What are some causes of air pollution?

The below article talks about air pollution, ar quality, why there is air pollution, along with some frequently asked questions about the causes of air pollution and mitigation strategies for the same. 

What are some causes of air pollution?

Air pollution is a heavily researched topic, especially with the onset of several global climate events and conferences that have reported the world’s swift movement towards global warming and its drastic impacts on citizens all around the world. The key step to addressing climate change is to address concerns of air pollution and air quality and some of these concerns include the need for stricter regulations, environmental frameworks that is able to be facilitated at every level in every system, environmental laws that truly address a states’ concern, etc. All of these needs can be directly related to the sources of pollution such as industrial activities, global emissions from manufacturing activities, factories, power plants, treatment plants, waste burning, combustion of fossil fuels, vehicular emissions, unsustainable agricultural practices, etc. 

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. 

Source: EEA, 2013

Above is a quick-to-understand visual representation of air pollutants and their sources, released from the European Environment Agency. 

What are you breathing?


Mold thrives and grows in damp environments leading to infestations that could have dire effects on health. 80% of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is contributed to mold infestations, the most common form being the black mold (RTK, n.d.). 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): 

Various old buildings have been found to use unsafe paint and asbestos, while this is being rectified in the larger common areas; they are usually ignored in the lesser-visited spaces like a basement. Therefore, particles like lead dust, radon, other carcinogens, etc. would be present along with other particles originating from old upholstery, adhesives, paints, carpeting, varnishes, old furniture, pesticides, cleaning products, gym machines, gardening equipment, etc. 

Fiberglass particles

Fiberglass insulation is commonly used and is one of the major contributors to poor indoor air quality. Since fiberglass is present all across ceilings and walls, there is very little effort made to reduce the impact caused by breathing in small glass particles. It is also used in the manufacture of piping, sports equipment, fire protection equipment, drum sets, etc. So, breathing in fiberglass doesn’t necessarily originate from insulation, it could be a breakdown of particles from items stored in a basement. 

Common Allergens

The dust, mites, pollen, vermin and its droppings, mold spores, bacteria build-ups, mildew particles, etc. are some particles that can trigger allergic reactions. If there is equipment like washing machines and dryers, chances are lint is being inhaled as well. Not cleaning equipment could trigger infestations that spread rapidly across stored items in a basement, leading to increased breakdowns of toxic particles. 

Industrial and Vehicular Emissions:

Studies have repeatedly found out that vehicular exhaust fumes have caused varying degrees of respiratory difficulties amongst kids and adults. A study conducted in Taiwan amongst 32,134 schoolchildren found that their increased exposure to air pollutants during traffic hours has increased their risk of developing allergic rhinitis (UoB, 2006). The study observed that these children were exposed to multiple pollutants in the city’s center including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, etc. 

The study showed that the official diagnosis of allergic rhinitis increased by 10% for every 10 ppb (parts per billion) increase in levels of nitrogen oxides (UoB, 2006). The chances of respiratory difficulties amongst children increased if they had a familial history of the same issues. 

Chemical fumes: 

Fumes from paints, pesticides, cleaning products, bleach, varnishes, gas, solvents, etc. emanate strong chemical fumes. These fumes could cause inflammation to the outer skin as well as to lung tissue and can contribute to poisoning or cancer due to long-term exposure. A radioactive chemical that is often present in basements is radon. Radon has been found to be the 2nd largest contributor to lung cancer in the US, with an average of 21,000 deaths every year (EPA, n.d.). Since radon is odorless and colorless, poisoning from radon is usually identified quite late. 

Pet Dander: 

Allergic reactions to pets can be due to the body’s response to the protein that is found in an animals’ skin cells, saliva, feces, urine, etc. Most usually, the allergic reaction is triggered by inhalation of the pet’s dead skin (dander) and has been mostly associated with exposure to cats and dogs (Mayo Clinic, n.d.). Pet allergies can appear as symptoms of asthma, wheezing, breathlessness, etc. The most common way to avoid pet allergies would be to avoid pets, however, in situations that are not possible, various other solutions such as the below ones can be implemented. 

Solutions for Air Pollution 

  • Using public transport systems would drastically reduce vehicular emissions every year, as well as reduce the demand for fossil fuel and the carbon footprint we contribute towards. It could also be a cost-effective way of traveling that is sustainable in the long run.
  • Using electric vehicles is the next best thing in terms of new modes of transportation. It is a largely taken up option amongst citizens globally, as it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly. 
  • Electricity is attained by burning fossil fuels in power plants. Saving electricity could mean that we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for the same. Switching over to energy-saving devices or mechanisms such as fluorescent lightbulbs could reduce the amount of electricity required. 
  • Switching over to energy-efficient methods of living, and promoting reusing and recycling to conserve resources and energy. This would largely cut down on global emissions that are put out into the atmosphere due to large-scale manufacturing companies. Recycling also uses lesser power, in comparison to creating products from scratch. 
  • There are over 6000 items that can be made using petroleum, boycotting these items and choosing environment-friendly options, and creating a global demand for the latter options would reduce the global emissions as a result of making unsustainable and harmful products. Therefore, we must work towards avoiding fossil fuels and their products in our everyday lives from plastic bags, solvents, bicycle tires, trash bags, ballpoint pens to golf balls, fertilizers, and rubber cement. This list from Ranken Energy Corporation lists some common items made using petroleum. 
  • Enforcing strict regulatory frameworks for major polluters globally. Especially, so that they would need to implement measures to monitor and control their emissions. Some of these frameworks could include that they switch to cleaner sources of energy, using electric devices that can be attached to their chimneys to trap major pollutants from emissions, reducing their daily activities, sourcing their raw materials from responsible sources, making changes to their logistics structure, etc. 
  • Enforce the polluter pays principle in every country so that the major polluters also pay to mitigate the risks and vulnerabilities they create due to their ignorance. 
  • Global agencies such as the UNEP or the UNFCCC, need to apply pressure on national and global systems to adhere to their global commitments for climate change and climate empowerment. They should be tracking effectively and efficiently through various strategies to monitor climate ambition, action, and those actually enforced. 
  • Carbon sinks around the world are responsible for absorbing approximately 30% of global emissions, increasing forests and the number of trees would increase the capacity of the planet to absorb harmful emissions. Therefore, afforestation is an excellent solution to address air pollution and poor air quality. 
  • Avoid using highly chemical items such as paints, solvents, lacquers, toxic cleaning agents, etc. that have the capability of emitting toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and have drastic impacts on human health. 
  • Reduce agricultural emissions by adopting sustainable agricultural practices and taking up environment-friendly measures such as using natural pesticides, avoiding heavy-duty farming equipment, etc. 
  • Changing fuel sources at a household level to change the dependency on natural resources such as coals, wood, etc. for daily activities. 
  • Hold your state actors to their national commitments and ensure that there are adequate climate actions being taken to modify the deteriorating environment around you. 
  • Landfills produce a toxic amount of emissions, mostly methane which is a greenhouse gas. This accelerates global warming and is a major contributor to poor air quality. Waste has to be managed and modified, and this needs to be addressed at the source of these issues: anthropological usage and activity. 
  • Look for energy-efficient devices with the appropriate gradings and ranks to ensure that any device used is made in accordance with environmental standards and needs. 
  • Enforce climate policies and frameworks in global and national systems, and ensure there is enhanced accountability and transparency in its design, and implementation. It is also crucial to effectively and efficiently monitor these policies to identify possible new risks and address them immediately. 
  • Engage with regional and national community groups to aim towards taking holistic and sustainable climate action, and aim to increase community climate ambition. 
  • Follow local groups to see where you can contribute in terms of being eco-friendly in your day-to-day actions. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): What are some common causes of air pollution?

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. 

Is the air cleaner after rain?

Yes, studies have shown that rainfall can improve air quality, through a phenomenon called scavenging by precipitation or wet deposition. It essentially refers to when water droplets collide and coagulate with airborne pollutants and drag them to the ground, leaving them immobile and grounded. Although humans feel a significant improvement in air quality post-rainfall, various sources have confirmed that rainfall can only attribute to a maximum of 11% improvement in air quality. 

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

What is point source air pollution?

What is the best solution to air pollution?

Are there effects on biodiversity due to air pollution?


European Environment Agency (EEA). (2013). Every breath we take: Improving air quality in Europe. EEA Signals 2013. Viewed on 12-23-2021. https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/air-pollution-sources-1 

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (n.d.). Health Risk of Radon. United States EPA. Viewed on 12-23-2021. https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon   

Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Pet allergy. Overview. Viewed on 12-23-2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pet-allergy/symptoms-causes/syc-20352192 

RTK Environmental Group (RTK). (n.d.). Beware of Basement Air. Viewed on 12-23-2021. https://rtkenvironmental.com/healthy-home/beware-of-basement-air/ 

University of Birmingham (UoB). (2006, February 22). Traffic Fumes Linked to Childhood Allergies.  Viewed on 12-23-2021. https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2006/02/22feb-allergies.aspx 

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