Toxic Effects of Air Pollution on Human Health


The composition of air in different localities varies depending on its constituents. Air pollution occurs when foreign elements enter into the atmosphere. These elements may be gases, particulate matter or some organic volatile particles. Inhaling polluted air risks an individual’s life. Air pollution is increasing at a very high rate due to the use and combustion of fossil fuels in plants and automobiles. As a result, air pollution has become a global issue that the society needs to address not only for the safety of humans beings, but also for maintenance of ecological system’s balance. Exposure to air pollutants leads to the development of certain health disorders and can even result into the death of the victim. It is important to reduce the levels of air pollutants in the atmosphere to prevent these health disorders.


Air pollution refers to the presence of contaminants in the air, which can be in the form of gases or particulate matter. The contaminants or rather the air pollutants either can be natural or can be results of human activities. Natural air pollution arises from natural phenomenon such as volcanic eruptions, wind erosion, forest fires, evaporation of volatile organic substances, natural radioactivity, as well as pollen dispersion in plants. However, human activity causes most of the air pollution. The largest source of air pollution is the combustion of fossil fuel in automobiles and power plants. Some of the air pollutants include nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds among others. Owing to the normal functioning of the body, there is a high risk of inhaling the fatal air pollutants. A normal human being inhales approximately 20,000 liters of air in a day, therefore rendering man vulnerable to the exposure of his body cells to air pollutants (Miller & Tyler, 1987, p.21). Air pollution mostly affects the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, which are vital systems in the body. The reaction of the individual to air pollution depends on the type of air pollutant, the degree of exposure, the state of one’s health as well as his/her age. Different air pollutants have different effects on an individual’s body system.


There are several air pollutants and each has different impacts on health. Sulfur dioxide is the major air pollutant found nearly in every part of the world (Haughton & Hunter, 2003, p.154). It is a colorless gas with a pungent odor. It is a product of fossil fuel emission. In minimal amounts, it causes irritation of the eyes, throat, and the nose. It causes lung damage to whoever inhales it irrespective of the amounts. These impair the proper functioning of the body systems. Exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide causes acute and chronic conditions of asthma. Other disorders that arise from prolonged exposure to this gas are emphysema, lung cancer, and bronchitis. These are chronic diseases, which prevent the normal functioning of not only the respiratory system, but also the other systems of the body. The outcomes of exposure of this gas were evident in an incidence that occurred in London in 1952 where 4,000 people died within four days due to exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide (Colls, 2002, p.398). Many of the deaths resulted from respiratory tract infections, low levels of oxygen in their body as well as blocking of air passages. This incidence made many to realize the danger of excessive burning of fossil fuel.

Nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide when released to the atmosphere cause air pollution. These oxides, which are reddish in color, are also emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. Prolonged exposure to these oxides enhances an individual’s susceptibility to bacterial infections as well as lung cancer. However, the effects of the nitric oxides on the body systems depend on their concentrations in the air. They may cause inflammation of the air passages resulting into respiratory illnesses. They also cause damage on the lung cells and tissues, which lead to the development of lung cancer. Other effects include development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary oedema, and emphysema. The two most vulnerable groups to nitrogen oxides impacts are children and people with ill health. Individuals with ill health face hard moments due to exposure to air pollutants. However, in most cases they are not aware that exposure to these gases worsen their condition(s) posing a great risk to their lives (Gilpin, 1999, p.159). In infants, exposure to these gases leads to death.

The other pollutant that is widely spread around the globe is troposphere ozone. It results from the reaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. According to Santos, this compound forms a large proportion of air pollutants in regions with high populations utilizing fossil fuels in summer (1990, p. 50). Exposure to troposphere ozone has detrimental effects to the respiratory system. It impairs the functioning of the defensive cells within the lungs by pushing them back through the cell walls. It results into rapid painful and shallow breathing due to the sipping of cellular fluid into the lung tissues. Prolonged exposure to relatively high levels of o zone leads to stiffening of the lungs. This reduces ones ability to breathe depriving the body oxygen. The inability to breathe leads to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the body cells, which may lead to toxic levels of the gas in the body. Exposure to low amounts of ozone results into watery eyes, coughing, burning nose, wheezing as well as tightening of the muscles within the chest. It also increases an individual’s susceptibility to more severe respiratory infections. Prolonged exposure to low levels of troposphere ozone leads to development of lung cancer. Research has shown that children living in areas that exhibit pollution of air by ozone have abnormally small lungs. According to Paulson, adults lose approximately 75% of their lung capacity due to exposure to ozone in their lifetime (1972, p. 80). It is evident that in both adults and children ozone poses a threat not only to their respiratory system, but also to their life span-it decreases accordingly.

The volatility of most organic compounds is a threat to the environment, as they constitute a relatively large proportion of air pollutants. Some of these compounds are also precursors of ozone, which has detrimental effects on the respiratory system as discussed above. Organic volatile compounds include propane, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, methanol, ethanol, ether, and vinyl chloride. Most of these volatile organic compounds arise from petrol and resins. Different organic compounds have different effects on the health of the victims. For instance exposure to 1, 3-butadiene and benzene causes leukemia. Scientists suspect that nearly 10% of leukemia incidences in the United Kingdom result from the exposure of individuals to the two compounds (Moore, 1995, p.62).Prolonged exposure to 1,3-butadiene enhances the development of cancer as well as cardiovascular diseases. Toluene leads to the dysfunction of the body’s central nervous system. The dysfunction yields behavioral problems and disturbs the circadian rhythm besides causing memory loss. Benzene has the most lethal effects. It leads to the damage of the bone marrow, excessive bleeding, leukemia, as well as anemia. Volatile organic compounds also have toxic effects on unborn babies. For instance, exposure of expectant mothers to carbon tetrachloride leads to development of abnormalities leading to several birth defects. All the volatile organic compounds affect the functioning of different systems in the body. However, the effects of these compounds differ from one compound to the other.

Airborne particles constitute a large part of air pollutants. They are tiny pieces of suspended in air and can be either solid or liquid in nature. They include smoke, fumes, sulfates and nitrates as well as dust particles with a diameter of 1-100 µm. The effect of the particles depends on their size. Smaller particles are more detrimental as they penetrate deeper in the lungs than larger particles. The particles vary in their composition. Some may contain heavy metal elements such as mercury, lead, and cadmium. They are all carcinogenic. In children, particulate matter causes infant deaths, a reduction in lung function and low birth weight (Phelps, 2004, p. 58). To the rest of the population, exposure to particulate pollution causes asthma, irregular heartbeat, chronic bronchitis, frequent heart attacks, and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Particulate pollution causes premature deaths especially to all individuals who develop heart and lung diseases. Researchers have reported that 15-17% of Americans risk these infections due to the escalating levels of particulate pollution. In China and India, 350,000 premature deaths result from the effects of particulate pollution (Steger & Jon, 1990, p.105). It shows the severity of the exposure to particulate matter to human beings though many people are unaware of this danger.

Ammonia is also a pollutant. It is a colorless gas with a pungent smell. Most agricultural practices lead to the emission of ammonia gas to the atmosphere. They include livestock farming and application of fertilizer to crops among others. There are also plants/factories that emit high levels of ammonia to the atmosphere. Exposure of an individual to ammonia leads to irritation of the throat as well as inflammation of the air passages of the respiratory system. Consequently, the individual develops problems in breathing. The difficulties not only strain the respiratory system, but also the other body tissues due to a decrease in oxygen supply. Carbon dioxide levels in the body may build up to critical levels posing a danger to the functionality of other systems in the body e.g. the nervous system. Continued exposure causes severe health effects.Some of these effects are chronic diseases of the respiratory system organs such as the lungs and the diaphragm, pulmonary oedema and aggravated asthma. If one does not seek medical attention when he/she develops any of these diseases, the eventual breakdown of the respiratory system leads to the death of the individual.

Carbon monoxide is the other air pollutant that yields negative effects on an individual. It results from incomplete combustion of fossil fuel. It is an odorless colorless gas. When inhaled, carbon monoxide binds hemoglobin affecting its ability and capacity to bind oxygen. As a result, body tissues are unable to receive oxygen. The severity of this condition depends on the amount as well as the period of exposure of an individual to carbon monoxide. It causes toxicity of the cardiovascular as well as the nervous system. Mild exposure to carbon monoxide results in nausea, headache, and dizziness. At high levels of exposure, the individual may lose his/her sight besides causing decreased muscle coordination. It also causes acute abdominal pains to the individual. Carbon monoxide causes the fatal poisoning around the world. It is due to its ability to deprive body cells and tissues oxygen supply within a relatively small period. Exposure of carbon monoxide to expectant mothers can lead to the death of the unborn child. Prolonged exposure to extremely high levels of carbon monoxide leads to unconsciousness, development of convulsions and the eventual death of the victim.

Air pollution not only affects human beings but also animals and other elements of the ecosystem. In all forms of life, air pollution causes a dysfunction or several systems leading to the eventual death of the organism. Farmer argues that the world has faced an imbalance of the ecosystem due to the death as well as the extinction of some species (1997, p. 48). However, most of the effects affect man’s health. The impact of these air pollutants lowers the productivity of man. To prevent these occurrences in future, there is need to embrace preventive measures to curb air pollution.


Air pollutants are fatal to the health of man. Most air pollutants, in both gaseous and particulate form, affect the respiratory and the cardiovascular systems. Some of them e.g. carbon monoxide affect the nervous system. All these systems are essential to the normal functioning of the body. In extreme cases, exposure to air pollutants leads to the death of the victim regardless of their age. The most vulnerable groups are children and individuals with ill health in the society. To reduce the amounts of air pollutants in the atmosphere to safe levels, there is need to reduce the burning of fossil fuel in power plants as well as in automobiles. In unavoidable cases, power plants need to install emission filters to prevent the toxic gases from escaping to the atmosphere. However, if the society does not embrace these preventive measures, levels of air pollutants will continue to increase leading to a rise in the number of individuals in the society who suffer from the effects of air pollution.


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