Air Pollution, addition of harmful substances to the atmosphere resulting in damage to the environment, human health, and quality of life. One of many forms of pollution, air pollution occurs inside homes, schools, and offices; in cities; across continents; and even globally. Air pollution makes people sick—it causes breathing problems and promotes cancer—and it harms plants, animals, and the ecosystems in which they live. Some air pollutants return to Earth in the form of acid rain and snow, which corrode statues and buildings, damage crops and forests, and make lakes and streams unsuitable for fish and other plant and animal life. Pollution is changing Earth’s atmosphere so that it lets in more harmful radiation from the Sun. At the same time, our polluted atmosphere is becoming a better insulator, preventing heat from escaping back into space and leading to a rise in global average temperatures. Scientists predict that the temperature increase, referred to as global warming, will affect world food supply, alter sea level, make weather more extreme, and increase the spread of tropical disease. Most air pollution comes from one human activity: burning fossil fuels—natural gas, coal, and oil—to power industrial processes and motor vehicles. Among the harmful chemical compounds this burning puts into the atmosphere are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and tiny solid particles—including lead from gasoline additives—called particulates. Between 1900 and 1970, motor vehicle use rapidly expanded, and emissions of nitrogen oxides, some of the most damaging pollutants in vehicle exhaust, increased 690 percent. When fuels are incompletely burned, various chemicals called volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) also enter the air. Pollutants also come from other sources. For instance, decomposing garbage in landfills and solid waste disposal sites emits methane gas, and many household products give off VOCs. Some of these pollutants also come from natural sources. For example, forest fires emit particulates and VOCs into the atmosphere. Ultrafine dust particles, dislodged by soil erosion when water and weather loosen layers of soil, increase airborne particulate levels. Volcanoes spew out sulfur dioxide and large amounts of pulverized lava rock known as volcanic ash. A big volcanic eruption can darken the sky over a wide region and affect the Earth’s entire atmosphere. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, for example, dumped enough volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere to lower global temperatures for the next two years. Unlike pollutants from human activity, however, naturally occurring pollutants tend to remain in the atmosphere for a short time and do not lead to permanent atmospheric change. Once in the atmosphere, pollutants often undergo chemical reactions that produce additional harmful compounds. Air pollution is subject to weather patterns that can trap it in valleys or blow it across the globe to damage pristine environments far from the original sources. Local and regional pollution take place in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, the troposphere, which at its widest extends from Earth's surface to about 16 km (about 10 mi). The troposphere is the region in which most weather occurs. If the load of pollutants added to the troposphere were equally distributed, the pollutants would be spread over vast areas and the air pollution might almost escape our notice. Pollution sources tend to be concentrated, however, especially in cities. In the weather phenomenon known as thermal inversion, a layer of cooler air is trapped near the ground by a layer of warmer air above. When this occurs, normal air mixing almost ceases and pollutants are trapped in the lower layer. Local topography, or the shape of the land, can worsen this effect—an area ringed by mountains, for example, can become a pollution trap. Smog is intense local pollution usually trapped by a thermal...
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