Effects of Air Pollution on your health

By Tim Fitzpatrick

[Feb. 28, 2006]

In the news, we hear about air pollution and its effect on a global scale. With our growing population becoming ever the more reliant on automobiles, chemicals, and other potentially hazardous substances, air pollutants can cause major health problems to your health. Some obvious causes of air pollution would be your car, but there are many not so obvious products that you may use everyday that are potentially damaging to your health.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

Air pollution and global warming, as most scientists agree, seem to go hand in hand. The main component of this is the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Carbon Dioxide is a necessary gas for our survival. They call it a greenhouse gas because it makes the Earth habitable by blocking some of the sun's radiation from exiting the atmosphere. Without carbon dioxide, the whole planet would be covered in ice. Just like anything else in life, too much of a good thing can be a problem and that is what scientists have been warning us for years. Carbon dioxide levels have now risen to 31% of pre-industrial revolution days and the gas emitted from 100-200 years ago may still be in our atmosphere today. A constant warming cycle can start melting polar ice caps and cause flooding.

Ozone (O3)

Ozone is the primary ingredient in smog and forms when hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides react with sunlight. Not all ozone is bad, in fact, like carbon dioxide, it is quite beneficial in the upper atmosphere as it keeps harmful ultra-violet light out, a major cause of skin cancer. It becomes a problem when it hovers in the lower atmosphere where it can enter the lungs. Ozone inhalation can produce coughing, choking, and reduced lung capacity. It can also worsen chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and compromise the body's ability to fight off respiratory infections. Recovery from short-term exposure to ozone can occur, but longer exposure may make recovery less certain. Although ozone is not directly related to anything we may use, it does form when nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds react with sunlight.

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)

Nitrogen oxides form when fuels are burned at high temperatures. Your car and power plants that burn coal, oil, and natural gas are the major producers. These pollutants can cause lung irritation and inhibit the body's ability to fight off diseases such as influenza and pneumonia. They also help to form ozone and particulate matter. Nitrogen dioxide is decomposed by sunlight into nitrogen monoxide and atomic oxygen, which in-turn combines immediately with oxygen to form ozone (03). The more sunlight available, the faster the reaction goes. Therefore, during summer in areas with high traffic, concentrations will increase.

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

An odorless, colorless gas, inhalation of carbon monoxide blocks the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Due to its chemical structure, it can easily attach to hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying pigment in red blood cells. With CO in our bodies, our organs are essentially poisoned as oxygen fails to reach them. Higher levels of poisoning result in dizziness, mental confusion, severe headaches, nausea, and fainting on mild exertion.

Particulate Matter (PM)

Miniscule pieces of soot, pollen, and metals are what give smog a cloudy color. The smaller the pieces of soot, the more damaging they can be. These particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and eventually be absorbed into the bloodstream where they can remain for long periods of time. Exposure to particulate matter can cause asthma attacks, wheezing, and coughing. Research has also shown that exposure to low concentrations of particulate matter can lead to premature death with the elderly and people with pre-existing heart disease at greatest risk.

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)

A by-product of burning diesel gas, sulfur dioxide can adversely affect young children and asthmatics. The sulfur dioxide content in the air is directly proportional to the sulfur content in the fuel. The gas is a colorless, toxic gas that gives off a characteristic bad odor. The oxidation of sulfur dioxide turns into sulfur trioxide, which is a starting point for sulfuric acid, the major component of acid rain.

Hazardous Air Pollutants

Also known as toxic air pollutants or air toxics are pollutants that can cause cancer and other serious health effects such as birth defects. An example of an air pollutant found in gasoline is benzene, toluene, and xylenes.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOC's have properties of being a gas at room temperatures. Often 10 times higher concentrations indoors than outdoors, these air pollutants can have short and long term effects. These products all contain VOC's:

  • Paints
  • Lacquers
  • Paint strippers
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Pesticides
  • Building materials
  • Office equipment
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Permanent markers
  • Photographic solutions

Many of the cleaning agents also contain organic solvents. Eye, nose, and mouth irritation, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, allergic skin reactions can all be symptoms of inhalation of these chemicals. If you do use these chemicals, make sure there is plenty of ventilation and put the caps back on tight when done. Gas can still leak out of the containers after closing them so if you have old chemicals and don't use them, then discard them properly. Paint strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints all contain the solvent methylene chloride, which the body can convert to carbon monoxide, so use extreme care when using these chemicals.

Benzene (C6H6)

Benzene is a known human carcinogen, so keep exposure to that at a minimum. Benzene is found in tobacco smoke, stored fuels, and paint supplies. Discard paint supplies and fuels that are not used.

Formaldehyde (CH20)

Did you just have new carpet installed in your home or just finished an insulation project? If the answer is yes, then formaldehyde gas may be leaking from them. A major source of formaldehyde is building materials. Carpets, insulation foam, and particleboard all contain formaldehyde. Mobile homes and new homes with pressed-wood materials can contain significant amounts of formaldehyde. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, and other eye, respiratory, and skin irritations are all common symptoms. Environmental experts disagree as to what is a safe limit of formaldehyde for the general public.


Indoor radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and the leading cause among non-smokers. Radon is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless natural radioactive gas released from the earth. This air pollutant enters the environment through the soil, through uranium and phosphate mines, and through coal combustion. Because it is a heavy gas, it tends to collect in basements, entering through spaces in the soil or fill material around a home's foundation. Detectors are available that will measure the amount of radon in your home.


This chemical is used most widely in dry cleaning. When your clothes come back from the dry cleaners, make sure there is no chemical smell emanating from them. If you do smell something, do not accept them until they have dried completely. At higher concentrations, perchloroethylene can range from dizziness and headaches to excessive sweating and unconsciousness.


It helps to be aware of what is inside your household products and how they may be affecting your health. Environmentalists say to think globally but act locally, and the first step to following this mantra is knowledge. There are a multitude of other chemicals that contribute to air pollution. You may often use them day in and day out, perhaps even in your job. Take precaution when using them and always use them in a well-ventilated area. If you think you may have a serious problem in your home that doesn't involve an easy solution, such as radon, it would be wise to consult an environmental professional.

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  • Chemicals in the Environment: Perchloroethylene. Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxins. EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). August 1994. Accessed on-line February 2006.
  • National Radon Action Month. EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency). EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency). Accessed on-line. February 2006. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/radon/
  • Ozone Generators that are Sold as Air Cleaners: An Assessment of Effectiveness and Health Consequences. EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency). Accessed on-line February 2006. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/ozonegen.html
  • Particulate Matter. American Lung Association. April 2000. Accessed on-line. February 2006. http://www.lungusa.org/site/pp.asp?c=dvLUK9O0E&b=35356
  • Sources of Indoor Air Pollution - Organic Gases (Volatile Organic Compounds - VOCs) EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency). Accessed on-line. February 2006. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html

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