analysis that the EPA issued alongside its rule focused only on a narrow set of local control options, neglecting some of the most important upwind sources of particulate matter. That myopic approach could lead to plans that save fewer lives – and at higher costs – than states could achieve with better data and more comprehensive strategies.

What’s in a particle?

The EPA’s new standard limits PM2.5, the smallest regulated particles, to 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This is the midpoint of a recommended range from the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and a 25% cut from the prior cap. This new cap is among the toughest in the world .

Although federal standards lump all fine particles together as a single pollutant, they’re more like a stew of ingredients. Some, like sea salt, dust and black carbon, are emitted to the air directly as particles. Others, like sulfate, nitrate and ammonium, start out mainly as gases that interact in the atmosphere to form particles downwind. Organic carbon, the leading type of PM in many regions, originates as both gases and particles that react in complex ways.

Countless natural sources such as trees and soils, and human-made ones such as vehicles, factories and fertilizers, add various mixes of these ingredients to the stew.

Graphic comparing PM2.5 to human hair and beach sand grains

States operate more than 1,000 monitors that measure the total amount of PM in the air. Unfortunately, only about 150 of those monitors are sophisticated versions called speciation monitors that measure what the PM is made of – information that’s critical for developing effective controls. Thousands of counties don’t even have a total PM monitor, despite satellite evidence showing that many would exceed the new standard .

When the EPA first regulated fine particles separately from coarse ones, known as PM10, in the late 1990s, it developed a plan to routinely measure the content of PM at over 300 metropolitan sites. It also funded temporary Supersites at which scientists intensely studied particles in eight of the most polluted cities.

When I worked on reducing particle pollution for Georgia’s air agency in the early 2000s, those speciation monitors and the Atlanta Supersite provided crucial data to inform our efforts.

Diagram of PM2.5 formation in the air.

Now, about half of the speciation monitors are gone for lack of funding, and the EPA hasn’t announced a follow-up to its Supersite program. The agency’s inspector general warned as far back as 2003 that better measurements were needed to inform timely reductions of PM. Instead, Congress cut EPA’s budgets in the early 2000s, driving the closure of dozens of monitors after the size of the network peaked in 2005 .

The composition of particles has changed dramatically since then as vehicles have gotten cleaner , power plant emissions have plummeted and wildfires have intensified . EPA tightened the PM2.5 standard in in 2012 and again this year, so it’s more important than ever to know what these particles are made of now.

Many counties whose PM levels exceed the new standard lack speciation monitors and have never been the focus of an intensive scientific field study. Others lack sufficient data to develop a comprehensive plan.

A Texas illustration

My home state of Texas illustrates the data void. In the early 2000s, Houston hosted a Supersite and various other temporary studies . Today, our only remaining speciation monitor sits near the refinery-lined Houston Ship Channel, but our highest PM is measured 18 miles away , where a busy interstate loop transects trendy neighborhoods near a concrete plant.

That data gap pales in comparison to the ones facing Hidalgo, Cameron and Webb counties along the Texas-Mexico border, home to the cities of McAllen, Brownsville and Laredo. Like Houston, their total particulate levels fall between the new and old standards. However, their particle pollution has never been analyzed in a major field study, and there’s no speciation monitor within over 100 miles .

This isn’t just a Texas problem.

Several regions of California, Pennsylvania, Utah and Ohio, along with small portions of Alaska, Arizona, Idaho and Oregon, violated previous PM standards, so those states have some experience developing PM control plans. The new limit will require them to redouble their control efforts.

However, various counties in 18 other states , including Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and Tennessee, have PM levels that fall between the previous and new standards. They will likely need to develop plans for the first time.

Cities such as Nashville, Tennessee; Kansas City, Kansas; Fort Lauderdale and Pensacola in Florida; and Hattiesburg and Gulfport in Mississippi also exceed the new standards but lack speciation monitors.

A need for broader controls

Lacking better data, states may fall back on the types of strategies outlined in the EPA’s regulatory analysis . The agency suggested that states focus on controlling local sources that directly emit particles , such as road dust, agricultural dust and cooking emissions.

But this approach neglects particles that form from gases emitted far upwind. For example, ammonia from agriculture reacts with sulfur dioxide from coal burning and nitrogen oxides from various sources to form ammonium, sulfate and nitrate, which are among the leading components of particulate matter .

Controlling ammonia is one of the most cost-effective opportunities to improve air quality . Reducing emissions of this long-neglected pollutant will require better practices for managing livestock, fertilizers and manure on farms.

Aerial view of a large power plant with tall smokestacks

Sulfur dioxide has already been slashed but could be cut further by requiring outdated coal-fired power plants that still lack sulfur scrubbers – a technology mandated at new plants since 1979 – to install them, switch to natural gas or retire. Nitrogen oxides can be reduced by replacing old trucks and installing industrial controls. Controlling all of these gases requires help from upwind counties but can achieve broader progress than local dust controls alone.

With growing shares of particulate matter coming from natural sources and wildfires, states will need all the help they can get to meet the tough new standard. Better data and upwind controls of ammonia and other gases can help states save lives and meet standards as cost-effectively as possible.

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Biden Administration Toughens Limits on Deadly Air Pollution

The E.P.A. says the new rule will prevent 4,500 premature deaths annually. Industry leaders are expected to challenge the regulation, saying it will harm the economy.

Industrial material with smokestacks in the distance.

By Lisa Friedman

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday tightened limits on fine industrial particles, one of the most common and deadliest forms of air pollution, for the first time in a decade.

Business groups immediately objected, saying the new regulation could raise costs and hurt manufacturing jobs across the country. Public health organizations said the pollution rules would save lives and strengthen the economy by reducing hospitalizations and lost workdays.

Fine particulate matter, which can include soot, can come from factories, power plants and other industrial facilities. It can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and has been linked to serious health effects like asthma and heart and lung disease. Long-term exposure has been associated with premature deaths.

The new rule lowers the annual standard for fine particulate matter to nine micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from the current standard of 12 micrograms. Over the next two years, the E.P.A. will use air sampling to identify areas that do not meet the new standard. States would then have 18 months to develop compliance plans for those areas. By 2032, any that exceed the new standard could face penalties.

“Soot pollution is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution,” Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday. “This is truly a game changer for the health and well-being of communities in our country.”

Mr. Regan estimated that the rule would prevent 4,500 premature deaths every year and 290,000 lost workdays because of illness. The E.P.A. maintained that the rule also would deliver as much as $46 billion in net health benefits in the first year that the standards would be fully implemented.

The tiny particles are known as PM 2.5 because they are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller. By comparison, an average human hair is about 70 microns in diameter.

Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, called the rule “a step forward.” But he criticized the Biden administration for not going further, noting that science and health experts urged the E.P.A. to lower the standard for the annual average amount to eight micrograms instead of nine.

The new pollution limits could cause election-year complications for President Biden.

Business groups, which are expected to mount a legal challenge to the rule, argue that cutting pollution would crush manufacturing. That includes the roads and bridges funded by the 2021 infrastructure law, legislation that Mr. Biden often promotes. The rule also could make it harder to manufacture the electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and other products that are central to the president’s climate agenda, they said. Mr. Biden has also made the resurgence of American manufacturing part of his campaign pitch.

At least two Democratic governors, Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Laura Kelly of Kansas, wrote to Mr. Biden expressing concern about the rule’s economic impact.

Mike Ireland, president of the Portland Cement Association, which represents U.S. cement manufacturers, said the rule “would lead to fewer hours of operation at plants, which would mean layoffs, as well as less American cement and concrete at a time when the country needs more.”

Marty Durbin, the senior vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, predicted manufacturing “gridlock” and noted that wildfires and road dust, neither of which are accounted for in the rule, make up the bulk of fine particulate matter emissions. “This administration is creating obstacles to being able to achieve their infrastructure and climate objectives,” he said.

The U.S. Chamber has estimated that, under the tighter regulation, 569 counties would be out of compliance.

E.P.A. officials said that, by their count, as few as 59 counties might exceed the new standard. And most would be expected to fall within the acceptable range within a few years, they said — because other proposed regulations governing emissions from automobile tailpipes and power plants would also slash fine particulate matter.

“No doubt there will be a loud hue and cry from industry,” said Doris Browne, the former president of the National Medical Association, which is the largest U.S. organization representing Black physicians.

The new restrictions would especially help poor and minority communities, which are disproportionately located near industrial facilities, she said. “The new standard of nine will save lives,” Dr. Browne said. “That is the bottom line.”

The law requires the E.P.A. to review the latest science and to consider updating the PM 2.5 standard every five years, though it had not been strengthened since 2012 under the Obama administration.

The Trump administration did conduct a review. In a draft 457-page scientific assessment of the risks associated with keeping or strengthening the fine soot pollution rule, career scientists at the E.P.A. said that an estimated 45,000 deaths annually were linked to PM 2.5. The scientists wrote that if the rule were tightened to nine micrograms per cubic meter, annual deaths would fall by about 27 percent, or 12,150 people a year.

After the publication of that report, numerous industries, including oil and coal companies, automakers and chemical manufacturers, urged the Trump administration to disregard the findings, and it declined to make any changes.

Lisa Friedman is a Times reporter who writes about how governments are addressing climate change and the effects of those policies on communities. More about Lisa Friedman


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Company develops microscopic solution to massive problem, using soil technology to mitigate air pollution — here’s how it works

“We believe our methodology is paving the way for companies to sustainably scale up activities.”

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"We believe our methodology is paving the way for companies to sustainably scale up activities."

Photo Credit: iStock

A climate tech startup called Andes , along with another company called EcoEngineers, has developed a method of removing carbon from the air via “ microbial carbon mineralization .”

Andes’ goal is to cool the planet with “low-cost, gigatonne-scale carbon dioxide removal in years, not decades.” The company had received $38 million in investments as of March 2023. 

As CEO and co-founder Gonzalo Fuenzalida explained in a promotional video , agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to the overheating of our planet, with 3% of all overheating gas pollution — according to the video — coming from nitrogen fertilizers . Other estimates vary between 2% and 5% , depending on the source.

In the United States, 11% of all planet-overheating pollution in 2021 came from the agricultural sector, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Andes seeks to replace these fertilizers with microorganisms that also speed up the conversion of carbon dioxide from the air into minerals, the process the company calls microbial carbon mineralization.

These microorganisms can be added to farming soil and into the seeds themselves. The captured carbon can then remain in the soil for centuries without harming plant life.

“We are … using seeds as vessels,” Fuenzalida says in the video. “Most importantly, by putting the microorganisms inside the seed, we give them an unfair advantage in order for them to be able to colonize the root structure and interact with the plant from the very beginning and throughout the lifecycle of the plant.”

The company says in the video that its technology has the potential to capture an amount of carbon equivalent to 254 million cars per year. It also hopes to achieve a 30% reduction in the use of synthetic nitrogen.

“We believe our methodology is paving the way for [carbon dioxide removal] companies to sustainably scale up activities, while promoting maximum visibility and transparency in methods,” Fuenzalida told the Carbon Herald.

“Ideally, it could also usher in new wave novel projects that use microbial approaches to remove carbon from the atmosphere and promote collaboration to advance our collective understanding of the science.”

solution to the problem of air pollution

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