What’s in the Air? Common Pollutants in the Air we Breathe

Become familiar with the most common air pollutants and understand big picture ways to stay safe.

We breathe about 20,000 breaths per day and most of us assume that air circulating through our bodies is safe. But according to the American Lung Association, nearly 36% of all Americans breathe air that's damaging our bodies, communities, and environment.

Understanding the ins and outs of air pollution can be daunting but this article highlights some of the most prevalent air pollutants to help increase awareness of the air we breathe. With a greater understanding of the problem, we can better address pollution head-on and create the change we all deserve.

What is an Air Pollutant?

Air pollution is a broad term for anything in the air that can hurt us or our environment. Pollutants take the form of solids, liquids, or gasses and many pollutants actually occur naturally in the earth’s atmosphere but are harmful when levels are high. Pollutants can be created by natural processes (i.e. wildfires) but are often created or exacerbated by human activities.

Air pollutants are a major concern because they can lead to a variety of adverse effects, including respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and other health issues, damage to ecosystems, and climate change. 

What are the Most Common Pollutants?

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has outlined the six most common air pollutants:

  • Particulate Matter (PM10 and PM2.5): Particulate matter refers to tiny solid or liquid particles suspended in the air. PM10 includes particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or smaller (or 0.001 centimeter), while PM2.5 includes particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller (0.00025 centimeter). Because these particles are so small, they’re easy to breathe in, which can lead to multiple health issues in the short and long term. PM typically comes from combustion processes like vehicle exhaust or industrial emissions, or dust/debris in the air, as well as natural sources like wildfires. 
  • Ground-Level Ozone (O3): Ground-level ozone is not directly emitted into the atmosphere but is formed when oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs, organic chemicals that easily evaporate into the air) react in the presence of sunlight. It is a key component of smog and greatly exacerbates respiratory issues like asthma.
  • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2): Nitrogen dioxide is a gas primarily produced by combustion processes in vehicles and power plants. It contributes to smog and can irritate the respiratory system.
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): Sulfur dioxide is a gas with a pungent odor emitted from the combustion of sulfur-containing fuels like coal and oil. It is a precursor to acid rain and can lead to respiratory problems.
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO): Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced by the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels. It can interfere with the body's ability to transport oxygen, leading to symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and in severe cases, death.
  • Lead (Pb): Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can contaminate air, water, and soil, posing serious health risks to humans and wildlife when ingested or inhaled.While lead emissions have decreased significantly due to regulations, it remains a concern near industrial facilities and in older homes with lead-based paint. Lead exposure, especially in children, can lead to developmental and cognitive issues.

What can we do to Protect Ourselves from Air Pollutants? 

A recent report from the World Health Organization found that monitoring air pollution is an important first step to staying safe. Without accurate, localized, and easy to understand data, it’s not possible to understand challenges and take actions that drive solutions. 

After air quality monitoring is in effect, JustAir works with communities to explore three types of change to keep people safe in the immediate term and take important long term steps towards cleaner, safer air:

  1. Behavioral change occurs when individuals take personal action to stay safe like checking air quality regularly, wearing a mask when air quality is poor, and making personal decisions on when it's safe to be outside, especially considering existing health issues like asthma.
  2. Environmental change occurs when communities improve the physical environment to benefit air quality. For example, growing a green buffer zone - a barrier of trees and vegetation - between people and pollutant sources can be a helpful way to capture air pollution before it reaches a high concentration of people.
  3. Structural change occurs when communities implement long-term structural or policy changes to advance clean air. Structural changes can take many forms - like updating zoning code to prevent new industrial sites from opening near residential areas, rerouting truck traffic away from populated areas, or changing over a fleet of school buses to electric vehicles. 

Taking proactive steps to monitor air and embracing behavioral, environmental, and structural change can make a significant difference in safeguarding communities from the impacts of air pollutants and working towards a cleaner, healthier future.

To learn more about pollutants, the impact of pollutants, or taking action to stay safe, schedule some time with us!

Sarah Craft
January 11, 2024
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