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4.5. Atmospheric pollution

Atmospheric pollution

Atmospheric pollution is the presence in the air of materials or forms of energy (radiation, noise, light,...) that in certain quantities imply a risk, damage or serious annoyance for people and other living beings, goods of any nature, as well as that they can attack different materials, reduce visibility or produce unpleasant odours.

Air pollution can be:

  • Natural pollution, if it is produced by volcanic eruptions,desert dust, unprovoked forest fires or by the biological action ofliving beings (pollen, methane, etc.). Although it is true that it is pollution because it worsens the quality of the air, it is a pollution that has always existed and that the Earth can accept.
  • Anthropic pollution, produced by human activities, such as that produced by the burning of fossil fuels and that emitted by industry. This type of pollution is the most harmful and the one we must try to control. Artificial pollutants can be classified into:
    • Physical pollution: electromagnetic radiation, noise, radioactivity, etc.
    • Chemical pollution: caused by the burning of fossil fuels, mainly.

Pollution causes damage to plantsanimals and human beings, producing bronchitis, breathing difficulties, tiredness, headaches, eye irritation, etc. Also, some pollutants are carcinogenic.

Consequences of air pollution

Atmospheric pollution causes effects on a local or regional scale, such as acid rain, and on a planetary scale, such as the destruction of the ozone layer and the increase in the greenhouse effect.

Acid rain

Gases from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, etc.) contain sulfur and nitrogen oxides that can react with rainwater to cause acid rain.

Normal rainwater is slightly acidic, but from acid rain, although it does not cause direct damage to people's health, it does cause damage:

  • Rainwater ends up polluting the waters of rivers and lakes, and the acidity damages the most sensitive aquatic organisms, which disappear.
  • The acidity of the water damages the leaves of the plants, which are damaged and the plant dies.
  • Soils acidify and prevent plants from developing.
  • Buildings made of limestone are affected by stone disease, which is damaged by the acidity of the water.

.La lluvia ácida perjudica a la vegetación.

By Lovecz (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the measures that can be taken to reduce the effects of acid rain are:

  • Reduce the use of fossil fuels, especially those with a high sulfur content, and promote other less polluting ones.
  • Use of filters to trap pollutants at emission points.
  • Promote the use of clean, non-polluting energy.

The deterioration of the ozone layer

Although you have surely heard of the hole in the ozone layer, it is actually a decrease in the thickness of the ozone layer in the stratosphere that was caused by the emission of substances, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) from aerosols, solvents, refrigerants, and fertilizers.

Currently, the use of CFCs has been banned and an improvement has been noted in the thickness of the ozone layer that protects us from the Sun's ultraviolet radiation.

The destruction of the ozone layer has different consequences:

  • Effects on the skinSkin redness and burns that can become serious if exposure to solar radiation is prolonged, including skin cancer.
  • Effects on the immune system. Exposure to ultraviolet rays decreases the body's defenses.
  • Effects on sight, with the appearance of diseases such as cataractspresbyopia (tired eyesight) and even blindness.
  • Effects on land animals, which would have problems similar to those of humans.
  • Effects on marine animals. Ultraviolet radiation would cause the loss of phytoplankton and, as it is the base of the trophic pyramid, it would affect the rest of the marine animals.
  • Effects on plants, altering the production of fruits and crops.


Greenhouse effect

Due to its importance, we will dedicate the following page to the greenhouse effect.

Noise pollution and light pollution

Although whenever we think of atmospheric pollution we think of chemical pollution, other types of pollution must be taken into account:

  • Noise pollution: Noise is an excessive and disturbing sound produced by human activities that alters the normal conditions of the environment, which can cause damage both to the ecosystem and to humans.
  • Light pollution: The ineffectiveness of some types of urban lighting that illuminate the sky cause alterations such as fatigue, insomnia, nervousness, loss of concentration in humans, changes in body cycles, changes in bird migration and difficulty see and enjoy the stars in the night sky.