Air pollution occurs due to the presence of undesirable solid or gaseous particles in the air in quantities that are harmful to human health and the environment. Air may get polluted by natural causes such as volcanoes, which release ash, dust, sulfur and other gases, or by forest fires that are occasionally naturally caused by lightning.
However, unlike pollutants from human activity, naturally occurring pollutants tend to remain in the atmosphere for a short time and do not lead to permanent atmospheric change.
Pollutants that are emitted directly from identifiable sources are produced both by natural events (for example, dust storms and volcanic eruptions) and human activities (emission from vehicles, industries, etc.). These are called primary pollutants.
There are five primary pollutants that together contribute about 90 percent of the global air pollution. These are carbon oxides (CO and CO2), nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, volatile organic compounds (mostly hydrocarbons) and suspended particulate matter.
Pollutants that are produced in the atmosphere when certain chemical reactions take place among the primary pollutants are called secondary pollutants. Eg: sulfuric acid, nitric acid, carbonic acid, etc.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and toxic gas produced when organic materials such as natural gas, coal or wood are incompletely burnt. Vehicular exhausts are the single largest source of carbon monoxide. The number of vehicles has been increasing over the years all over the world. Vehicles are also poorly maintained and several have inadequate pollution control equipment resulting in release of greater amounts of carbon monoxide.
Carbon monoxide is however not a persistent pollutant. Natural processes can convert carbon monoxide to other compounds that are not harmful. Therefore the air can be cleared of its carbon monoxide if no new carbon monoxide is introduced into the atmosphere. Sulfur oxides are produced when sulfur containing fossil fuels are burnt.
Nitrogen oxides are found in vehicular exhausts. Nitrogen oxides are significant, as they are involved in the production of secondary air pollutants such as ozone.
Hydrocarbons are a group of compounds consisting of carbon and hydrogen atoms. They either evaporate from fuel supplies or are remnants of fuel that did not burn completely. Hydrocarbons are washed out of the air when it rains and run into surface water.
They cause an oily film on the surface and do not as such cause a serious issue until they react to form secondary pollutants. Using higher oxygen concentrations in the fuel-air mixture and using valves to prevent the escape of gases, fitting of catalytic converters in automobiles, are some of the modifications that can reduce the release of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.
Particulates are small pieces of solid material (for example, smoke particles from fires, bits of asbestos, dust particles and ash from industries) dispersed into the atmosphere. The effects of particulates range from soot to the carcinogenic (cancer causing) effects of asbestos, dust particles and ash from industrial plants that are dispersed into the atmosphere.
Repeated exposure to particulates can cause them to accumulate in the lungs and interfere with the ability of the lungs to exchange gases.
Lead is a major air pollutant that remains largely unmonitored and is emitted by vehicles. High lead levels have been reported in the ambient air in metropolitan cities. Leaded petrol is the primary source of airborne lead emissions in Indian cities.
Pollutants are also found indoors from infiltration of polluted outside air and from various chemicals used or produced inside buildings. Both indoor and outdoor air pollution are equally harmful.