For many, fears about the air we breathe are on par with fears about tainted food.  For some, the effects of pollution are immediate and include allergies, asthma, and chemical sensitivity that can cause rashes, dizziness and nausea.  But what are these chemicals in the air that pose so many hazards to our health?

In some cases chemicals come from natural occurrences, such as volcanoes or forest fires. However, man-made chemicals are also a major factor. Greenpeace estimates that 63,000 chemicals are used worldwide, and every year 1,000 new synthetic chemicals enter the marketplace. About 4,500 pose the most serious risks.

  • Persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Many of these compounds, such as PCBs, DDT and dioxins were widely used during the boom in industrial production after World War II, states the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They were mainly used to control pests and diseases in crop production and industry. DDT is still used in some countries to eradicate mosquitoes that carry malaria.

    About 20 percent of the US food supply is contaminated with POPs at extremely low levels. While there's no consensus on the effects of exposure to extremely low levels, POPs in general have been linked to cancer, nervous system damage, reproductive disorders including birth defects, and immune system disorders in humans and animals.

  • Toxic metals. According to Greenpeace incineration is becoming an increasingly popular way to treat waste, but considering the chemical makeup of the products being burnt, it creates more toxic waste that poses a significant threat to public health and the environment.

    Products made from plastics, paints and batteries release toxic chemicals when burned, including lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and chromium. Instead of being destroyed during incineration, these metals become more concentrated and convert into more dangerous forms.

  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Most of us have heard these chemicals mentioned in connection with the hole in the ozone layer and global warming over the past two decades. They are man-made chemicals that go by trade names such as Freon and Isotron. Once released into the air, CFCs do not break down - they take about eight years to reach the highest layer of the earth's atmosphere and stay there for more than 100 years.

    CFCs are found in aerosols, dry cleaning solvent, foam insulation, refrigeration and air conditioners. Inhaling high levels of these compounds can cause headaches, dizziness, breathing problems and even death.

  • Methane. This gas is produced naturally in lakes, marshes, and swamps and from livestock farming and waste disposal. It makes up about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. According to a study conducted at Harvard University, Argonne, National Laboratory and the EPA, both air pollution and global warming could be reduced by controlling emissions of methane gas.

How to Reduce Pollution

While many of us rarely think about the air we breathe - unless we have allergies, asthma or other respiratory problems - we care about our overall health and preserving the planet for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. The EPA has some recommendations on reducing pollution so you can enjoy better health and save the planet:

  • Drive less. As cars get greener and cleaner, people drive more, thereby offsetting the benefits gained from fuel-efficient vehicles. Try walking, biking and taking public transit more often. Or, carpool.

  • Maintain vehicles. This improves gas mileage and emissions. Also, use clean fuel whenever possible and avoid idling for long periods of time.

  • Reduce your use of CFC products - aerosols, air conditioners and non eco-friendly insulation in your home. Choose green products whenever possible.

  • Use green pest control products when gardening instead of pesticides or insecticides that contain toxic chemicals.

  • Use push mowers instead of models that run on gas or electricity.

  • Be a smart boater. Don't go at full throttle, eliminate idling, and don't spill gasoline.


Journal: Geophysical Research Letters

Study Date: October 2002

Study Name: Control of Methane Emissions Would Reduce Both Global Warming and Air Pollution


Author(s): Arlene M. Fiore, Daniel J. Jacob, Brendan D. Field, David G. Streets, Suneeta D. Fernandes, Carey Jang