Air pollution
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Air pollution


Having trouble breathing?

Life support

Oxygen concentrations fall as altitude increases, so the body has to breathe more to boost the amount of oxygen being carried by haemoglobin in red blood cells. People unused to the thin air can find themselves short of breath, a condition called hypoxia which, in extreme cases, can cause potentially fatal altitude sickness. People indigenous to high altitudes - some 3.5 km and higher - have adapted to the lower concentrations of oxygen in different ways. Natives of the Andes mountain range in South America have a higher concentration of haemoglobin in blood, to allow more oxygen to be taken up and carried - compensating for the lower amount of oxygen in the air.


  • Like water, air is part of our immediate life-support system.

  • We have evolved along with air of a certain quality, and we have a capacity to adapt (e.g. Bolivia)

  • We require both the availability of air (to breathe) and the quality of that air to oxygenate (fuel) our body’s system.

Like water pollution air pollution can be life threatening slow acting or rapid

Like water pollution, air pollution can be life-threatening, slow-acting or rapid.

The “fast-acting” threats come in the form of poison gas (man-made or natural). The growth of thechemical industry has increased the potential for this hazard greatly.

Examples of fast acting airborne toxics

“In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, gas leaked from a tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC) at a plant in Bhopal, India, owned and operated by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). There is conclusive evidence backed by third party investigation that the tragedy was caused by employee sabotage. The state government of Madhya Pradesh in its official documentation of deaths and injuries reported that approximately 3,800 persons died.”

Examples of Fast-Acting airborne toxics

This is St. Pierre in Martinique. In 1902 Mt. Pelee blew up sending scalding poison gas down its slope. The entire population of the town, except one man in jail, perished.

Mercifully now in the past in most places smog

Mercifully, now in the past in most places--smog

And the new threat

And the New Threat…

Chernobyl--Fast or Slow

it's Very, Very, Deadly

Slow and relentless 1

Slow and Relentless (1)

  • Probably the most important in this category is Global Warming or Changing Chemistry of the Atmosphere, about which we will talk later.

Slow and relentless 2

Slow and Relentless (2)

  • Lead poisoning used to be a serious form of air pollution, due to the lead additives in gasoline. Those have been replaced.

  • Once lead enters the body it is very hard to displace and lodges in the brain.

  • This is one area where we have made great progress

Caligula, like many of the Claudian emperors, started out well but gradually became more and more bizarre. It is now thought that he was a victim of lead poisoning derived from the water pipes. Breathing lead will due the same thing.

The 3 methods of air pollution

The 3 Methods of Air Pollution

  • Air can carry things along, in suspension as it did in the dust bowl. Now happening with topsoil from West Africa.

  • Air can carry substances “dissolved” in it, like SO2, which, when mixed with H20 becomes mild H2SO4

  • It can also carry organisms, such as those causing TB, which spreads through confinement in damp places.

In this scene from puccini s la boheme mimi has just died from air pollution

In this scene from Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Mimi has just died from air pollution

In this case...

tuberculosis, or

"consumption," as they

called it

Main types of air pollution

Main Types of Air Pollution

  • Carbon Monoxide

  • Sulfur Dioxide

  • Volatile Organic Compounds

  • Nitrogen Oxides

  • Suspended Particulate Matter

  • Lead

Geography is also important

Geography is also important

  • Are you upwind of air pollution?

  • Are you living above pollution (e.g. San Francisco?)

  • Are you living in a natural “inversion basin?” (e.g. Los Angeles).

In olden times

In Olden Times…

  • Almost all air-pollution problems came via the process of decomposition (organic pollution). In fact many illnesses were blamed on “bad air” that had nothing to do with the air, such as Malaria; which is from the Italian words for Bad Air.

In more recent times

In More Recent Times

Pollution has resulted

mostly from


Types of impact

Types of Impact

  • DIRECT: You breathe it—you die, radiation, for instance. This is called Primary Pollution

  • INDIRECT: The pollutant in the air does not damage you directly, but causes something to happen that does: e.g. SO2 in the air is a problem to us when it mixes with hydrogen to become sulfuric acid. This is called Secondary Pollution

Biggest problem

Biggest Problem?

  • Without doubt, it is CO2, and we will look at that later. But it is the “leftovers of our everyday lives; one of the prices we pay for consumerism and comfort.”

  • We value what we make, or drive, not the side effects, so we say we “externalize” those costs onto someone else. E.g: smoke from a stack blows away and makes some other community sick—no cost to the company there.

And remember the problem with the law

And, Remember the Problem with the Law?

  • For a long time the law was useless because, under the Law of Torts you had to prove that a specific legal entity caused you specific measurable damage.

  • With air pollution, this is next to impossible? So, how to we find a policy to control this situation?

So what has policy done for this

June 14, 2002 EPA Announces Plans to Undo Clean Air Regulations

Environmental Protection Agency? Many critics are beginning to wonder.

In the latest insult to the environment, the EPA has announced its intentions to abandon a longstanding provision of the Clean Air Act.

So what has policy done for this?

  • Chiefly the Clean Air Act (and revisions) has established standards, monitoring, and penalties.

  • In other words, the same approach as with water, because they are both, more or less, common property, with all the problems we discussed about that.

  • We created incentives for firms to clean up their act beyond the level of the Law through tradeable Permits.

The answer

The Answer

  • Is both simple and clever. You take away the idea of personal injury and replace it with a legal standard of air quality.

  • Thus, for instance, Indianapolis must remain within EPA standards on 12 measurable pollutants in the air. Otherwise, it will be declared Out of Compliance, and no new industry will be allowed in.

Air pollution 1206626


  • To control the regional air quality, all potential polluting establishments in the area are required to obtain permits that specify precisely how much of any pollutant they are allowed to emit.

  • And this is then monitored, and there are fines for non compliance—for the individual permit holder, and for the Region itself eventually.

So what happens

So What Happens?

  • Your central focus now is the “quality of the air” in a defined area, say, Greater Indianapolis.

  • Permits cannot be issued above the legal level for pollution in the whole area

  • This is called the “Polluter Pays” principle

  • Drawback? It requires you to stay within limits, and there is no incentive to do more than that.

Could that change

Could that Change?

  • Yes.

  • Some smart firms realized that cities like Indy were over a barrel because they could not attract new industry—they were at their limit

  • So these firms said: “If we clean up more, then we will have part of our Permit unused. Now, if we could sell that……..

Is that it

Is That It?

  • Well, it is a big step forward, but the end point of this process is still to have Indianapolis in compliance--just

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