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Air Pollution
Environmental Pollution

Air Pollutants Types

Many times we imagine air pollution as smokes heavily colored and with a strong smell. However, in most cases air pollutants cannot be seen or smelled and still exist in high enough amounts to be of health hazard! Additionally a series of gases are linked to the so called “greenhouse effect” which means that those gases retain the heat more and thus contribute to the overall global warming. The most common example of a greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide which is emitted from many industrial processes. Another example is methane which is also an explosive gas.

Here is a list of the most common air pollutants:

  • Sulfur oxides (SOx), especially sulfur dioxide produced by volcanic activity, industrial processes, burning of fossil fuels; these are toxic gases;
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are toxic gases, especially nitrogen dioxide emitted usually though high temperature combustion processes
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) is extremely toxic and is mainly produced by incomplete combustion and vehicle exhaust;
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) is not toxic but may dislocate oxygen and produce death through asphyxiation, additionally being a greenhouse gas; it is emitted by combustion processes, microbial activity, plant respiration, and also naturally volatilizing from oceans and seas;
  • VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are toxic and many are carcinogenic. Main examples are methane and many organic solvents (PCE, TCE, toluene, benzene, acetone, MEK, alcohols, etc.) generated through many human activities such as industrial processes, waste disposals, household product handling and storage, etc. Many of the VOCs are carcinogenic and can pose a serious health risk even in small amounts.
  • Particulate matter (PM) including toxic metals and organic compounds adsorbed on it originating both from natural sources (volcanoes, wildfires) and anthropogenic activities (such as burning of fossil fuels, mining, foundry, etc.)
  • Hg in gaseous form that can travel long distances and may originate from a series of industrial processes, mining, foundry activities, and other processes
  • Ammonia (NH3) usually emitted from agricultural processes and may pose serious health hazards;
  • Radioactive pollutants are produced through both natural (radioactive decay) and anthropogenic processes (nuclear explosions, war explosions, etc.) and can pose serious health problems including cancers.

Below are given examples (please note that these are just examples and do not represent a comprehensive list of air pollutants) of air pollutants classified in various ways based on:

Health effects

Toxic – which cause some health problems and based on that they could be:

  • Carcinogenic: asbestos, PCE, TCE, vinyl chloride (VC), benzene, PAHs (such as benzo[a]pyrene), ethylene dibromide (EDB), ethylene dichloride (EDC), PCBc, As, Cd, Ni, Cr, some Hg com;pounds, arsenic oxide, some nitrates, pesticides/insecticides/herbicides; radon
  • Non-carcinogenic: Pb, carbon monoxide, ammonia, acetone

Non-toxic but which asphyxiates (by depletion of oxygen):

  • Non-explosive: carbon dioxide
  • Explosive: methane

Chemical nature

Organic compounds

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs):
  1. solvents such as: benzene, toluene, xylenes, acetone, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, PCE, TCE, 1,1,1-TCA, ethanol (alcohol), isopropylalcohol (IPA), methyl-ethyl-ketone (MEK)
  2. petroleum hydrocarbons: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, butane, hexane
  3. oxygenates: MTBE
  • Non-volatile or semi-volatile organic compounds:
  1. flame retardants (PCBs)
  2. petroleum hydrocarbons: PAHs
  3. pesticides, insecticides, herbicides

Inorganic compounds:

  • Metals (fumes on metals and metals adsorbed on particulate matter): Pb, As, Cr, Ni, Zn, Cd, Mn, Al, Fe, Si, Se, Co;
  • Gases: Hg, nitrogen oxides, carbon oxides (including carbon monoxide qnd carbon dioxide), sulfur oxides

Physical form

  • Gases: VOCs, Hg, nitrogen oxides, carbon oxides (including carbon monoxide qnd carbon dioxide), sulfur oxides
  • Particulate matter: PCBc, PAHs, Pb, As, Cr, Ni, Zn, Cd, Mn, Al, Fe, Si, Se, Co;