Why is oxygen important to air quality? 

The below article talks about oxygen, its characteristics, the factors that contribute towards its changes in the atmosphere, along with some frequently asked questions about the same. 

Why is oxygen important to air quality? 

As we all know, oxygen plays a very important role in our everyday life. The presence of oxygen in the atmosphere makes the planet habitable. It is said that 21% of the atmosphere holds oxygen, the presence of oxygen in terms of air quality can be a boon and a bane. It is a boon because it helps all living organisms to respire and survive, however, when nitrous oxides and other airborne contaminants react in the atmosphere due to sunlight, they break and the one O molecule from the oxides combines with the existing oxygen molecule (O2) to form ozone (O3). Ozone, in the higher levels of the atmosphere, plays an important role for the planet by keeping away harmful ultraviolet radiation, but at ground level, ozone is an air pollutant and can lead to photochemical smog. 

Oxygen and Pollution 

As we are well aware, air pollution happens when there is a contamination of the air we breathe by harmful concentrations of air contaminants. The US EPA has recognized 5 main air pollutants, namely: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Oxygen levels are an important factor in both indoor and outdoor air quality. Just like oxygen levels, outdoor are threatened by anthropogenic activities and other naturally occurring events such as volcanoes, vehicular emissions, industrial activities, combustion of fossil fuels, etc. Oxygen levels indoors could also be threatened by various factors such as increasing concentrations of radon, an increase of volatile organic compounds, cigarette smoke, etc. 

As mentioned previously, oxygen is an important element in our everyday lives. Its presence in the atmosphere plays a crucial role in air quality. The presence of oxygen also leads to the formation of the secondary pollutant, ozone. Ozone, in higher levels of the atmosphere, plays an important role in keeping our planet habitable and safe, whereas, in the lower layers of the atmosphere, it leads to photochemical smog and haze that could have devastating impacts on surrounding ecosystems and lives. Secondary pollutants cannot be controlled or stopped, mainly because they are formed as a result of chemical reactions between primary pollutants and the sunlight. Since they are chemically synthesized, there is just so much we could do to stop their production. 

Therefore, maintaining oxygen levels in the atmosphere comes down to addressing sources of primary air pollution. That is industrial activities, power plants, vehicular emissions, etc. In short, ensuring that oxygen levels always remain in the quantities we need can only be done if we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Humans need to understand that anthropogenic activities done without consideration for the environment are a major threat to lives around us, and stakeholders: private and the public need to gear up to address air pollution concerns. The way of the world is such that those most affected by air pollution are the most vulnerable groups including those belonging to lower socio-economic groups, chronically diseased individuals, growing kids, senior citizens, etc. It is important to recognize that climate ambition needs to rise amongst developed and developing countries, alike and that climate action needs to be immediate. Polluted air is a global problem, and is one that needs to be addressed immediately for a future where humans won’t have to scamper for oxygen cylinders to survive a day. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Can different levels of oxygen affect air quality?

What is photochemical smog? 

A photochemical smog refers to a mixture of several airborne contaminants and is a thick haze that is formed as a result of the various chemical interactions of these airborne contaminants with sunlight. The smog is usually formed from the chemical interactions of nitrogen oxides or volatile organic compounds with sunlight. It occurs more during summers and is mainly formed as a result of rash anthropogenic activities that lead to a large volume of toxic concentrations of air pollutants into the atmosphere (AU EPA, 2004). 

Can poor air quality cause a fever? What do I do about it?

While poor air quality is not directly attributable to an increase in body temperature, the side effects of long-term exposure to toxic air particles and pollutants may cause diseases or infections, that show their initial signs as a body fever. Protecting yourself from poor air quality will reduce the chances you fall sick and thus reduce the risk of having a high body temperature. 

Some measures you could take include installing an air purifier, wearing masks and other protective measures, limiting exposure during projected poor air quality levels, limiting exposure to vehicular emissions, chemical fumes, etc., installing proper ventilation systems, avoiding exposure during peak traffic hours, etc. 

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

What is the air quality level in Xian, China?

Radon Mitigation Measures

Perfluorocarbons (PFCs): What do you need to know?


AU Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). (2004 March). Photochemical smog – what it means for us. EPA Information. Government of South Australia. Viewed on 02-14-2022. https://www.epa.sa.gov.au/files/8238_info_photosmog.pdf 

DeMeo D. L., Zanobetti A., Litonjua A. A., Coull B. A., Schwartz J., & Gold D. R. (2004, May 11). Ambient air pollution and oxygen saturation. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 170(4). pp. 383 – 387. Viewed on 02-14-2022. https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1164/rccm.200402-244OC 

NASA Climate. (2016, September 12). 10 interesting things about air. News. Viewed on 02-14-2022. https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2491/10-interesting-things-about-air/ 

The Conscious Club. (2019, May 02). Oxygen and Pollution. Polluted air is a global problem. Viewed on 02-14-2022. https://www.theconsciouschallenge.org/ecologicalfootprintbibleoverview/oxygen-pollution#:~:text=The%20O%20then%20combines%20with,ultraviolet%20radiation%20from%20the%20sun

UCAR Centre for Science Education. (n.d.). Oxygen. Air Quality. Viewed on 02-14-2022. https://scied.ucar.edu/learning-zone/air-quality/oxygen#:~:text=Oxygen%20plays%20a%20critical%20role,and%20many%20types%20of%20microbes.  

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