What is chemical pollution?
Generally speaking, pollutants found in our air are separated into three different types: particulate pollutants (also known as fine particles or PM), biological pollutants, and chemical pollutants. This article will be delving into chemical pollution. Read on to learn more about chemical pollutants, what they are, where they come from, and how we can protect ourselves from the dangers they pose.
What is chemical pollution?
Simply put, chemical pollution occurs when the environment becomes polluted with chemicals that are not naturally present. This article will be looking at chemicals found in the air. Most chemicals are man-made and can be found everywhere in products we use as they serve a variety of functions. There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals registered for use on the EU market, but our understanding of all of them is limited: there are only 500 chemicals that have been extensively assessed for safety; 10,000 that have been fairly well-assessed; 20,000 that have limited assessment; and 70,000 that have poor assessment1.
Scientists claim that the extent of chemical pollution on Earth has reached a level that is no longer safe for humanity, threatening the stability of ecosystems all around the globe. The effects of chemical pollution impact all biological and physical processes on our planet. The biggest concern is plastic, evidence of which can be found everywhere from all the way atop Mount Everest to the deepest depths of the ocean. Pesticides also menace biological life that are essential to the provision of clean air, water, and food. The production of chemicals has increased fiftyfold since 1950 and is expected to triple yet again by 2050, a threat that will continue to pollute our environment at a rate that will continue to send us past the point of no return if drastic measures are not taken quickly2.
Where do chemical pollutants come from?
Chemical pollutants have a variety of sources, but most are created by humans. They are typically categorised into organic pollutants and inorganic pollutants.
Organic pollutantsOrganic pollutants are of organic origin which, according to Environmental Pollution Centers, means that they are “produced by living organisms or based on matter formed by living organisms”3. The following list contains some of the most common organic pollutants:
- Petroleum refined products (i.e. gasoline, diesel, kerosene, mineral oil)
- Solvents (acetone, toluene, benzene) – used in both industrial and household applications
- Chlorinated solvents (PCE; TCE; 1,1,1-TCA) – used in industrial degreasing
- PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons) – found in petroleum products and as a result of burning coal and natural gas
- PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl ethers, now banned but still found in large quantities in the environment) – were used in transformers
- Alcohols (ethanol, methanol, isopropanol) – used in household products and a variety of other applications
- Trihalomethanes (chloroform, dibromochloromethane, bromoform) – found in water chlorination3
Other organic pollutants include plastics, pesticides/insecticides/herbicides, and detergents.
Inorganic pollutants are chemicals of mineral origin and are not produced by living organisms. Some of the most common inorganic pollutants include:
- Metals and their salts – found in mining and smelting industries
- Inorganic fertilisers (nitrates, phosphates) – found most commonly in agriculture and gardening; they are usually responsible for algae blooming
- Sulphides – found in mined minerals
- Ammonia – a highly toxic, poisonous gas
- Nitrogen and sulphur oxides – common air pollutants as a result of vehicle emissions and industrial processes
- Acids and bases – used in chemical laboratories
- Perchlorate – used in rocket fuel, military operations, and fireworks to name a few3
What are the dangers of chemical pollution?
The effects of chemical pollution can vary greatly depending upon the amount and type of exposure. Symptoms of exposure usually range from mild to deadly, from digestive, respiratory, and/or skin irritation to sudden death by intoxication. However, symptoms do not always occur immediately: it may take weeks or months for health effects to appear. The biggest problem posed by chemical pollution is that it is found in contaminated food, drinking water, and air. Aquatic environments are particularly vulnerable to long-term accumulation of chemical pollution, and without testing or intervention, humans or animals that consume contaminated seafood can experience mild or deadly chemical intoxication4.
Which chemicals found in our indoor air should we be the most concerned about?
The European Union has identified a list of five chemical air pollutants that are declared to be the most concerning based on their adverse health effects. These pollutants are often found in our indoor breathing air. They are as follows:
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Nicknamed “the silent killer”, carbon monoxide is a colourless and odourless gas that is released through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels like natural gas and petrol. It is also released through tobacco and heating systems that are not properly maintained. The main danger of CO is that it blocks oxygen in the blood from being delivered to other organs of the body. This may ultimately lead to brain damage and death under prolonged exposure.
A volatile organic compound (VOC), formaldehyde is a known carcinogen in humans. It is used most often for industrial and manufacturing purposes but can also be found in many home products like paint, insulation, adhesives, and pressed wood products (i.e. particleboard). It is also found in cigarette smoke. It is one of the most common chemical pollutants.
Benzene, a volatile liquid solvent, is most commonly found in petrol and has applications in the chemical industry. It is released by vehicle emissions and in cigarette smoke. It is carcinogenic.
Nitrogen oxides (NOx), including nitrogen oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), are highly reactive and usually colourless and odourless. They result from the burning of fossil fuels anywhere where fuels are burned, especially from vehicles, industrial manufacturing, and electric utilities, but they are also released as a result of residential fuel burning. Not only do they lead to health consequences, but they contribute to climate change, acid rain, and urban smog.
Another VOC, naphthalene is released when fossil fuels, tobacco, and wood are burned. It has multiple industrial uses such as dye and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Exposure to humans in large quantities can lead to the damage or destruction of red blood cells (hemolytic anaemia)5.
This is not an all-inclusive list of concerning indoor air pollutants. Others that merit our attention are radon, lead, organophosphate pesticides, and other VOCs. All of these chemicals can lead to adverse health effects like cancer and respiratory disease.
What can we do to reduce chemical pollution?
If we focus on chemical pollution in the air, there are a couple of major steps we can take to curtail our contributions to chemical pollution.
The first step is to stop burning fossil fuels and reduce smoking. Emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels is one of the main causes of climate change. It releases carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury, and sulphur dioxide into the air, leading to high levels of air pollution that cause respiratory disease, various types of cancer, and heart disease. Instead of using our individual vehicles for transportation, we can favour walking, biking, or public transportation; instead of burning coal and natural gas, we can favour solar, wind, and hydro-power. These steps will all decrease the amount of emissions released into the air.
Smoking (firsthand, secondhand, and thirdhand) penetrates our breathing air and contributes to air pollution, but in doing so, it can cause heart disease, aggravate respiratory illnesses, and lead to multiple cancers (among other adverse health effects). Read more about the impact of smoking on air quality here.
We can also reduce the use of agricultural chemicals and burning of residues. Ammonia, NOx, and nitrogen oxides are all emitted as a result of intensive agriculture. These chemicals are major contributors to poor air quality and air pollution. Statistics from 2018 show that 80% of ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions around the world come from agriculture. Furthermore, in some European countries, emissions caused by nitrogen compounds from agriculture contribute up to 40% of all air pollution-related mortality6. Burning agricultural residues is also fairly common practice in developing countries, contributing even further to nitrogen emissions. The following map shows anthropogenic nitrogen inputs (emissions) by country measured based on main river catchment samples:
7 "Our Nutrient World"
Alternatives to industrial fertilisers exist: applying agroecological practices such as using manure produced by livestock rather than made with chemicals is a great way to reduce overall nitrogen emissions. Avoiding the burning of any agricultural or plant residue is an important practice as well that must be encouraged; this includes burning waste performed in your yard such as cut branches or mowed grass.
Finally, choose your products wisely. Indoor air pollutants such as emissions from building materials, and household products such as cleaning agents, sprays, perfumes, and air fresheners should be controlled and limited wherever possible. Always look for natural solutions before going out and purchasing items (such as paint, solvents, and textiles) that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and maintain proper ventilation in your home by opening windows and doors regularly to push out stale air (but only do so during periods of low outdoor air pollution to avoid bringing more polluted air into your space). Another option is investing in an air purifier as a way to control these pollutants and protect your health.
Protect yourself from chemical pollution in your air with Eoleaf
Even when doing your best to reduce your contributions to chemical and other types of pollution found in our breathing air, the situation is often out of our hands. We are, as a result, forced to breathe polluted air on a daily basis, causing adverse short-term and long-term health effects. Take back control of your health by purchasing an air purifier that will protect you from all three types of air pollution: chemical, biological, and fine particles. Eoleaf’s air purifiers offer the most advanced filtration technologies on today’s market, including HEPA-certified filters, activated carbon filters, UV sterilisation, photocatalysis, and ionisation. Activated carbon and photocatalysis are particularly effective against chemical pollution. With 8 types of filtration in one device, our air purifiers can filter out all particles up to PM0.1, germs (bacteria and viruses), moulds and spores, and allergens (pollen, dust mites, and pet dander). Start breathing pure, pollutant-free air today with Eoleaf.
1 The unknown territory of chemical risks. European Environment Agency. (2020, November 23). Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://www.eea.europa.eu/soer/2020/soer-2020-visuals/the-unknown-territory-of-chemical-risks/view
2 Carrington, D. (2022, January 18). Chemical pollution has passed safe limit for humanity, say scientists. The Guardian. Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jan/18/chemical-pollution-has-passed-safe-limit-for-humanity-say-scientists
3 Chemical pollution causes. Environmental Pollution Centers. (2023). Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://www.environmentalpollutioncenters.org/chemical/causes/
4 What is chemical pollution: Environmental Pollution Centers. What Is Chemical Pollution | Environmental Pollution Centers. (2023). Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://www.environmentalpollutioncenters.org/chemical/
5 EU Public Health. (2008). Indoor Air Quality. Indoor Air Quality: 6. Which chemicals found in indoor air are causing the most concern? Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/opinions_layman/en/indoor-air-pollution/l-2/6-harmful-chemicals.htm
6 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. (2018, June 4). World Environment Day celebrations highlight nitrogen pollution, including work under the UNECE Air Convention. UNECE. Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://unece.org/environment/news/world-environment-day-celebrations-highlight-nitrogen-pollution-including-work
7 Sutton M.A. et al., (2013), Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. Global Overview of Nutrient Management. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh on behalf of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management and the International Nitrogen Initiative.
8 Carrington, D. (2022, December 8). 'Eco' wood burners produce 450 times more pollution than gas heating – report. The Guardian. Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/dec/08/eco-wood-burners-produce-450-times-more-pollution-than-gas-heating-report