14.2.1 Tropospheric Pollution

Tropospheric pollution occurs due to the presence of undesirable solid or gaseous particles in the air. The following are the major gaseous and particulate pollutants present in the troposphere:

  1. Gaseous air pollutants: These are oxides of sulphur, nitrogen and carbon, hydrogen sulphide, hydrocarbons, ozone and other oxidants.
  2. Particulate pollutants: These are dust, mist, fumes, smoke, smog etc.

Gaseous air pollutants

(a) Oxides of Sulphur: Oxides of sulphur are produced when sulphur containing fossil fuel is burnt. The most common species, sulphur dioxide, is a gas that is poisonous to both animals and plants. It has been reported that even a low concentration of sulphur dioxide causes respiratory diseases e.g., asthma, bronchitis, emphysema in human beings.

Sulphur dioxide causes irritation to the eyes, resulting in tears and redness. High concentration of SO2 leads to stiffness of flower buds which eventually fall off from plants. Uncatalysed oxidation of sulphur dioxide is slow. However, the presence of particulate matter in polluted air catalyses the oxidation of sulphur dioxide to sulphur trioxide.

2SO2 (g) + O2 (g) → 2SO3 (g)

The reaction can also be promoted by ozone and hydrogen peroxide.

SO2 (g) + O3 (g)→ SO3 (g) + O2 (g)

SO2 (g) + H2O2 (l) → H2SO4 (aq)

 

(b) Oxides of Nitrogen: Dinitrogen and dioxygen are the main constituents of air. These gases do not react with each other at a normal temperature.

At high altitudes when lightning strikes, they combine to form oxides of nitrogen. NO2 is oxidised to nitrate ion,  NO3 which is washed into soil, where it serves as a fertilizer.

In an automobile engine, (at high temperature) when fossil fuel is burnt, dinitrogen and dioxygen combine to yield significant quantities of nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) as given below:

N2 (g) + O2 (g) → 2NO (g)

NO reacts instantly with oxygen to give NO2

2NO (g) + O2 (g) → 2NO2 (g)

Rate of production of NO2 is faster when nitric oxide reacts with ozone in the stratosphere.

NO (g) + O3 (g) → NO2 (g) + O2 (g)

The irritant red haze in the traffic and congested places is due to oxides of nitrogen. Higher concentrations of NO2 damage the leaves of plants and retard the rate of photosynthesis.

Nitrogen dioxide is a lung irritant that can lead to an acute respiratory disease in children. It is toxic to living tissues also. Nitrogen dioxide is also harmful to various textile fibres and metals.

 

(c) Hydrocarbons: Hydrocarbons are composed of hydrogen and carbon only and are formed by incomplete combustion of fuel used in automobiles. Hydrocarbons are carcinogenic, i.e., they cause cancer. They harm plants by causing ageing, breakdown of tissues and shedding of leaves, flowers and twigs.

 

(d) Oxides of Carbon

(i)Carbon monoxide: Carbon monoxide (CO) is one of the most serious air pollutants. It is a colourless and odourless gas, highly poisonous to living beings because of its ability to block the delivery of oxygen to the organs and tissues.

It is produced as a result of incomplete combustion of carbon. Carbon monoxide is mainly released into the air by automobile exhaust. Other sources, which produce CO, involve incomplete combustion of coal, firewood, petrol, etc.

The number of vehicles has been increasing over the years all over the world. Many vehicles are poorly maintained and several have inadequate pollution control equipments resulting in the release of greater amount of carbon monoxide and other polluting gases.

Do you know why carbon monoxide is poisonous? It binds to haemoglobin to form carboxyhaemoglobin, which is about 300 times more stable than the oxygen-haemoglobin complex. In blood, when the concentration of carboxyhaemoglobin reaches about 3–4 per cent, the oxygen carrying capacity of blood is greatly reduced.

This oxygen deficiency, results into headache, weak eyesight, nervousness and cardiovascular disorder. This is the reason why people are advised not to smoke.

In pregnant women who have the habit of smoking the increased CO level in blood may induce premature birth, spontaneous abortions and deformed babies.

 

(ii)Carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere by respiration, burning of fossil fuels for energy, and by decomposition of limestone during the manufacture of cement. It is also emitted during volcanic eruptions.

Carbon dioxide gas is confined to troposphere only. Normally it forms about 0.03 per cent by volume of the atmosphere. With the increased use of fossil fuels, a large amount of carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere. Excess of CO2 in the air is removed by green plants and this maintains an appropriate level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Green plants require CO2 for photosynthesis and they, in turn, emit oxygen, thus maintaining the delicate balance. As you know, deforestation and burning of fossil fuel increases the CO2 level and disturb the balance in the atmosphere. The increased amount of CO2 in the air is mainly responsible for global warming.

 

Global Warming and Greenhouse Effect

About 75 % of the solar energy reaching the earth is absorbed by the earth’s surface, which increases its temperature. The rest of the heat radiates back to the atmosphere. Some of the heat is trapped by gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, chlorofluorocarbon compounds (CFCs) and water vapour in the atmosphere. Thus, they add to the heating of the atmosphere.

This causes global warming. We all know that in cold places flowers, vegetables and fruits are grown in glass covered areas called greenhouse. Do you know that we humans also live in a greenhouse? Of course, we are not surrounded by glass but a blanket of air called the atmosphere, which has kept the temperature on earth constant for centuries.

But it is now undergoing change, though slowly. Just as the glass in a greenhouse holds the sun’s warmth inside, atmosphere traps the sun’s heat near the earth’s surface and keeps it warm. This is called natural greenhouse effect because it maintains the temperature and makes the earth perfect for life.

In a greenhouse, solar radiations pass through the transparent glass and heat up the soil and the plants. The warm soil and plants emit infrared radiations. Since glass is opaque to infrared radiations (thermal region), it partly reflects and partly absorbs these radiations.

This mechanism keeps the energy of the sun trapped in the greenhouse. Similarly, carbon dioxide molecules also trap heat as they are transparent to sunlight but not to the heat radiation. If the amount of carbon dioxide crosses the delicate proportion of 0.03 per cent, the natural greenhouse balance may get disturbed.

Carbon dioxide is the major contributor to global warming. Besides carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases are methane, water vapour, nitrous oxide, CFCs and ozone. Methane is produced naturally when vegetation is burnt, digested or rotted in the absence of oxygen.

Large amounts of methane are released in paddy fields, coal mines, from rotting garbage dumps and by fossil fuels. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are man-made industrial chemicals used in air conditioning etc. CFCs are also damaging the ozone layer (Section 14.2.2).

Nitrous oxide occurs naturally in the environment. In recent years, their quantities have increased significantly due to the use of chemical fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels. If these trends continue, the average global temperature will increase to a level which may lead to melting of polar ice caps and flooding of low lying areas all over the earth.

Increase in the global temperature increases the incidence of infectious diseases like dengue, malaria, yellow fever, sleeping sickness etc.

What can we do to reduce the rate of global warming?

If burning of fossil fuels, cutting down forests and trees add to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we must find ways to use these just efficiently and judiciously. One of the simple things which we can do to reduce global warming is to minimise the use of automobiles. Depending upon the situation, one can use bicycle, public transport system, or go for carpool.

We should plant more trees to increase the green cover. Avoid burning of dry leaves, wood etc. It is illegal to smoke in public places and work places, because it is harmful not only for the one who is smoking but also for others, and therefore, we should avoid it.

Many people do not understand the greenhouse effect and the global warming. We can help them by sharing the information that we have.

 

Acid rain

We are aware that normally rain water has a pH of 5.6 due to the presence of H+ ions formed by the reaction of rain water with carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere.

H2O (l)+ CO2 (g) → H2O3 (aq)

H2CO3 (aq) ↔ H+ (aq) + HCO3- (aq)

When the pH of the rain water drops below 5.6, it is called acid rain. Acid rain refers to the ways in which acid from the atmosphere is deposited on the earth’s surface.

Oxides of nitrogen and sulphur which are acidic in nature can be blown by wind along with solid particles in the atmosphere and finally settle down either on the ground as dry deposition or in water, fog and snow as wet deposition.

Acid rain is a byproduct of a variety of human activities that emit the oxides of sulphur and nitrogen in the atmosphere. As mentioned earlier, burning of fossil fuels (which contain sulphur and nitrogenous matter) such as coal and oil in power stations and furnaces or petrol and diesel in motor engines produce sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

SO2 and NO2 after oxidation and reaction with water are major contributors to acid rain, because polluted air usually contains particulate matter that catalyse the oxidation.

2SO2 (g) + O2 (g) + 2H2O (l) → 2H2SO4 (aq)

4NO2 (g) + O2 (g) + 2H2O (l) → 4HNO3 (aq)

Ammonium salts are also formed and can be seen as an atmospheric haze (aerosol of fine particles). Aerosol particles of oxides or ammonium salts in rain drops result in wetdeposition. SO2 is also absorbed directly on both solid and liquid ground surfaces and is thus deposited as dry-deposition. Acid rain is harmful for agriculture, trees and plants as it dissolves and washes away nutrients needed for their growth.

It causes respiratory ailments in human beings and animals. When acid rain falls and flows as ground water to reach rivers, lakes etc. it affects plants and animal life in aquatic ecosystem. It corrodes water pipes resulting in the leaching of heavy metals such as iron, lead and copper into the drinking water.

Acid rain damages buildings and other structures made of stone or metal. The Taj Mahal in India has been affected by acid rain.

 

Taj Mahal and Acid Rain

The air around the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, contains fairly high levels of sulphur and nitrogen oxides. It is mainly due to a large number of industries and power plants around the area. Use of poor quality of coal, kerosene and firewood as fuel for domestic purposes add up to this problem.

The resulting acid rain reacts with marble, CaCO3 of Taj Mahal (CaCO3 + H2SO4 → CaSO4 + H2O+ CO2) causing damage to this wonderful monument that has attracted people from around the world. As a result, the monument is being slowly disfigured and the marble is getting discoloured and lustreless.

The Government of India announced an action plan in early 1995 to prevent the disfiguring of this historical monument. Mathura refinery has already taken suitable measures to check the emission of toxic gases.

This plan aims at clearing the air in the ‘Taj Trapezium’– an area that includes the towns of Agra, Firozabad, Mathura and Bharatpur. Under this plan more than 2000 polluting industries lying inside the trapezium would switch over to the use of natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas instead of coal or oil.

A new natural gas pipeline would bring more than half a million cubic metres of natural gas a day to this area. People living in the city will also be encouraged to use liquefied petroleum gas in place of coal, kerosene or firewood. Vehicles plying on highways in the vicinity of Taj would be encouraged to use low sulphur content diesel.

 

Particulate Pollutants

Particulates pollutants are the minute solid particles or liquid droplets in air. These are present in vehicle emissions, smoke particles from fires, dust particles and ash from industries.

Particulates in the atmosphere may be viable or non-viable. The viable particulates e.g., bacteria, fungi, moulds, algae etc., are minute living organisms that are dispersed in the atmosphere.

Human beings are allergic to some of the fungi found in air. They can also cause plant diseases.

Non-viable particulates may be classified according to their nature and size as follows:

 

(a) Smoke particulates consist of solid or mixture of solid and liquid particles formed during combustion of organic matter. Examples are cigarette smoke, smoke from burning of fossil fuel, garbage and dry leaves, oil smoke etc.

(b) Dust is composed of fine solid particles (over 1μm in diameter), produced during crushing, grinding and attribution of solid materials. Sand from sand blasting, saw dust from wood works, pulverized coal, cement and fly ash from factories, dust storms etc., are some typical examples of this type of particulate emission.

(c) Mists are produced by particles of spray liquids and by condensation of vapours in air. Examples are sulphuric acid mist and herbicides and insecticides that miss their targets and travel through air and form mists.

(d) Fumes are generally obtained by the condensation of vapours during sublimation, distillation, boiling and several other chemical reactions. Generally, organic solvents, metals and metallic oxides form fume particles.

 

The effect of particulate pollutants are largely dependent on the particle size. Airborne particles such as dust, fumes, mist etc., are dangerous for human health.

Particulate pollutants bigger than 5 microns are likely to lodge in the nasal passage, whereas particles of about 10 micron enter into lungs easily.

Lead used to be a major air pollutant emitted by vehicles. Leaded petrol used to be the primary source of air-borne lead emission in Indian cities. This problem has now been overcome by using unleaded petrol in most of the cities in India. Lead interferes with the development and maturation of red blood cells.

 

Smog

The word smog is derived from smoke and fog. This is the most common example of air pollution that occurs in many cities throughout the world. There are two types of smog:

(a) Classical smog occurs in cool humid climate. It is a mixture of smoke, fog and sulphur dioxide. Chemically it is a reducing mixture and so it is also called as reducing smog.

(b) Photochemical smog occurs in warm, dry and sunny climate. The main components of the photochemical smog result from the action of sunlight on unsaturated hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides produced by automobiles and factories. Photochemical smog has high concentration of oxidising agents and is, therefore, called as oxidising smog.

 

Formation of photochemical smog

When fossil fuels are burnt, a variety of pollutants are emitted into the earth’s troposphere. Two of the pollutants that are emitted are hydrocarbons (unburnt fuels) and nitric oxide (NO).

When these pollutants build up to sufficiently high levels, a chain reaction occurs from their interaction with sunlight in which NO is converted into nitrogen dioxide (NO2). This NO2 in turn absorbs energy from sunlight and breaks up into nitric oxide and free oxygen atom.

NO2 (g) → NO (g) + O (g)                        ----------------(i)

Oxygen atoms are very reactive and combine with the O2 in air to produce ozone.

O(g) + O2 (g) ↔ O3 (g)                        ----------------(ii)

The ozone formed in the above reaction (ii) reacts rapidly with the NO(g) formed in the reaction (i) to regenerate NO2. NO2 is a brown gas and at sufficiently high levels can contribute to haze.

NO (g) + O3 (g) → NO2 (g) + O2 (g) ---------------(iii)

Ozone is a toxic gas and both NO2 and O3 are strong oxidising agents and can react with the unburnt hydrocarbons in the polluted air to produce chemicals such as formaldehyde, acrolein and peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN).

 

Effects of photochemical smog

The common components of photochemical smog are ozone, nitric oxide, acrolein, formaldehyde and peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN). Photochemical smog causes serious health problems. Both ozone and PAN act as powerful eye irritants.

Ozone and nitric oxide irritate the nose and throat and their high concentration causes headache, chest pain, dryness of the throat, cough and difficulty in breathing. Photochemical smog leads to cracking of rubber and extensive damage to plant life.

It also causes corrosion of metals, stones, building materials, rubber and painted surfaces.

How can photochemical smog be controlled?

Many techniques are used to control or reduce the formation of photochemical smog. If we control the primary precursors of photochemical smog, such as NO2 and hydrocarbons, the secondary precursors such as ozone and PAN, the photochemical smog will automatically be reduced.

Usually catalytic converters are used in the automobiles, which prevent the release of nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons to the atmosphere. Certain plants e.g., Pinus, Juniparus, Quercus, Pyrus and Vitis can metabolise nitrogen oxide and therefore, their plantation could help in this matter.

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