Understanding Air Pollution
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic produced a range of side effects, not all of which were negative. It demonstrated that remote working was actually more feasible than many employers had supposed, for one thing. For another, it provided a taste of a world with far fewer cars on the road and planes in the air.
Many of us, while walking around town and city centres during our allotted exercise periods, might have noticed the difference in air quality. The memory of this experience might provide added incentive to work towards a world where the air is as clean in the city centres as it is in the remote countryside.
To do this, we need to understand several things. We need to think about the various types of air pollution and what generates them. Having done that, we can think about mitigation strategies.
Particulate Matter (PM 2.5)
Very small particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter are considered PM 2.5. These are more dangerous than larger particles, as they’re able to travel greater distances, and more easily penetrate the human bloodstream and become lodged in the vital organs.
Around 38% of particulate matter comes from burning wood and coal in domestic stoves and fireplaces. Road transport, solvents, and industrial burning also generate particular matter of this kind – and a lot of it gets blown into the country from overseas. Air pollution solutions such as gas scrubbing systems are often being deployed into areas to help mitigate the effects of harmful particulate matter.
It’s worth noting that particulate matter occurs naturally, too. We might not consider pollen, dust, and sea spray as pollutants, but often they share many of the same properties.
Here, we’re talking about a family of gases that are created as a waste product when fossil fuels are burned. Of these, the most abundant is nitric oxide (NO). Its close cousin, NO2, is more harmful to human health – but in practice, the two gases easily transform into one another, and so they’re referred to using an umbrella term.
There are a number of ways to deal with this problem, but the most effective is probably to limit the number of polluting vehicles on the roads. Clean air zones, electric cars, and simply walking to work rather than driving: these approaches will all help to limit the problem.
Ammonia (or NH3) remains in the atmosphere for a matter of mere hours after it’s been emitted. During this time, however, it can help to create both particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, as well as the still more polluting sulfur dioxide.
This pollutant largely comes from industrial fertilisers and slurries on farmland. This is a problem that can be addressed only when these kinds of harmful farming practices are dealt with.
For the most part, solutions to these problems come in two forms. We can change our behaviours, or we can develop new technologies that either help us to deal with the pollutants as they emerge, or prevent them from emerging in the first place. In practice, a combination of both of these things is likely to form the solution to the problem of air pollution.