Along with food and water, air is an essential for life. Human activity has been damaging the atmosphere for centuries. This has been especially true with the Industrial Revolution, increased use of fossil fuels and urbanization. There are two major concerns regarding the pollution of the air – the acceleration of the green-house effect and the health concerns of specific pollutants.
Within nature, any build-up of carbon dioxide would be cancelled by the gas exchange that happen in both aquatic and terrestrial plants. These plants recycle carbon dioxide and release oxygen, maintaining an atmosphere that is healthy for animal life. Two of the most important stages of this cycle are the phytoplankton of the oceans and the rain forests of the landscape. Both of these features of a healthy environment are being poisoned by human activity.
The rain forests of the Amazon basin are one of the most important buffers to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and they are under direct threat from increased deforestation for growing animal feed and manufacturing biofuels. It is estimated that cattle ranchers and soy farmers alone could destroy 40 percent of the Amazon rain forest by 2050.
Air Pollution – Invisible Killer
More than nine out of 10 of the world’s population – 92% – lives in places where air pollution exceeds safe limits, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is a major cause of death, only outpaced by high blood pressure dietary risk and smoking. Dirty air is a major contributor to respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, stroke, chronic lung disease and lung cancer. Air pollution kills more people than the combined total of HIV/AIDS, tuberculous and road accidents.
Most air pollution is a result of burning fossil fuels which release gases and chemicals into the atmosphere. These gases are not only toxic to breathe but are the primary cause of climate change. These gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, raise the earth’s temperature. The modern world runs on energy created by fossil fuels. Increases in transportation of food and people, machinery to drive agriculture and general manufacturing all are productive of air pollution. If other energy sources are not found, other manufacturing methods discovered or a demand for increasing production is not curtailed the problem will worsen.
By trapping the earth’s reflected heat, greenhouse gases lead to an increase in temperatures, rising sea levels, more extreme weather, and increasing transmission of infectious diseases. Carbon dioxide is responsible for the major amount of total greenhouse gas emissions, followed by methane.
Methane comes from natural and industrial sources, including the large amounts that are released during oil and gas drilling. Methane is significantly more potent, so it’s very destructive. One major source of methane are ruminants, they produce a lot of it.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, of the United Nations, livestock — including cows, pigs, sheep and other animals — are responsible for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cows are the primary offenders, and each animal releases 30 to 50 gallons a day on average. And with an estimated 1.3 to 1.5 billion cows on the planet, that’s a whole lot of methane.
Some of the most dangerous chemicals released into the atmosphere are Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). They are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in their ability to trap heat. These toxins are used in air conditioners and refrigerator. It is worth mentioning that the food industry, particularly the preserving and transport of meat, fish and dairy are major users of refrigeration.
Smog and Soot are two common plagues of big cities worldwide. This is especially true in countries in the former Soviet Union, China and India. Smog occurs when emissions from combusting fossil fuels react with sunlight. Soot is made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens, that are carried in the air. Both come from cars and trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators, engines—anything that combusts fossil fuels such as coal, gas, or natural gas. The tiniest airborne particles in soot—whether they’re in the form of gas or solids—are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis and lead to heart disease.
There are poisonous substances in the air that should have been outlawed years ago. Among them are toxins that are either deadly or come with serious health risks in very small amounts. These include lead, mercury, dioxins and benzene. These potentially fatal chemicals are most often the product of gas or coal combustion, benzene, from gasoline or incineration plants.
Dioxins are damaging to the liver and can cause serious problems with the immune system and reproductive organs. Benzene can cause eye and lung irritation and long exposure can lead to blood disorders. Mercury is damaging to the nervous system. Lead poisoning is particularly troubling, particularly where water is transferred through old lead pipes. According to the World Health Organization:
“Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system. Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight.”