Advantages and Disadvantages of Air Pollution

The below article talks about air pollution, air quality, the advantages and disadvantages of air pollution, along with some frequently asked questions about airborne pollutants and their concentrations, air pollution, and air quality management. 

Are there advantages to air pollution?

Air pollution is bad at the current rates it is happening. However, that is not to say that it may have small advantages such as aiding the growth of plants due to nitrogen emissions from vehicles and factories, certain pollutants such as sulfur could cool the planet and slow down global warming, and the ability of air-borne pollutants to retain heat would make extremely cold areas warmer and help the citizens from extremely cold temperatures. 

However, it must be observed that the bad in air pollution severely outweighs the good and should not be continued at the current rates. If it is continued, it would be a threat to the very existence and sustenance of humans, plants, animals, and the planet. 

Air Pollution

Air pollution refers to the combination of the air quality from any physical, chemical, or biological component that has the capability to alter the natural properties of the atmosphere around us. There are varying sources of air pollution such as the burning of fossil fuels, burning of waste, factory emissions, environmental disasters such as wildfires, etc. Airborne pollutants come under 5 categories, namely:

  • Particulate Matter (PM2.5 and PM10)
  • Ozone
  • Carbon monoxide 
  • Nitrogen dioxide 
  • Sulfur dioxide

Air pollution has severe impacts on human health and can lead to acute and chronic diseases from skin irritations or cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. WHO estimates that every year, approximately 7 million people die from effects as a result of air pollution, and has reported that almost 99% of the world’s population lives in areas that exceed that global guidelines for air quality; especially low and middle-income developing countries. Air pollution has been an increasing threat to humanity and the environment since the industrial revolution, and the world governments and global communities have been trying to enforce varying kinds of strategies to address these issues. 

WHO estimates that 4.2 million deaths every year can be directly attributed to after-effects of prolonged exposure to poor outdoor air quality and 3.8 million deaths every year occur just from household exposure to poor energy sources from dirty fuels and cookstoves (WHO, n.d.). 

Air Pollutants and their Sources

Air pollutants can be classified as being primary or secondary pollutants. 

Primary pollutants are those that are directly emitted into the atmosphere. Air pollutants can have mixed sources of origin such as natural pollutants, anthropogenic pollutants, or a mix of these both. Some of the primary pollutants include particulate matter,  carbon forms, sulfur oxides,  nitrogen oxides,  forms of ammonia,  carbon monoxide, methane,  volatile organic compounds such as benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Examples of secondary pollutants include particulate matter such as Ozone (O3), Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and several other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The most important of them are Sulphur dioxide (SO2) and NOx, NH3, etc.  

Primary and secondary sources of air pollutants are diverse in nature and can be as a result of various activities such as:

  • Burning fossil fuel for energy through power plants, for transportation, industrial processes, household usages, etc. 
  • Industrial and factorial activities such as mass production of several items, especially highly chemical products such as cleaning agents, or using extremely corrosive chemicals in the processes involved to manufacture their items. 
  • Agricultural emissions such as from pesticides, burning of agricultural waste, usage of farming equipment, etc. 
  • Waste or sewage treatment processes that use several kinds of chemicals and chemical processes
  • Environmental sources such as volcanoes, certain trees or plants, pollutants being blown into certain regions due to winds/ cyclones, emissions from wildfires, etc. 

Addressing poor air quality requires that we have a framework that takes a multi-pronged approach towards ensuring a decent cut in global emissions. However, ensuring the reduction of global emissions isn’t enough, as it is also important that we monitor the concentrations of each pollutant as well. There are various influential elements that control air quality and air pollution, and each of these has lasting impacts in several facets of our daily lives from health to the everyday weather. 

Advantages and Disadvantages to Air Pollution 

AdvantagesDisadvantages 
Nitrogen emissions from vehicles and factories could aid the growth of plants and trees.Approximately 7 million people die every year due to poor air quality. 
The heat-retaining characteristics of air-borne pollutants could keep cities that face extremely cold temperatures, warmer.Chronic and acute health impacts as a result of air pollution have been extensively studied and it has been found to have severe impacts on the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, neurological systems, etc. 
Pollutants such as sulfur could cool down the earth and slow down global warming. Certain air pollutants have been found to bio-accumulate into crops grown, which are eventually consumed by humans, and could thus cause bio-accumulation of these toxic particles on our body.
The heat-retention characteristics of air-borne pollutants increase global temperatures, causing global warming at alarming rates. IPCC states that global temperatures will not be limited to an increase of 1.5 ℃, and that could have devastating implications on the world around us.
Global warming as a result of massive global emissions has caused an increase in sea levels due to melting polar ice caps and glaciers and has thus contributed to the destruction of several ecosystems. 
Increased air pollution has been threatening to extremely vulnerable and marginalized communities, as they are the ones who are at the frontline of facing the brunt of climate change.
Air pollution has been found to have critical impacts on the health of pregnant individuals and unborn kids causing increased cases of low birth weight, stillborn, limited development, etc. 
Increasing air pollution and the presence of toxic pollutants have threatened the existence of various species of plants and animals, and in many cases have driven certain species to be on the red list for extinction. 
Increased air pollution has been found to be extremely threatening and creates a vulnerability amongst sensitive groups such as the elderly, growing kids, pregnant individuals, those diagnosed with chronic conditions, those diagnosed with respiratory issues, etc. 
Increased air pollution has been directly attributed to several short-term discomforts as well, such as headaches, dizziness, breathlessness, nausea, etc. 
Air pollution has been directly linked to the increased occurrences of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders (COPD) and has caused an increased incidence of asthma and allergy attacks. 
Increased air pollution has been triggering significant ocean acidification. As oceans have the capability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, increased absorption has been found to decrease the pH of the ocean and thus threaten various marine ecosystems and habitats. 
Air pollution has been accompanied by land and water pollution, causing an increase in the severity of environmental destruction around us. 
Increased costs need to be incurred by global and national actors to address the need for good air quality, leading to the need for increased investments into mitigation strategies.
State actors have to continuously regulate and monitor their environmental frameworks, so as to ensure that stakeholders do not misuse environmental resources and cause severe threats. This takes away focus from other emerging needs of the citizens and also diverts resources towards addressing these issues. 
Increased risk for environmental disasters such as droughts, acid rains, etc. 
Increased incidences of water body deaths, also known as eutrophication. The excess nitrogen from the emissions is taken into the water body and triggers the excessive growth of algae, thus interrupting oxygen to marine ecosystems and killing these water bodies. 
Air pollution has been directly linked to poor weather conditions including an increased risk of smog, haze, etc. which is caused when the sunlight interacts with certain airborne pollutants to cause chemical reactions that trigger conditions of haze or smog. 
Air pollution has been directly linked to ozone depletion and it has been found that certain pollutants tend to cause deterioration in the ozone layer, causing increased risks of cancer, cataract, impaired immune and neurological systems, destroying crops, letting radiation harmful for humans and the ecosystem into the planet, etc. 
Air pollution has been found to reduce the land’s capacity to produce crops and reduce seed survivability, this could threaten food security in any area and lead to long-term consequences such as an increased number of farmer suicides and environmental damage. 

As seen from the table above, the disadvantages of air pollution far outweigh any possible benefits of air pollution. Therefore, it is within reach of our hands to take effective measures to address air pollution and air quality standards. 

(DEP, n.d.)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Are there advantages to air pollution?

How do I know at what concentrations the pollutants are harmful?

Refer to the below table to identify at what levels specific pollutants become harmful to human health. 

Source: Saad S. M. et. al., 2017

How do I know what the different numbers and colors mean in an AQI?

Sourced from The Air Quality Index Scale as defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA):

AQIPollution LevelHealth ImplicationsCautionary Statement 
0 – 50GoodAir quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no riskNone
51 -100ModerateAir quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants, there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.Vulnerable and at-risk children and adults, people with respiratory diseases, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
101-150Unhealthy for Sensitive GroupsMembers of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected.Vulnerable and at-risk children and adults, and people with respiratory diseases, such as asthma, should avoid outdoor exertion.
151-200UnhealthyEveryone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effectsActive children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion
201-300Very UnhealthyHealth warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.Active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid all outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit outdoor exertion.
300+HazardousEmergency Health Alert: everyone has a higher vulnerability to experience more serious health effectsEveryone should avoid all outdoor exertion

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

Air Pollution Theses: Health Edition

How is the air quality in Dubai?

Impacts of Air Pollution on Animals

References 

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). (n.d.). Health & Environmental Effects of Air Pollution. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs. MassDEP. Viewed on 12-20-2021. https://www.mass.gov/doc/health-environmental-effects-of-air-pollution/download 

European Environment Agency (EEA). (2013). Every breath we take: Improving air quality in Europe. EEA Signals 2013. Viewed on 12-20-2021. https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/air-pollution-sources-1 

Saad S. M., Shakaff A. Y., Saad A. R. M., Yusof A. M., Andrew A. M., Zakaria A., & Adom A. (2017, March). Development of indoor environmental index: Air Quality Index and thermal comfort index. 11th Asian Conference on Chemical Sensors. AIP Conference Proceedings. AIP Publishing. Viewed on 12-20-2021. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4975276 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315006128_Development_of_indoor_environmental_index_Air_quality_index_and_thermal_comfort_index 

World Health Organization (WHO). (n.d.). Air Pollution. Viewed on 12-20-2021. https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_2 

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