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Healthy Living

How to Clean up Air

Air is special to our planet. Air is the breath of life. It has other functions. Sound travels through air. Smell is carried by air. Air plays an important role in weather control.

We know air is a mixture of gases. The normal composition of air by volume is approximately Nitrogen 78.1 percent, Oxygen 20.93 percent and Carbon dioxide 0.03 percent. The balance is made up of other gases, like Argon, neon, krypton, xenon and helium which occur in traces. In addition to these, it contains water vapour, traces of ammonia and suspended matter such as dust, bacteria, spores and vegetable debris.

There is no 'pure air'. So what is air pollution?

Actually, air has never been pure. Foreign substances have been present in the air at all times and everywhere. Even without industrial activity, just the presence of life is enough to make air impure. The bright side is that despite respiration of men and animals, decomposition of organic matter, air in open spaces can keep its composition remarkably constant This happens because of self cleansing mechanisms which operate in nature such as the movement of air, atmospheric temperature, sunlight and rain. The presence of plant life also recharges the purity of air.

When the foreign matter level in the atmosphere becomes too much, as it is in the urban areas in India, the air becomes harmful to man and his environment. The built-in cleansing process of air becomes ineffective. This is when air is said to be polluted and polluted air poses health hazards.

Sources of air pollution

Air pollution is one of the negative aspects of industrialisation. Every industrialised nation pollutes air. However, in poorer countries, less resources in terms of money and effort are spent on precautionary methods. There is overpopulation, fewer green belts and machinery is often not well maintained to minimise pollution.

The air we breathe carries residues from the following sources:

  1. Burning: Smoke, dust and sulphur dioxide emanating from industrial and domestic combustion of coal, oil and other fuel pollute the air.
  2. Polluting Industries: Chemical, metallurgical industries, oil refineries, fertiliser factories.
  3. Modern transport: Motor vehicles are the major source of air pollution in the urban areas. Motor vehicles, trucks, trains, aircraft and other forms of transport contribute to air pollution by emitting hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. In strong sunlight some of these hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen may be converted in the atmosphere into a photochemical pollutant of an oxidising nature. The problem becomes worse in poorly maintained vehicles.
  4. Burning of refuse and Nuclear programs: also contribute to air pollution.

The hazards of air pollution

The Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal was a tragedy of gargantuan proportions and the loss of life and damage to survivors resulting from it cannot be easily forgotten. The nerve gas attack on the Japanese metro was another shocking incident. We know that human activity involves the handling of many hazardous chemicals. There is always the possibility that gross human error or diabolism can unleash a disaster. Education and awareness can help avoid these.

Long term effects of the slow but surely increasing toxicity is pretty serious too. We are all contributing to this, and suffering too, in an inevitable cycle. Air pollution, not surprisingly, affects the respiratory system. Diseases like chronic bronchitis and primary lung cancer are suspected to be related to long term inhalation of polluted air.

Plants and Animals: Unfortunately, mankind's industrial progress has not been very beneficial to the other lives that share the planet with him. Plants are very sensitive to sulphur dioxide, fluorine compounds, smog etc. Spotting and burning of leaves, destruction of crops, and retarded growth of plants have been observed. Flourides are very toxic to animals. Cattle suffer by eating foliage contaminated with fluorides.

Fringe problems: Building grills corrode. Buildings get grimy. Your white clothes don't remain white if you travel in open vehicles in any Indian metro. There is always a bad odour hanging in the air.

Prevention and Control
  • Check it at source. There should be a check on releasing toxic substances in the air. Arrestors are available to contain pollution for many kinds of machinery and processes.

    What you can do:

    If you are an industrialist, find efficient ways to contain air pollution in your unit. If you are a resident of an apartment where an inverter is used as an alternative source of electricity, abide by pollution control standards. Have your vehicle checked for emission control. Don't burn ,or permit burning, of tyres or discarded substances, near your house.

  • Modernise. Change polluting machinery or implement a more refined process / machinery. Increased use of electricity and natural gas in place of coal is an example of replacement.

    What you can do:

    In households we have replaced coal choolas with LPG. Try solar panel alternatives.

  • Recharge. This is a slow but sure process. It aids the self cleansing property of the environment. The establishment of green belts between industrial and residential areas is an attempt at recharging.

    What you can do:

    • Plant or nurture at least one tree in your lifetime.

    • Protect yourself. The use of a mask and scarf while driving in crowded places filters out at least the solid impurities.

    • Disinfect. Better ventilation can diffuse the concentration of bacteria. Sterilised atmospheres like operating theatres use U-V light to control infection.


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