Air pollution is a major problem in today’s world. Many of us spend every day of our lives breathing in smog without even thinking of the damage it is doing not only to our lungs, but also to the planet. Air pollutants contribute to the rise of global warming, a long-term change in the climate of the planet which will ultimately be harmful, maybe even detrimental, to life on earth.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keeps track of six different pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particular matter and sulfur dioxide. But what are the 10 worst modern causes of air pollution according to EPA data?
1. Automobile Emissions
Rush hour in New Delhi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Automobile emissions are the number one source of carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds released into the atmosphere according to the EPA. While the emissions of any single vehicle are usually quite low, when you add up the millions of vehicles in transit in any given urban metropolitan area, you come up with quite a lot of emissions. Because of this, the EPA states that “driving a private car is probably a typical citizen’s most ‘polluting’ daily activity.” What can you do about it? Use public transportation when you can, get a smog check on your vehicle, even if you don’t have to, and avoid driving when you don’t need to. You can also consider upgrading to a hybrid or electric vehicle, which can save you money on gasoline and also protect the environment. ### 2. Fuel Combustion
Combustion engine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The combustion of fossil fuels like coal and gasoline releases numerous pollutants into the atmosphere, which in turn cause smog, acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions and other problems. Fuel combustion is the number one source of sulfur dioxide pollution, and also ranks pretty highly for a number of other air pollution causes. ### 3. Dust
(Photo credit: nirvana168 | Flickr)
This one may sound a bit strange, but dust is the number one source of particulate matter in the air. What causes dust pollution? There’s always going to be dust in the air anywhere, that’s a given. But the dust from construction adds particulate matter to the air, and so does driving on paved and unpaved roads. ### 4. Industrial Processes
VW Factory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Industrial processes are the number two cause of lead pollution in the air, following automobile emissions. They are the third most common source of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. These include processes like mining, oil and gas production, chemical and cement manufacturing. Petroleum refineries also fall under this category. ### 5. Solvent Use
Aerosol pollution over Northern India and Bangladesh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is the number 2 source of volatile organic compounds in the air, once again following emissions from vehicles. Air pollution causes relating to solvent use include processes like dry cleaning, degreasing, and industrial surface coating. ### 6. Gasoline Terminals, Stations, and Gas Cooking
Petroleum refineries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Gasoline use is a major source of air pollutants like volatile organic compounds and particulate matter. It’s also considered a top source for other forms of pollution that the EPA tracks, though not nearly to the same degree as automobiles, industrial manufacturing, and fuel combustion. ### 7. Fires
Slash and burn agriculture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fires are a common source for most of the pollutants the EPA tracks, especially particulate matter. While many fires are natural and play a role in forest ecology, others are set deliberately by arsonists or slash and burn agricultural practices. These man-made fires not only destroy wildlife and contribute to deforestation, but also contribute to air pollution on the planet.
Devastating deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia
Volatile organic compounds enter the atmosphere as a result of certain agricultural processes, like dust from crops and livestock, livestock waste, and the application of fertilizer. By farming organically and avoiding the use of harmful fertilizers and pesticides, farmers can reduce air pollution. ### 9. Waste Disposal
SYSAV waste incineration plant in Malmö, Sweden. This plant incinerates 25 metric tons of household waste per hour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Waste disposal is classified by the EPA as a “miscellaneous” activity which causes air pollution, and is grouped along with gas stations and other gasoline-related sources for common air contaminants. Like those gasoline-related sources, it may be further down the list than automobiles, industrial processes, and fuel combustion, but it’s still significant enough to make the list. ### 10. Radioactive Waste
A container of nuclear waste being transported in Nevada - nuclear waste transportation and disposal is one of the major environmental hazards of Nuclear power (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Thankfully, events involving radioactive waste aren’t all that common, but as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 demonstrated, even a [single radioactive disaster can cause widespread contamination](https://curiosityaroused.com/environment/nuclear-energy-pros-and-cons/). Following the disaster, an area comprising a 20 km radius around the plant was evacuated due to concerns of radioactive gasses in the atmosphere. Food sales in the area were banned. While these measures were temporary and the situation is largely under control now, radiation is still leaking from the plant today. Contamination from the disaster is likely to cause a number of severe health problems for local residents in the coming years. More than a third of the children in Fukushima now have abnormal growths in their thyroid glands. Chernobyl, the most famous nuclear disaster, released so much radiation that tours of the area have only been permitted by the Emergency Situations Ministry of Ukraine since 2011. Radioactive pollution may not be the most common type of atmospheric pollution (otherwise we’d be in a lot of trouble), but it certainly is among the most destructive, which is why nuclear power plants and devices are considered to be so hazardous by so many scientists and members of the general public. ## What Can You Do? As human beings in the modern world, we tend to have a rather shortsighted view of life, but the products of our comfortable, convenient lives have long-term environmental consequences. If we expect the planet to be a livable place for generations to come, we will need to learn how to be long-term planners again. How can you do your part? Consider upgrading to an energy efficient vehicle and going green with solar power in your home. Take care of the vehicles you do have so they run efficiently and produce as little environmental toxicity as possible. Better yet, get rid of your vehicle altogether and consider biking, car-pooling, and taking public transport. And if you live in the city and have forgotten what fresh air feels like, consider taking a trip to the country to remember. When you come back home, do your part to cut back on the smog in the city and hold onto that dream of fresher, cleaner air.