2. The Deadly Chemicals In Our Air
Many of the pollutants in our atmosphere have unfamiliar and scientific names, yet they are not difficult to understand. Each major chemical pollutant is discussed below as to the possible harm it can do us, where it comes from and how we can prevent it from becoming more widespread.
Here’s a list of the more common chemicals that pollute your air: sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, ozone, lead, and asbestos.
2.1 Sulfur Dioxide: The Gas From Hell
“If smells like hell around here,” a worker complained to his boss. What he was talking about was the choking, sulfur fumes that came from the worker’s plant. Sulfur dioxide does indeed remind you of the “fire and brimstone” odor. If you breathed a deep lungful of the gas, it would feel like thousands of
razor blades in your lungs.
Sulfur dioxide is one of the deadliest air pollutants, and it accounts for about 18% of all air pollution. Sulfur dioxide I has been implicated in cases of asthmatic attacks, eczema (a skin disease), breathing difficulties, and paralysis and corrosion of the respiratory organs.
As soon as sulfur dioxide rises to a concentration of only one-five millionth of the atmosphere, deaths increase rapidly.
Coal-burning plants and industries account for almost 85% of all sulfur dioxide pollution. Residential use of coal and fuel oil makes up another 10% of the sulfur dioxide release. The problem of sulfur dioxide pollution is the most serious in areas of the northeast where coal burning is the most widespread.
No one, however, can escape the harmful effects of sulfur dioxide because it is spread all over the earth in “acid rain.” Acid rain occurs when the particles of sulfur dioxide are carried through the air and combine with water particles and fall to earth. Along with the water in the rain, you also get the acid waste products of sulfur dioxide.
Crops that are especially susceptible to sulfur dioxide and acid rain are wheat, barley, oats, cotton, alfalfa, buckwheat, and white pine. In fact, within a twenty-mile radius of a plant that emits sulfur dioxide in Tennessee, over 90% of all the white pine trees have been killed.
These sulfur compounds also enter the streams, rivers, and lakes after they fall from the air. As a result, many fish and aquatic plants quickly die.
As an individual, you can help control this type of air pollution by using another form of heating besides coal and fuel oil. If you must use these fuels to heat your home, insist that you receive a low-sulfur content coal or fuel. By simply converting to a lower sulfur content of coal, the problem could be greatly eased. At the same time, you should push for stronger regulations about the amount of sulfur dioxide industries can release into our air.
2.2 Carbon Monoxide: A Totally Manmade Gas
A jellyfish can belch carbon monoxide. Other than that, man is the only creature that can create this deadly gas. Carbon monoxide is the killer behind automobile gas poisonings that occur in closed garages. This gas in the exhaust fumes of cars is often fatal to unsuspecting drivers.
Over one-half of the total air pollution in this country comes from carbon monoxide. And you are responsible, because 80% of all carbon monoxide comes from the exhaust pipe of the automobile.
Carbon monoxide is extremely dangerous. It is almost certain that you have been poisoned by this gas at least once in the past week if you drive in heavy traffic. Tests have shown that traffic jams can produce enough carbon monoxide from the idling cars to cause headaches, irritability, dizziness, and nausea.
People who must work near heavy traffic areas often breathe in enough carbon monoxide so that their mental processes are slowed down to about one-half what they should be in clean air. Many driving accidents are now thought to be caused by carbon monoxide leaking from the car and poisoning the driver in the car.
For some people, driving a car isn’t enough pollution. They must also smoke cigarettes, which also give off carbon monoxide. Heavy smokers may have as much as 5°?o of their blood hemoglobin permanently combined with carbon monoxide. When this occurs, the tissues suffer a low level of oxygen starvation and destruction. Even the carbon monoxide from a single cigarette in a closed car can create headaches in all the passengers.
Every gallon of gasoline that you burn in your car releases three pounds of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. The solution to this sort of pollution is simple: restrict and limit all driving and strive for a more fuel-efficient car.
During the days of the Vietnam war protests when hundreds burned their draft cards, science-fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, said: “The students who are burning their draft cards are fighting the wrong enemy. This war will eventually end, but the more serious and deadly war, the one against air pollution, will never be won until we end our dependence on the polluting automobile. If these protestors want to perform a really radical and earth-saving act, they should be burning their drivers’ licenses instead of their draft cards.”
2.3 Nitrogen Oxides: The Smog Triggers
The sun in the midday sky was only a watery disk. Cars drove slowly with their lights on. It was noon in Los Angeles, but the smog made the city look like a smoky, evening battleground. Nitrogen oxides had combined with other gases from the heavy traffic to form a dense layer of smog that blocked the sunlight.
Nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide are the two most damaging of the nitrogen pollutants. Nitric oxide is very similar to carbon monoxide, and reduces the oxygen carrying capability of the blood. Nitrogen dioxide irritates the eyes, nose, bronchial tubes, and lungs. High concentrations of this toxic gas prove fatal.
Gasoline motor vehicles are the major source of nitrogen oxide pollutants. Coal and natural gas burning account for the second largest class of nitrogen oxide polluters.
Again, the most effective way to control this form of air pollution is by reducing dependency on the gasoline engine, and finding safer energy alternatives than coal burning.
2.4 Hydrocarbons: The Urban Air Pollution
Hydrocarbons are often emitted in the exhaust from automobiles and from industrial smoke stacks. The major cause of hydrocarbon pollution is the processing and use of petroleum products. Consequently, hydrocarbon pollution is highest in urban areas.
About 13% of the entire annual output of air pollutants is in the form of hydrocarbons. Most of the hydrocarbon compounds are carcinogenic—that is”, they “contribute to the causes of cancer.
One of the major hydrocarbon pollutants is benzopyrene. This toxic gas is also found in cigarette smoke, and is suspected as a cancer catalyst. Worldwide studies have proven that benzopyrene specifically produces lung cancer. Many city residents breathe in about as much of this gas daily as is contained in seven cigarettes.
Some cities are much worse. For example, the benzopyrene level in New York City and Birmingham,
Alabama, is such that the average resident takes in as much of this poisonous gas as is contained in the equivalent of about fifty cigarettes daily! Studies have also shown that the person who both smokes cigarettes and lives in polluted urban air is the most likely to have cancer.
2.5 Ozone: From Out of the Blue
Ozone is a clear, blue gas that exists naturally in the far upper regions of our atmosphere. Man, however, has increased the ozone content at the lower levels by emitting large amounts of nitrogen dioxide pollutants which in turn cause the creation of additional ozone.
At low levels, ozone poisoning results in chest pain, coughing, and eye irritation. Continuous exposure to small amounts of ozone has shortened the lives of laboratory animals. Ozone destroys such crops as grapes, spinach, lettuce, and alfalfa. It even attacks textile and rubber, causing them to deteriorate.
Ozone poisoning may also be a problem with those that work around electrical equipment and apparatus. Ozone has a sharp, almost “clean” type of smell. It may also be found in various air fresheners and sprays.
2.6 Better No Lead Than Dead
Chances are good that you are suffering from a low level of lead poisoning, particularly if you live near areas where automobile exhaust is a problem.
Lead affects the central nervous system. Headaches, dizziness, insomnia, weakness, anemia, and loss of appetite are some of the symptoms of chronic lead poisoning. The greatest danger of lead pollution is that it changes the shape of healthy red blood cells and makes them brittle. Residential areas where lead fallout is high also have a correspondingly high incidence of heart failure and disease.
Lead is a cumulative poison. That means it can build up in your system over a number of years. Lead is in both the air and water supply. Over urban areas, there is twice as much lead in the rainfall as is set by the government for drinking water standards.
Most of the lead, however, is not in the water but in the air. Airborne lead is caused chiefly by burning
gasoline that contains lead. About two-thirds of all lead in gasoline is exhausted into the atmosphere.
In fact, since the introduction of lead-containing gasoline in 1924, the average person now carries around in his body 100 times as much lead as did people who lived before 1924.
Our cars that use lead gasoline have made the atmosphere over 1,000 times higher in lead content than it would have naturally. The annual lead fallout over this country is over 500,000 tons a year. Eventually, these large amounts will upset the mineral balance of the oceans and produce massive lead poisonings.
The solution? Immediate suspension of sales of all leaded gasoline. The lead in the gasoline our automobiles burn is the major cause of the lead problem. If you want to help, always use unleaded gasoline in your car. It’s worth the extra effort for the sake of the environment and your health.
2.7 Asbestos: Fibers In Your Lungs
Asbestos is found in pipe and electric insulations, brake linings, and, unfortunately, the human lungs.
Asbestos fibers pollute our air and often find their way into sensitive lung tissue where they become embedded. The mechanical irritation of these fibers harms the lungs and are believed to contribute to tumors in the lungs.
Asbestos is also often found in many building materials, all the way from the roofing of a house down to the floor tiles, and in the insulation in between.
Construction workers, electricians, plumbers, and many industrial workers need to be concerned about the asbestos pollution in their working environment.
Homemakers are not immune to the asbestos problem either. Even such a harmless-looking product as talcum powder has now been discovered to contain asbestos fibers. When this powder is used, asbestos particles enter the air and lungs, as well as being deposited on the skin.
2.8 Air You Can See: Particle Pollution
Although not purely chemicals, another form of air pollution is solid particles. You’ve seen this type of air pollution yourself. In a ray of sunlight, you’ve probably seen tiny moving particles of “dust.” Such dust contains spores, pollen, molds, ash, soil, soot, and dozens of other solid compounds.
In a large city, every breath you take has about 70,000 solid particles in it. Even “clean” country air has
about 40,000 solid particles in each breath of air.
Generally, these airborne particles of pollution remain in the air for only a few days. Occasionally, however, the lighter particles may drift for weeks and hundreds of miles from where they were released.
These particles come from everywhere: from fires, from industries, from farming, and from cars. In Los Angeles alone, one survey estimated that 50 tons of rubber particles from spinning tires are released into the air every day!
These airborne particles can make the sky hazy and shut out needed sunlight. For example, after volcanic eruptions which release a large amount of solid particles, the temperature often drops for a period of weeks. Solid particles in our air also cause irritation to the lungs and eyes, and produce what are often mistakenly labeled as “allergies.”
If temperature inversions occur or the wind blows the wrong way, these particles can gather in one part of an area and actually darken the daytime sky. When such conditions occur, deaths due to pollution rise by as much as 50%.
- 1. Introduction
- 2. The Deadly Chemicals In Our Air
- 3. Clean Air: How Can We Get It?
- 4. Questions & Answers
- Article #1: The Breath of Life By Dr. Herbert M. Shelton