Air Pollution: Facts, Causes, Effects and Solutions

Escalating Threat of Air Pollution: Causes and Effects

Air pollution is an undesirable and excessive addition of foreign materials to air which adversely alters its natural quality. Air pollution occurs due to the presence of undesirable solid or gaseous particles in the air, in quantities that are detrimental to human health or which could cause damage to plants and materials.

Air Pollution
The substances that cause air pollution are called pollutants. Pollutants pumped into the atmosphere and directly pollute the air are called primary pollutants. Carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide are the examples of primary pollutants emitted from vehicular exhausts and combustion of coal, respectively. Further pollution can arise if primary pollutants in the atmosphere undergo a chemical reaction. The resulting compounds are called secondary pollutants. Photochemical smog is an example of a secondary pollutant.

Causes of Air Pollution:

1. Urbanization: Urbanization has been one of the major cause of air pollution. Expanding urbanization has influenced the atmosphere in several ways such as the growth of vehicle population, insanitation, multiplying industrial units, etc. Urbanization has resulted in the growth of industrial centers without any parallel development in civic amenities and pollution control machinery. Growth of urban centers has led to increased demand for power. This has resulted in the establishment of several thermal powers station in the country. The coal-powered power stations to augment the energy generation have polluted the air.
2. Industrialization: The rapid rate of industrialization has caused the problem of air pollution. Some industries like cement, iron and steel, fertilizer, petrochemicals are of great concern because of the difficulty in controlling the emission of pollutants from them. Acid rain has become a great threat to the environment which is due to air pollution.

3. Deforestation: Deforestation has caused a substantial decline in the forest cover. Forest serves as a major sink of carbon dioxide. Deforestation is one of the major causes of global warming.

4. Vehicular exhaust: The automobile is man’s greatest achievement in minimizing distances. The number of automobiles is increasing day by day and has become a cause of air pollution and the deterioration of the environment. The automobile, with its internal combustion engine, emits poisonous gases that are harmful to human health and is the most serious pollution of the technological era. The two pollutants are carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, both of which are extremely poisonous gases.

Lead is another toxic compound released from vehicles. The presence of lead in the atmosphere is a threat to the environment as well as for all living organisms.

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Effects of Air Pollution:

Air Pollution effects on human beings: Prolonged exposure to toxic pollutants from various sources affects the normal functioning of life. Elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and smog causes an increase in the incidence of allergic diseases like nausea, vomiting and eye irritation. The toxic elements in the atmosphere are responsible for asthma, bronchitis emphysema, and related respiratory disorders. Elderly people, infants, pregnant women and people with cardiac and respiratory disorders are especially vulnerable to air pollution.

Organic lead emitted from automobiles get absorbed in brain, liver, kidney, and blood, causing convulsions, muscular paralysis, reduction in Red Blood Cells (RBC) count and brain damage. Carbon monoxide (CO) combines with blood haemoglobin much faster than oxygen thus reducing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. It combines with haemoglobin more than 200 times faster than oxygen (O2). Carbon monoxide in heavy traffic causes headache, drowsiness and blurred vision. Exposure to air containing even 0.001% of carbon monoxide for several hours causes coma and even death.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) irritates the respiratory tissues. It also reacts with water in the atmosphere to form sulfur-containing acids. The acids when inhaled affect the lungs.
Nitrogen oxides (NO & NO2) irritates lungs aggravates asthma or chronic bronchitis and increases susceptibility to respiratory infection like influenza. The continued inhalation of ozone causes chest pain, breathlessness, and irritation of eye, nose, and throat.

Air Pollution effects on plants: Air pollution causes damage to crop plants, tree, and vegetation as a whole. Chronic exposure of the leaves to air pollutants breaks down the waxy coating that helps in preventing excess water loss and provides protection to plants from diseases and pests infestations. The elevated level of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere adversely affects flowering in plants and causes injury to leaves. 
A high concentration of sulfur dioxide gas causes damage like breaking down of chlorophyll leading to chlorosis and necrosis. Sensitivity to sulfur dioxide varies from crop to crop and species to species. Among vegetable crops, alfalfa and tomato, wheat and barley among cereals and apple among the tree crops are the most sensitive to a higher concentration of sulfur dioxide.

Peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN) causes severe damage to leaves and relatively young tissues and induces many biochemical and physiological changes. PAN inhibits Hill reaction of photosynthesis. Alfalfa, beans, maize, beet are some the crops sensitive to PAN. However, vegetable crops like cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, onions are resistant to PAN.

Fluorides cause various types of injuries to plants. The leaves of apple, apricot, peach are more susceptible to air borne fluorides. Fluorides interfere with photosynthesis and respiration of plants.

Ozone enters through stomata (opening on the surface of leaves) in plants cause damage to leaves. It damages bean, tobacco, tomato, pine, and other plants. Ozone causes tip burn in pine seedlings. Furthermore, ozone disposes plants to insects.

Air Pollution effects on materials: Air pollutants break down the exterior paint on cars and houses. All over the world, air pollutants have discoloured irreplaceable monuments, historic buildings, marble statues, and other heritage and natural beauty sites.

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Control of Air Pollution (Air pollution solutions):

1. One of the effective means of controlling air pollution is to have the proper equipment in place. This includes devices for removal of pollutants from the flue gases through scrubbers, closed collection recovery systems, the use of dry and wet collectors, filters, electrostatic precipitation, etc. 

2. Since plants are sinks of carbon dioxide hence ‘green belt’ plantation must be raised around industrial units and in urban areas. 

3. The forest cover should be protected, and deforested areas must be restored through reforestation programmes. 

4. In developing countries like India traditional use of fuelwood needs to be controlled. 

5. Since vehicles substantially contribute to air pollution hence their engines should be redesigned in such a way that may minimize the emissions of pollutants. Installation of a catalytic converter in vehicles should be made compulsory. 

6. The building of higher smoke-stacks facilitates the discharge of pollutants as far away from the ground as possible. Industries should be carefully located so as to minimize the effects of pollution after considering the topography and the wind direction.

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Conclusively it can be said that air pollution caused mainly due to urbanization, industrialization, deforestation and vehicular exhaust is a serious threat to the health of human beings and plants. Therefore, it is necessary to control air pollution by employing all possible control methods to avoid its ill effects on the health of human beings and plants.
Dr. Arvind Singh is M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Botany with an area of specialization in Ecology. He is a dedicated Researcher having more than four dozen of published Research Papers in the Journals of National and International repute. His main area of Research is Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted Research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University-Main Campus, India.

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