The Effects of Air Pollution on Humans and the Environment

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Air pollution has been on America’s mind for decades, and while air quality has seen massive improvements, it still presents a problem for millions of Americans on a day-to-day basis. Certain metropolitan areas are especially bad, and the natural environment around these areas is also impacted.

The State of Air Pollution Today

Imaging technology from NASA’s Aura Satellite has shown significant improvement in the United States’ air quality over the past ten years. Research has shown that the presence of nitrogen dioxide – one of the worst pollutants – has decreased drastically.

With massive improvements in technology in vehicle engines and power plants, as well as more appropriate regulations surrounding emissions, the issue has gotten better. Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet, and air pollution continues to show negative effects every day.

How Air Pollution Affects Plants and Animals

Perhaps the most significant effect of air pollution on the environment is the formation of acid rain. When sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are present in the atmosphere, they form compounds that fall back onto the ground during rainfall.

Acid rain has an effect wherever it lands. When it falls on freshwater ecosystems like rivers and lakes, the water becomes acidic, harming the fish and plant life. Certain animal populations have declined due to acid rain, including mayflies, aquatic birds, salmon, mollusks, and brown trout – among others.

When plants are made toxic by acid rain, animals that feed on them suffer from health problems. But the plants themselves can also suffer ill effects. Air pollution can cause physical injuries, like large bleached areas or lesions on leaves and tree trunks. Many plants – especially lichens – died off entirely in some areas during the height of air pollution in the atmosphere, and these have only recently started to come back.

Air Pollution and Human Health

The air you breathe affects every part of your body. Immediately, breathing toxic air can cause shortness of breath and irritation in your nose and throat. People who suffer from allergies and asthma are especially affected by these problems. Pollution can also aggravate already existing health problems for chronically ill and elderly individuals. Some toxic chemicals can be even more severe. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, birth defects, nerve damage, lung injury, and more.

Air Quality Matters Indoors

In addition to outdoor air pollution, poor indoor air quality is a problem worldwide. Approximately 3 billion people – almost half of the world’s population – heat their homes and cook using biomass fuel and coal. This causes premature deaths and chronic health problems, especially in poorer countries around the world. This is a systemic problem that many nonprofits and community organizers have tasked themselves with addressing.

In developed nations, poor indoor air quality affects those who work in manufacturing plants and other industrial settings. When workers breathe bad air, they suffer from health problems – and companies, in turn, have to deal with significant turnover in their employees, hindering progress and productivity.

Solving the Air Pollution Problem

Fortunately, the solution for poor indoor industrial air quality is actually quite straightforward. By measuring air quality and properly filtering out harmful particulates, companies can purify the air for their employees – improving their health, quality of life, and ability to work effectively.

The problem of outdoor air pollution is complex, but everyone can contribute to the solution in small ways. Consider carpooling, buying energy-efficient products, or switching to solar power – among other solutions. Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to make the air we breathe healthy for everyone.