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The Principal Pollutants


See also: Monitoring Principal Pollutants

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that has an affinity for hemoglobin, 210 times that of oxygen. By combining with the hemoglobin in the blood, it inhibits the delivery of oxygen to the body's tissue, thereby causing asphyxia or shortness of breath. The health threat from carbon monoxide is most serious for those who suffer from cardiovascular disease. At much higher levels of exposure, healthy individuals are also affected. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of the incomplete burning of fuels. Industrial processes contribute to carbon monoxide pollution levels, but the principal source of carbon monoxide in most large urban areas is vehicle emissions. Peak carbon monoxide concentrations typically occur during the colder months of the year when automotive emissions are greater and nighttime inversion conditions are more frequent.

Lead (Pb)

Lead is a highly toxic metal when ingested or inhaled. It is a suspected carcinogen of the lungs and kidneys and has adverse effects on the cardio, nervous and renal systems. Lead is emitted to the atmosphere by vehicles burning leaded fuel and from certain industrial processes, primarily battery manufacturers and lead smelters. As a result of the reduction in lead in gasoline, metal processing is the major source of lead emissions.

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)

Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) are a class of pollutants formed when fuel is burned at a very high temperature (above 1200 °F), such as in automobiles and power plants. For air pollution purposes, it is composed primarily of nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other oxides of nitrogen. Although there is no air quality standard for NOx, it plays a major role in the formation of ground-level ozone in the atmosphere through a complex series of reactions with volatile organic compounds (VOC's). Nitrogen oxides also contribute to deposition of nitrogen in soil and water through acid rain.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a highly toxic, reddish brown gas that is formed through the oxidation of nitric oxide (NO) emitted primarily from the combustion of fuels in stationary or transportation sources. It can cause an odorous, brown haze that irritates the eyes and nose, shuts out sunlight and reduces visibility. NO2 acts as a precursor to acidic rain and plays a key role in nitrogen loading of forests and ecosystems. NO2 has been associated with acute effects in sufferers of respiratory disease.

Ground-Level Ozone (O3)

Ground-level ozone, or photochemical smog, is a secondary pollutant. It is not emitted directly to the atmosphere but rather is formed in the atmosphere by the reactions of other pollutants. Ground-level ozone forms during the summer months, when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) combine and react in the presence of sunlight and warm temperatures. Nitrogen oxides come from burning fossil fuels at power plants, industrial boilers and motor vehicles. VOC's are emitted from a variety of sources, including motor vehicles, chemical plants, refineries and natural (biogenic) sources. Changing weather patterns contribute to yearly differences in ozone concentrations. Ozone and the precursor pollutants that cause ozone also can be transported into an area from pollution sources located hundreds of miles away. Ozone is a strong irritant to the eyes and upper respiratory system. It hampers breathing and also damages crops and man-made materials such as monuments and statues.

Particulate Matter (PM)

Particulate matter (PM) is the general term used for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. These particles, which come in a wide range of sizes, may be emitted directly by a source or formed in the atmosphere. The sizes and types of different particulate matter are explained below.

  • TSP
    Total suspended particulates (TSP) refers to the aggregate of solid or liquid matter in air. Particles vary in size (up to 45 micrometers in diameter) and may remain suspended in the air a few seconds to several months. Particulate emissions come from coal-burning power plants, industrial processes, mining operations, municipal waste incinerators and fuel combustion. They also are produced by natural sources such as forest fires and volcanoes. The smaller of these particles are breathed into the lungs, where they can aggravate or cause respiratory ailments. These smaller particles also can carry other pollutants into the lungs. The federal ambient air quality standard for particulate matter was revised to reflect the adverse health effects of smaller particulate matter less than 10 microns in size (see PM10 below). There is no federal or state air quality standard for TSP.
  • PM10
    Particulate matter (PM) is solid matter or liquid droplets from smoke, dust, fly ash or condensing vapors that can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. Particulate matter in air with aerodynamic diameters less than 10 micrometers is PM10. PM10 has replaced the total suspended particulate (TSP) standards because many of the larger particles included in the TSP measurement (up to 45 micrometers) do not penetrate into the lungs and have very little effect on health. Consequently, the PM10 measurement is believed to be a better indicator of actual health risks. PM10 appears to represent essentially all of the particulate emissions from transportation sources and most of the emissions in the other traditional categories.
  • Sulfates and Nitrates
    Sulfate particulate matter in the atmosphere is composed of two types: primary and secondary. Primary sulfates are emitted directly into the atmosphere from industrial processes. Secondary sulfates are formed in the atmosphere from other sulfur-containing compounds under mechanisms that involve photochemical processes. Studies have shown significant correlation between high sulfate levels and increased absences from work and school because of illness. Sulfates are also of interest due to their effects of reducing visibility and contributing to acid rain. Nitrates are particulate compounds that are usually formed in the atmosphere from the oxidation of oxides of nitrogen gases. They are of interest since they represent a significant portion of the finer particulates which can be inhaled into the lungs and which have a great impact on visibility. Nitrates are also being studied to determine their impact on acid precipitation.
  • PM2.5
    Fine particles are those that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5). Fine particles can accumulate in the respiratory system and are associated with numerous adverse health effects including decreased lung function and increased respiratory symptoms and disease. Sensitive groups that appear to be at greatest risk include the elderly, individuals with cardiopulmonary disease such as asthma, and children. Particulate matter also can cause adverse impacts to the environment. PM2.5 is the major cause of reduced visibility in parts of the United States. Other environmental impacts occur when particles deposit onto soil, plants, water, or man-made materials such as monuments or statues.

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)

Sulfur dioxide is a gaseous pollutant that is emitted primarily by industrial furnaces or power plants burning coal or oil containing sulfur. The major health effects associated with high exposures to sulfur dioxide include effects on breathing and respiratory illness symptoms. The population most sensitive to sulfur dioxide includes asthmatics and individuals with chronic lung disease or cardiovascular disease. Sulfur dioxide damages trees, plants and agricultural crops and acts as a precursor to acid rain. Finally, sulfur dioxide can accelerate the corrosion of natural and man-made materials that are used in buildings and monuments, as well as paper, iron-containing metals, zinc and other protective coatings.