The Habitable PlanetHabitable Planet home page

Unit 11: Atmospheric Pollution // Section 3: Primary Air Pollutants

Primary air pollutants are emitted directly into the air from sources. They can have effects both directly and as precursors of secondary air pollutants (chemicals formed through reactions in the atmosphere), which are discussed in the following section.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a gas formed when sulfur is exposed to oxygen at high temperatures during fossil fuel combustion, oil refining, or metal smelting. SO2 is toxic at high concentrations, but its principal air pollution effects are associated with the formation of acid rain and aerosols. SO2 dissolves in cloud droplets and oxidizes to form sulfuric acid (H2SO4), which can fall to Earth as acid rain or snow or form sulfate aerosol particles in the atmosphere. Associated impacts are discussed below in Section 5, "Aerosols," and Section 7, "Acid Deposition."

Nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2, referred together as NOx) are highly reactive gases formed when oxygen and nitrogen react at high temperatures during combustion or lightning strikes. Nitrogen present in fuel can also be emitted as NOx during combustion. Emissions are dominated by fossil fuel combustion at northern mid-latitudes and by biomass burning in the tropics. Figure 4 shows the distribution of NOx emissions to the atmosphere in 2006 as determined by satellite measurements of atmospheric NO2 concentrations.

In the atmosphere NOx reacts with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon monoxide to produce ground-level ozone through a complicated chain reaction mechanism. It is eventually oxidized to nitric acid (HNO3). Like sulfuric acid, nitric acid contributes to acid deposition and to aerosol formation.

Satellite observations of tropospheric NO2, 2006

Figure 4. Satellite observations of tropospheric NO2, 2006
See larger image

Source: Courtesy Jim Gleason, USA and Pepijn Veefkind, KNMI, National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas formed by incomplete combustion of carbon in fuel. The main source is motor vehicle exhaust, along with industrial processes and biomass burning. Carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin in red blood cells, reducing their ability to transport and release oxygen throughout the body. Low exposures can aggravate cardiac ailments, while high exposures cause central nervous system impairment or death. It also plays a role in the generation of ground-level ozone, discussed below in Section 4.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including hydrocarbons (CxHy) but also other organic chemicals are emitted from a very wide range of sources, including fossil fuel combustion, industrial activities, and natural emissions from vegetation and fires. Some anthropogenic VOCs such as benzene are known carcinogens.

VOCs are also of interest as chemical precursors of ground-level ozone and aerosols, as discussed below in Sections 4 and 5. The importance of VOCs as precursors depends on their chemical structure and atmospheric lifetime, which can vary considerably from compound to compound. Large VOCs oxidize in the atmosphere to produce nonvolatile chemicals that condense to form aerosols. Short-lived VOCs interact with NOx to produce high ground-level ozone in polluted environments. Methane (CH4), the simplest and most long-lived VOC, is of importance both as a greenhouse gas (Section 11) and as a source of background tropospheric ozone. Major anthropogenic sources of methane include natural gas production and use, coal mining, livestock, and rice paddies.

top of page

© Annenberg Foundation 2014. All rights reserved. Legal Policy