Air pollution Soaring High

Beijing the ‘Host City’ for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in 2008 is often cited as one of the most polluted
cities on Earth and getting more and more attention for the
‘smog’ this City of more than 15 million people are
experiencing as it poses health risks for the athletes and spectators who will be attending the Summer
Olympic. Not only the nitrogen oxides (NOx) emitted mainly from automobiles are responsible for the smog in
Beijing, but the low grade coal which is high in sulfur but making up 75% of Chinese energy sources, also
playing a significant role for long hazy days.

Smog creates when water condenses on smoke particles. A simple way to write smog is,

Smoke + Fog = Smog

Smog created from sulfur dioxide (SO2) or from nitrogen oxides (NOx) can convert  into acid
rain forming sulphuric and nitric acids with rain water.
Acid rain deteriorates the whole
eco-system dramatically. It has a pH  below 4.5. Normal rainwater has a pH of 5.6,
slightly acidic due to carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere which reacts with rain
water to from carbonic acid.

Major sources of present day air pollution are industrial activities and emissions from
automobiles. Although volcanic eruptions produce huge amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2)
among other gases but it is not a daily affair of modern day life and Earth experiences
such events as a natural process due to plate tectonics movement or  in other was,
may be its nature’s own way to help Earth maintain and stabilizing her immune system.
Due to high SO2 content (about 22 million tons) in the cloud  from the volcanic eruptions
Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, caused temperatures in some  regions to drop as much as 0.5°C
offsetting the global warming temporarily for few  years. Mt.Pinatubo is an active volcano
located on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Importance of Air – How much air we breathe?

Fresh air is vital for life. Each day we inhale around 14,000 litres (14 m3) of air through about
26,000 breaths. Healthy people normally take in 12 to 20 breaths a minute.
If the air we
breathe is polluted, it can cause many types of health problems including brain  and nerve
damages, lung cancer, birth defects, burning of eyes, heart diseases, respiratory diseases
and lot other injuries.

Primary air pollutants and possible sources:

Indoor Air Pollution

As millions of people world wide especially in developing countries depend on biomass
fuels like wood, cow dung, coal, and agricultural residues, indoor air pollution causes
about 2.7% of the global burden of diseases, according to the World Health Report 2002.
Indoor smoke contains mainly carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matters. Poor
ventilation can further aggravate health damages from pollutants.

Industrial Accidents and Air Pollution

On 3rd of December in 1984, a Union Carbide subsidiary pesticide plant released 43 tones of methyl
isocyanate (MIC) gas from overheated holding tank into the local area in Bhopal, India,  killing more than
2,500 people and hospitalizing tens of thousands. Majority of the deaths caused due to ‘pulmonary edema’ -
respiratory failure due to swelling and/or fluid accumulation in the lungs that prevents exchange of gases
(absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide).

Methyl isocyanate (C2H3NO) is a colourless organic compound with sharp odor that is used as a chemical
intermediate for the production of carbamate pesticedes and is extremely toxic to the environment upon
exposure. Being heavier than air, the gas rolled along the ground and diffused among residential areas in the
early winter morning in Bhopal and caused the fatality.

Going back to China and Delhi

Why often China is cited for environmental deterioration cases. It is because China’s economy is speeding
up with a rocket-like motion due to her quest for higher technology and availability of chief labour. Foreign
investment is another factor here. The same is true for another billion-heads country – India.

According to a Guardian report, acid rain falls on a third of China’s territory and 70% of rivers and lakes are
toxic enough to avoid them for drinking water. New York Times reports that, the sulfur dioxide (SO2) produced
in coal combustion is causing about 400,000 premature deaths a year. Most of these deaths are from lung
and heart-related diseases as SO2 causes constriction of the finer air tubes of the lungs, thus making it
difficult to breathe naturally.

And what about Delhi? The New York Times reports that an average of 963 new vehicles are joining the line in
New Delhi’s streets everyday. Delhi has a population of over 14 million.

Industrialization and Population Growth

Industrialization in many developing countries is still in the primary stage. Countries like India, China, Egypt
and others will pursue more and rapid industrialization in order to keep pace with the industrialized countries.
As huge population in these countries offer a lucrative investment opportunity many developed countries are
setting up joint-venture projects. Although technology is developing but every step has its own cost and
benefits. Therefore other measures are necessary to follow for a healthy eco-system.

How to Keep the Air Healthy and Environment Green

  • First and foremost a mass awareness is indispensable about environmental issues including air

  • Halting deforestation and taking initiatives for afforestation is a must not only for a clean air but also as
    forests work as shields against many natural calamities like storms and cyclones.

  • Developing better technologies to reduce harmful gases emissions from power plants. Power plants
    are an integral part of urban life and will exist as long as civilization keeps walking.

  • Developing automobiles that require less fuel but travel longer distances and looking for alternative
    energy sources that produce no or very insignificant emissions as by-products.

  • Encouraging people to use public transport rather than individual vehicle and introducing bi-cycles for
    working classes for short distance office locations.

Bottom line:

Earth is the only planet in the known Universe that has air and water as vital components of life other than
sunlight. Proper care and attention is urgent to keep this ‘Blue Planet’ as loving and unique as it is created
for us!!.


Khaled Mahmud Shams                Ashtar Bashar
                                                                                 Salzburg                               Clausthal-Zellerfeld


Beijing smog raises health fears:

U.S Environmental Protection Agency: Technology Transfer Network - Air Toxics Web Site: Methyl Isocyanate:

Pollution from Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow: http://www.nytimes.

Satellite data reveals Beijing as air pollution capital of world:,

The pH Scale :

Volcanoes and the Weather: http://vulcan.wr.usgs.

New Delhi Air Quality is Worsening, Group Says:
            "Air  Pollution"
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Fossil fuel, deforestation
Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
Volcanic eruptions (e.g eruptions from Mt. Pinatubu in
the Phillipines in 1991), fossil fuels that contain
impurities (e.g. low grade coal normally has high sulfur
as impurities)
Nitrogen oxides (NOx)    
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Automobiles, incomplete burning of biomass fuels
Ground-level ozone (O3)     
Industries, vehicles
Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs)
Chemical plants (e.g.  release of methyl isocyanate gas
from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984),
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Vehicle emissions, solvents used for industrial and
household usages.
Particulate matters (microscopic
Construction works, mining, fossil fuels, industrial
processes, agricultural burning etc.
Figure 1. Formation of 'acid rain'. Acid rain has a pH below 4.5
Figure 2. Eruptions from Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. The volcanic
eruption sent million tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) among other
gases into the atmosphere causing change in temperature in
some regions and cooling the Earth for a while.