Pollutants in our air

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Why in news?

  • Rising pollution levels in north India have led to focus returning on the Air Quality Index (AQI) score, a measure of air pollution.
  • Delhi, for instance, recorded an AQI score of more than 400 on November 6. This puts the air in the ‘severe’ category.

What’s in today’s article?

  • Why in news?
  • What is Air Quality Index (AQI)?
  • Pollutants and impact on health
    • PM 10 and PM 2.5
    • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
    • Ozone (O3)
    • Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)
    • Ammonia (NH3)
    • Lead (Pb)
    • Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Air Quality Index (AQI)

  • AQI was launched in October 2014 to disseminate information on air quality in an easily understandable form for the general public.
  • The measurement of air quality is based on eight pollutants, namely, PM10, PM2.5, NO2, SO2, CO, O3, NH3, and Pb
  • The AQI transforms complex air quality data of various pollutants into a single number for ease of understanding.

Pollutants and impact on health

PM 10 and PM 2.5

  • These are extremely fine particulate matter (PM) particles, with the digits accompanying them referring to their diameter.
  • So, PM 10 and PM 2.5 are smaller than 10 and 2.5 microns in their diameter, respectively.
    • One micron is about a thousandth of a milli-metre.
  • Due to their size, the PM 2.5 particles can easily bypass the nose and throat and can enter the circulatory system.
  • The particles can also lead to chronic diseases such as asthma, heart attack, bronchitis and other respiratory problems.
  • Byproducts of emissions from factories, vehicular pollution, construction activities and road dust, such particles are not dispersed and stay suspended in the air that we breathe.

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gets in the air from the burning of fuel, with sources including emissions from vehicles and power plants.
  • Short-term exposure to high levels of NO2 can aggravate respiratory diseases like asthma, and lead to other problems such as coughing or difficulty in breathing.
  • Long-term exposure may also contribute to the development of asthma and could increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Ozone (O3)

  • Ozone is a gas that is present in the upper layers of the atmosphere, protecting human health from the impact of the Sun’s UV rays.
  • However, surface-level ozone is among the most significant air pollutants. It is formed by the reaction of atmospheric pollutants in the presence of sunlight.
  • With increase in surface ozone levels, there is likelihood of an increase in risk of hospital admissions for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD) and the number of cardiovascular and respiratory deaths.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)

  • The largest source of SO2 in the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels by power plants and other industrial facilities.
  • Additional sources are industrial processes and natural sources such as volcanoes.
  • As with other gases, SO2 exposure is harmful to the cardiovascular system and can lead to the development of respiratory illnesses.
  • SO2 can also react with other compounds to form particulate matter.
  • At high concentrations, gaseous SOx can harm trees and plants by damaging foliage and decreasing growth.

Ammonia (NH3)

  • A 2017 NASA-funded study said that in India, “A broad increase in fertilizer use coupled with large contributions from livestock waste have resulted in the world’s highest concentrations of atmospheric ammonia.”
  • While gaseous ammonia is a natural part of Earth’s nitrogen cycle, excess ammonia is harmful to plants and reduces air and water quality.
  • In the troposphere –where all weather takes place and where people live – ammonia gas reacts with nitric and sulfuric acids to form nitrate-containing particles.
  • Those particles contribute to aerosol pollution that is damaging to human health.
  • Ammonia gas can also fall back to Earth and enter lakes, streams and oceans, where it contributes to harmful algal blooms and “dead zones” with dangerously low oxygen levels.

Lead (Pb)

  • Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the Earth’s crust. But in increased quantities, exposure to it becomes extremely dangerous to health.
  • Important sources of environmental contamination come from mining, smelting, manufacturing and even recycling activities.
  • Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because they absorb four to five times as much ingested lead as adults from a given source.
  • Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with permanent intellectual disability and behavioural disorders.

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

  • A toxic, colourless and odourless gas, it is given off when fuel containing carbon, such as wood, coal and petrol, is burned.
  • If CO levels are high enough, a person may become unconscious and die. Long-term exposure has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease.

Q1) What is air pollution?

Air pollution is the contamination of air by harmful gases, dust, and smoke. It can be caused by physical, chemical, or biological changes in the air.

Q2) What are pollutants?

A pollutant is a substance that causes pollution. Pollutants can be chemical, physical, or biological materials that contaminate the environment and cause pollution. They can cause both environmental and health problems.


Source: PM 2.5, Sulphur Dioxide, and more: What are the pollutants in our air, and how they impact health | ORF