The Habitable PlanetHabitable Planet home page

Unit 11: Atmospheric Pollution // Section 1: Introduction

The first week of December 1952 was unusually cold in London, so residents burned large quantities of coal in their fireplaces to keep warm. Early on December 5, moisture in the air began condensing into fog near the ground. The fog mixed with smoke from domestic fires and emissions from factories and diesel-powered buses. Normally the fog would have risen higher in the atmosphere and dispersed, but cold air kept it trapped near the ground. Over the next four days, the smog became so thick and dense that many parts of London were brought to a standstill.

Public officials did not realize that the Great Smog was the most deadly air pollution event on record until mortality figures were published several weeks afterward. Some 4,000 people died in London between December 5-9 of illnesses linked to respiratory problems such as bronchitis and pneumonia, and the smog's effects caused another 8,000 deaths over the next several months. Samples showed that victims' lungs contained high levels of very fine particles, including carbon material and heavy metals such as lead, zinc, tin, and iron.

Air pollution was not news in 1952—London's air had been famously smoky for centuries—but the Great Smog showed that it could be deadly. The event spurred some of the first governmental actions to reduce emissions from fuel combustion, industrial operations, and other manmade sources.

Over the past half-century, scientists have learned much more about the causes and impacts of atmospheric pollution. Many nations have greatly reduced their emissions, but the problem is far from solved. In addition to threatening human health, air pollutants damage ecosystems, weaken Earth's stratospheric ozone shield, and contribute to global climate change (Fig. 1).

Air pollution on the Autobaun in Germany, 2005

Figure 1. Air pollution on the Autobaun in Germany, 2005
See larger image

Source: Courtesy Zakysant. Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License.

Understanding of pollutants is still evolving, but we have learned enough to develop emission control policies that can limit their harmful effects. Some major pollutants contribute to both air pollution and global climate change, so reducing these emissions has the potential to deliver significant benefits. To integrate air pollution and climate change strategies effectively, policy makers need extensive information about key pollutants and their interactions.

This unit describes the most important types of pollutants affecting air quality and the environment. It also summarizes some widely used technical and policy options for controlling atmospheric pollution, and briefly describes important laws and treaties that regulate air emissions. For background on the structure and composition of the atmosphere and atmospheric circulation patterns, see Unit 2, "Atmosphere"; for more on global climate change, especially the role of CO2, see Unit 2 and Unit 12, "Earth's Changing Climate."

top of page


© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy