air pollution

Effects on Health and the Environment

Like photochemical pollutants, sulfur oxides contribute to the incidence of respiratory diseases. Acid rain, a form of precipitation that contains high levels of sulfuric or nitric acids, can contaminate drinking water and vegetation, damage aquatic life, and erode buildings. When a weather condition known as a temperature inversion prevents dispersal of smog, inhabitants of the area, especially children and the elderly and chronically ill, are warned to stay indoors and avoid physical stress. The dramatic and debilitating effects of severe air pollution episodes in cities throughout the world—such as the London smog of 1952 that resulted in 4,000 deaths—have alerted governments to the necessity for crisis procedures. Even everyday levels of air pollution may insidiously affect health and behavior. Indoor air pollution is a problem in developed countries, where efficient insulation keeps pollutants inside the structure. In less developed nations, the lack of running water and indoor sanitation can encourage respiratory infections. Carbon monoxide, for example, by driving oxygen out of the bloodstream, causes apathy, fatigue, headache, disorientation, and decreased muscular coordination and visual acuity.

Air pollution may possibly harm populations in ways so subtle or slow that they have not yet been detected. For that reason research is now under way to assess the long-term effects of chronic exposure to low levels of air pollution—what most people experience—as well as to determine how air pollutants interact with one another in the body and with physical factors such as nutrition, stress, alcohol, cigarette smoking, and common medicines. Another subject of investigation is the relation of air pollution to cancer, birth defects, and genetic mutations.

A relatively recently discovered result of air pollution are seasonal "holes" in the ozone layer in the atmosphere above Antarctica and the Arctic, coupled with growing evidence of global ozone depletion. This can increase the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth, where it damages crops and plants and can lead to skin cancer and cataracts. This depletion has been caused largely by the emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from refrigerators, air conditioners, and aerosols. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 required that developed nations signing the accord not exceed 1986 CFC levels. Several more meetings were held from 1990 to 1997 to adopt agreements to accelerate the phasing out of ozone-depleting substances.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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