by Chris Woodford. Last updated: September 14, 2014.
There's nothing quite like opening the door and breathing fresh, clean, air—but how clean is the air you're breathing right now? Unless you're a scientist with a chemistry lab at your fingertips, there's no real way of knowing. The gases you're sucking up through your nose could be slowly killing you: according to the World Health Organization, around two million people die prematurely from the effects of polluted air every single year. Air pollution is a huge problem—and not just for people living in smog-choked cities: through such things as global warming and damage to the ozone layer, it has the potential to affect us all. So what exactly causes this major environmental issue and what can we do about it? Let's take a closer look!
Photo: Air pollution is obvious when it pours from a smokestack (chimney), but it's not always so easy to spot. This smoke comes from a coal-fired power plant and its pollutants include sulfur dioxide and the "greenhouse gas" carbon dioxide. Photo by courtesy of US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
What is air pollution?
Air lets our living planet breathe—it's the mixture of gases that fills the atmosphere, giving life to the plants and animals that make Earth such a vibrant place. Broadly speaking, air is almost entirely made up of two gases (78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen), with a few other gases (such as carbon dioxide and argon) present in absolutely minute quantities. We can breathe ordinary air all day long with no ill effects, so let's use that simple fact to define air pollution, something like this:
Air pollution is a gas (or a liquid or solid dispersed through ordinary air) released in a big enough quantity to harm the health of people or other animals, kill plants or stop them growing properly, damage or disrupt some other aspect of the environment (such as making buildings crumble), or cause some other kind of