Air Pollution

Note: This is a seed air pollution article until it gets rewritten.

When people think air pollution, often indoor air pollution immediately comes to mind. Keeping dust and other particles out of the air provides a sure fire way to keep down common colds and other ailments.

Air pollution issues around the community often deal with the presence of basic smokestack industries, the amount of traffic in the area and other similar factors. This brief review focuses on a few air pollution issues.

What is Smog?

Most people rightly associate ozone with smog, a term first used by H.A. Des Voex in 1905, described the foggy conditions in urban areas resulting from the sulfur dioxide emissions coming from the newly created smokestacks of the industrial revolution.

Today’s urban smog problems, primarily photochemical smog, result when sunlight breaks down chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) into their constituent parts. Once broken down, the now free oxygen molecules can link up with the oxygen in the air (O2) and create ozone O3, a variation of oxygen, with one additional oxygen molecule attached to it.

While VOCs and NOx occur naturally, anthropogenic (human initiated) sources remain the focal point of policy analysis.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), a group of chemical compounds, share some common characteristics. First, the organic designation means that the compound is almost always composed of carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) molecules. Volatility refers to the evaporative quality of the compound. Anyone pumping their own gasoline and immediately notices the smell of gas experiences a quick lesson regarding gasoline’s high degree of volatility.

Motor vehicle emissions represent the primary source of VOC emissions. However, evaporation of gasoline, solvents, oil-based paints, and hydrocarbons from the petrochemical industry are also significant sources. NOx result from the combustion of fossil fuels such as oil and gas, with motor vehicles the primary primary source, followed by fuel burning in homes, businesses, factories and power plants.

Ozone Hole and Ozone Depletion

The ozone hole, another familiar phrase, refers to ozone depletion (the chemically induced breakup of O3 in the stratosphere, the area of the atmosphere about six miles above the earth. Ozone holes refers to specific geographical areas on earth that have a thin or thinning layer of ozone above them in the stratosphere.

Scientists began investigating the effects of man-made chemicals such as Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer. They hypothesized that CFC interaction with O3 resulted in the loss of an oxygen molecule, changing O3 to O2. Reducing the amount of stratospheric O3 allowed more of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UV-B) to reach earth, consequently increasing the possibility of skin cancer and other dangers to human health.

By the middle of the 1980s states around the world agreed to regulate the use of ozone depleting chemicals and codified that agreement in the form of multilateral treaties. The Ozone Secretariat is the formal body for coordinating state activity and implementing the treaties.

Outdoor Recreation and Travel

Many of our National Parks, including the Grand Canyon, suffer from severe visibility problems, due in great part to pollution in the form of smog and haze. Little disagreement exists about park popularity causing park visibility problems. People drive to parks and emissions contribute to smog.

Outdoor recreation enthusiasts, working with transportation policy makers continue to address these issues one step at a time. For example, once automobiles were free to roam all the park roads. Currently visitors are permitted to drive private automobiles through the East Rim (SR 64). However, the average visitor, the South Rim tourist, must use one of the natural gas powered or regular buses to visit the vistas.

Future park transportation policy may shift to requiring all natural gas powered busses and/or a total ban on private automobile use. In fact, the idea of exchanging private for public transportation systems within U.S. National Parks is gaining more acceptance. For example, in May of 2000, Zion National Park, in Utah, introduced its own bus system that includes transportation of visitors to and from nearby towns.

Acid Rain

Acid Rain was the name given to a specific type of precipitation that was chemically different than normal rain. The main human causes of acid rain were the burning of fossil fuels which emitted sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). The less formal explanation was that Sox and Nox emitted into the air eventually returned to ground when it rained.

The acid nature of the chemicals means that there were potential problems. Consider one of the practical issues faced by consumers. Would acid rain damage their cars? The short answer is yes. While the rain may evaporate off a car, some of the acid could remain and begin ruining the paint.

Move up a notch of concern and consider bigger questions such as does acid rain cause human health issues? The quick answer is no. Getting caught in an acid rain storm will not cause a person to shrivel up. Of course there are health concerns associated with both Sox and Nox. Excess amounts of either in the air can lead to respiratory problems.

The United States and Europe confronted Acid Rain problems during the 1980s. The United States repsonded by creating the first environmental cap and trade system policy. According to the Environmental Protection AGency:

The Acid Rain Program (ARP), established under Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) Amendments requires major emission reductions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), the primary precursors of acid rain, from the power sector. The SO2 program sets a permanent cap on the total amount of SO2 that may be emitted by electric generating units (EGUs) in the contiguous United States. The program was phased in, with the final 2010 SO2 cap set at 8.95 million tons, a level of about one-half of the emissions from the power sector in 1980.

While aggregate numbers have been reduced, regionalism might be considered the basic problem with cap and trade environmental policies. Some areas such as the Midwest were slow to change over their electricity generation from coal.

They were allowed to continue and the emissions from the plants went into the atmosphere, eventually landing in New England and areas of the Northeast. It took almost two decades before there were signs that some of the acid rain problems had abated. For example, a July 2018 article in the New Hampshire Gazette reported,

Red spruce are particularly sensitive to acid rain and, at the height of the die-off, some forests lost 50 percent of them.

But decades later, not all the environmental damage is turning around at the pace of the red spruce.

Waterways are now showing signs of recovery, as are the upper layers of soil, although they are still strained by the acid deposits. Researchers are finding fish in lakes deemed fishless for years, but the populations are not large and the variety of species is not as diverse as before, said Gregory Lawrence, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who is based in Troy, New York.

Acid Rain in Europe was also a problem. Because of its transboundary nature the states of Europe needed to negotiated a solution, and they did so by way of the 1979 Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LTRAP).

The convention is still in force and has expanded with eight protocols covering management of a variety of additional air pollution issues such as heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).