Effects of air pollution on living organisms

Our respiratory system has a number of mechanisms that help in protecting us from air pollution. The hair in our nose filters out large particles. The sticky mucus in the lining of the upper respiratory tract captures smaller particles and dissolves some gaseous pollutants. When the upper respiratory system is irritated by pollutants sneezing and coughing expel contaminated air and mucus. Prolonged smoking or exposure to air pollutants can overload or breakdown these natural defenses causing or contributing to diseases such as lung cancer, asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Elderly people, infants, pregnant women and people with heart disease, asthma or other respiratory diseases are especially vulnerable to air pollution.

Cigarette smoking is responsible for the greatest exposure to carbon monoxide. Exposure to air containing even 0.001 percent of carbon monoxide for several hours can cause collapse, coma and even death. As carbon monoxide remains attached to hemoglobin in blood for a long time, it accumulates and reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of blood. This impairs perception and thinking, slows reflexes and causes headaches, drowsiness, dizziness and nausea. Carbon monoxide in heavy traffic causes head aches, drowsiness and blurred vision. Sulfur dioxide irritates respiratory tissues. Chronic exposure causes a condition similar to bronchitis. It also reacts with water, oxygen and other material in the air to form sulfur-containing acids. The acids can become attached to particles which when inhaled are very corrosive to the lung. Nitrogen oxides especially NO2 can irritate the lungs, aggravate asthma or chronic bronchitis and also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections such as influenza or common colds.

Suspended particles aggravate bronchitis and asthma. Exposure to these particles over a long period of time damages lung tissue and contributes to the development of chronic respiratory disease and cancer. Many volatile organic compounds such as (benzene and formaldehyde) and toxic particulates (such as lead, cadmium) can cause mutations, reproductive problems or cancer. Inhaling ozone, a component of photochemical smog causes coughing, chest pain, breathlessness and irritation of the eye, nose and the throat.

Effects on plants

When some gaseous pollutants enter leaf pores they damage the leaves of crop plants. Chronic exposure of the leaves to air pollutants can break down the waxy coating that helps prevent excessive water loss and leads to damage from diseases, pests, drought and frost. Such expo sure interferes with photosynthesis and plant growth, reduces nutrient uptake and causes leaves to turn yellow, brown or drop off altogether. At a higher concentration of sulphur dioxide majority of the flower buds become stiff and hard. They eventually fall from the plants, as they are unable to flower. Prolonged exposure to high levels of several air pollutants from smelters, coal burning power plants and industrial units as well as from cars and trucks can damage trees and other plants.

Effects of air pollution on materials

Every year air pollutants cause damage worth billions of rupees. Air pollutants break down exterior paint on cars and houses. All around the world air pollutants have discoloured irreplaceable monuments, historic buildings, marble statues, etc.

Effects of air pollution on the stratosphere

The upper stratosphere consists of considerable amounts of ozone, which works as an effective screen for ultraviolet light. This region called the ozone layer extends up to 60 kms above the surface of the earth. Though the ozone is present upto 60 kms its greatest density remains in the region between 20 to 25 kms. The ozone layer does not consist of solely ozone but a mixture of other common atmospheric gases. In the most dense ozone layer there will be only one ozone molecule in 100,000 gas molecules. Therefore even small changes in the ozone concentration can produce dramatic effects on life on earth.

The total amount of ozone in a ‘column’ of air from the earth’s surface upto an altitude of 50 km is the total column ozone. This is recorded in Dobson Units (DU), a measure of the thickness of the ozone layer by an equivalent layer of pure ozone gas at normal temperature and pressure at sea level. This means that 100 DU=1mm of pure ozone gas at normal temperature and pressure at sea level.

Ozone is a form of oxygen with three atoms instead of two. It is produced naturally from the photodissociation of oxygen gas molecules in the atmosphere. The ozone thus formed is constantly broken down by naturally occurring processes that maintain its balance in the ozone layer. In the absence of pollutants the creation and breakdown of ozone are purely governed by natural forces, but the presence of certain pollutants can accelerate the breakdown of ozone. Though it was known earlier that ozone shows fluctuations in its concentrations which may be accompanied sometimes with a little ozone depletion, it was only in 1985 that the large scale destruction of the ozone also called the Ozone Hole came into limelight when some British researchers published measurements about the ozone layer. Soon after these findings a greater impetus was given to research on the ozone layer, which convincingly established that CFC’s were leading to its depletion. These CFCs (chloro flurocarbons) are extremely stable, non-flammable, non-toxic and harmless to handle. This makes them ideal for many industrial applications like aerosols, air conditioners, refrigerators and fire extinguishers. Many cans, which give out foams and sprays, use CFCs. (eg: perfumes, room fresheners, etc.) CFCs are also used in making foams for mattresses and cushions, disposable Styrofoam cups, glasses, packaging material for insulation, cold storage etc. However their sta-bility also gives them a long life span in the at- mosphere. Halons are similar in structure to the CFCs but contain bromine atoms instead of chlorine. They are more dangerous to the ozone layer than CFCs. Halons are used as fire extinguishing agents as they do not pose a harm to people and equipment exposed to them during fire fighting.

The CFCs and the halons migrate into the upper atmosphere after they are released. As they are heavier than air they have to be carried by air currents up to just above the lower atmosphere and then they slowly diffuse into the upper atmosphere. This is a slow process and can take as long as five to fifteen years. In the stratosphere unfiltered UV-radiation severs the chemical bonds releasing chlorine from the rest of the CFC. This attacks the ozone molecule resulting in its splitting into an oxygen molecule and an oxygen atom.

Despite the fact that CFCs are evenly distribute over the globe, the ozone depletion is especially pronounced over the South Pole due to the extreme weather conditions in the Antarctic at mosphere. The presence of the ice crystals makes the Cl-O bonding easier. The ozone layer over countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and parts of South America is also depleted. India has signed the Montreal Protocol in 1992, which aims to control the production and consumption of Ozone Depleting Substances.

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