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Common Causes of Poor Air Quality

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Where is all this air pollution coming from? When we hear the words “air pollution,” most of us picture crowded, smoggy highways full of smoke-ejecting vehicles. 

Or we imagine large industrial stacks spewing toxic fumes into the air. While these are certainly two major factors, there are other sources of air pollution that you should be aware of as well. 

The Environmental Protection Agency separates the most common air pollutions into six categories:

  • Ozone: This is probably the type of pollutant that most people associate with smoggy cities. Bad ozone comes from industrial facilities and motor vehicles, but can also be emitted by chemicals, electric utilities, and gasoline vapors.
  • Particulate Matter: When solid particles and liquid droplets mix in the air, it creates a pollution called particle matter or particle pollution, often abbreviated as “PM.” Dust, dirt, soot, and smoke combine with water in the air through a complex reaction, creating both visible and invisible air pollution.
  • Nitrogen Dioxide: Formed when fossil fuels are burned at high temperatures, nitrogen dioxide is a gaseous air pollutant that contributes to both particle pollution and ozone. This can form indoors as well from burning wood and natural gas.
  • Carbon Monoxide: This is another form of gas that is produced when fuels are burned. CO is odorless and colorless, making it particularly dangerous. It reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and can cause many symptoms, including headaches, weakness, confusion, and dizziness.
  • Sulfur Dioxide: Many of our fuels, including coal, oil, and diesel, contain sulfur. When burned, they release sulfur-dioxide, which can cause wheezing, respiratory issues, rapid breathing, and can even trigger asthma attacks. If you live near a coal plant or shipping port, you may be exposed to higher amounts of this air pollutant.
  • Lead: Lead is a heavy metal, so you probably don’t think of it in the atmosphere, but the EPA monitors lead air pollution. Lead, which is toxic, can be released into the air through metal and ore processing, as well as aircraft that still use leaded fuels.

The American Lung Association also discussed other toxic air pollutants that can harm people’s health. The group says that there are nearly 200 other toxins that can cause respiratory, heart, or general health concerns. Besides causing health issues, many of these gases such as carbon dioxide are related to greenhouse gas emissions. 

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