The combustion of gasoline and other hydrocarbon fuels in automobiles, trucks, and jet airplanes produces several primary pollutants: nitrogen oxides, gaseous hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide, as well as large quantities of particulates, chiefly lead. In the presence of sunlight, nitrogen oxides combine with hydrocarbons to form a secondary class of pollutants, the photochemical oxidants, among them ozone and the eye-stinging peroxyacetylnitrate (PAN). Nitrogen oxides also react with oxygen in the air to form nitrogen dioxide, a foul-smelling brown gas. In urban areas like Los Angeles where transportation is the main cause of air pollution, nitrogen dioxide tints the air, blending with other contaminants and the atmospheric water vapor to produce brown smog. Although the use of catalytic converters has reduced smog-producing compounds in motor vehicle exhaust emissions, studies have shown that in so doing the converters produce nitrous oxide, which contributes substantially to global warming.
In cities, air may be severely polluted not only by transportation but also by the burning of fossil fuels (oil and coal) in generating stations, factories, office buildings, and homes and by the incineration of garbage. The massive combustion produces tons of ash, soot, and other particulates responsible for the gray smog of cities like New York and Chicago, along with enormous quantities of sulfur oxides (which also may be result from burning coal and oil). These oxides rust iron, damage building stone, decompose nylon, tarnish silver, and kill plants. Air pollution from cities also affects rural areas for many miles downwind.
Every industrial process exhibits its own pattern of air pollution. Petroleum refineries are responsible for extensive hydrocarbon and particulate pollution. Iron and steel mills, metal smelters, pulp and paper mills, chemical plants, cement and asphalt plants—all discharge vast amounts of various particulates. Uninsulated high-voltage power lines ionize the adjacent air, forming ozone and other hazardous pollutants. Airborne pollutants from other sources include insecticides, herbicides, radioactive fallout, and dust from fertilizers, mining operations, and livestock feedlots.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.