By air pollution we mean the presence, in the air, of one or more substances that alter the composition and equilibrium of the atmosphere, causing harmful effects for humans, animals, plants and for the environment. In order to protect our Planet and its inhabitants we should not pollute the air. By adopting small daily actions, like switching off the lights when they are no longer required, using the car only if it is necessary, recycling waste, and by not exaggerating when heating or cooling environments where we live, we can avoid releasing into the atmosphere  those gases that are responsible for pollution, that provoke acid rain,  ozone depletion, and the greenhouse effect. How important a small gesture can be! 

Air pollution takes place when chemicals contaminate the atmosphere affecting its structure and composition and producing significant harmful effects on human health, animals, vegetation and environmental quality.

Air pollutants can be classified according to their origin:

  • anthropogenic (man-made) sources, which are the result of various human activities;
  • natural sources such as fire particles, volcanic eruptions and degradation of organic matter.

Contaminants can also be classified as:

  • primary pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide or nitrogen monoxide, which are directly emitted into the atmosphere from its sources;
  • secondary pollutants, as ozone, which are formed as a result of chemical reactions in the atmosphere.

Anthropogenic pollution is caused by major stationary point sources as industries, incinerators and thermoelectric plants, minor stationary point sources as domestic heating systems, and by mobile point sources such as vehicular traffic.

Consequences of air pollution

Some pollutants, if they are present in excessive quantities, can produce chemical and physical alterations of the air, hampering its capacity to “work” correctly and guarantee our survival functions. Men’s activity usually originates pollutants (anthropogenic origin), although in some cases natural sources contribute significantly. Most of human-origin air pollution derives either from fossil fuels (their combustion is necessary to produce energy) or from industrial chemical processes. 

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Air monitoring

To shape national development on the principle of environmental sustainability it’s compulsory to refer to a comprehensive environment status report regarding specific geographical areas within each national district in order to define and implement a set of measures (which can be defined as “environmental policies”). At a later stage, the causes of environmental decay should be identified and a concrete set of measures should be pushed forward to stimulate environmental recovery and limit or abolish pollution sources. 

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Italian Legislation

Law N. 615 of July 13, 1966, “Measures against Environmental Pollution” is the first Italian systematic law on environmental pollution and defines fresh air as a public good that needs to be protected through restrictions. The latter was replaced by Decree N. 203 of May 24, 1988 of the President of the Republic (DPR) meeting four European guidelines on air quality and pollution. The subsequent 203/88 Presidential Decree laid the real foundation for Italian legislation until the implementation in 1999 of the European Framework Directive on “Ambient Air Quality Monitoring and Management”. 

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The “photochemical smog” is a typical form of pollution of all the main urban and industrial areas of the world. It occurs in or near areas with a high traffic density, in the presence of specific climatic conditions (no wind or weak winds, high temperatures, etc.), that cause the concentration of polluting gases to increase and prevent them from dispersing. In these areas, the concentrations of some gases (tropospheric ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate, VOC, nitrogen oxides, etc.) very often exceed the threshold values, above which there are risks for human health, farming and natural vegetation.

Atmospheric dust

Atmospheric dust consists of a mixture of solid and liquid particles suspened in the atmosphere varying in composition, source and size. Atmospheric dust particles can be removed out of the atmosphere by dry and wet deposition and fall back on soil, vegetation or watercourses. Atmospheric dust particles can be classified according to their diameter (measured in micrometers or µm. 1000 micrometers equivalent to 1 millimeter) ranging from 0,005 to 100 µm. 

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Benzene is a molecule composed of 6 carbon atoms joined in a ring and 6 hydrogen atoms. Benzene is classified as a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH). It’s a liquid substance, but at high temperatures it has a rapid volatilization process passing from a liquid phase into a gas phase. Benzene is either natural and can, for example, be generated by volcanic eruptions or is man-made. In urban centres benzene is almost exclusively generated by human activities as vehicular traffic, oil-refining and fuel distribution. 

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Acid deposition

The term acid deposition refers to the process by which acid particles, gases and precipitation fall from the atmosphere. If this acid deposition takes place in the form of precipitation (rain, snow, fog, dew, etc.) we speak of wet deposition, otherwise the phenomenon is dry deposition. The term 'acid rain' can also be used to describe these phenomena, by which, however, only the phenomenon of wet acid deposition is often referred to.
The substances that give rise to acid deposition are sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides NOx), whose origin in the atmosphere can be either anthropogenic or natural. 

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Ozone (O3) is a gas found in in high levels in the stratosphere, in a region also known as the ozone layer, between 15,000 and 40,000 metres above the surface where it plays an important role screening the sun’s ultraviolet radiations which are harmful for living organisms. In the past years stratospheric ozone levels have declined due to the effect of anthropogenic substances, as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), methyl bromide, halon gases and methyl chloroform. Once these gases reach the stratosphere they emit chlorine and bromine, which affect ozone formation.

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We have seen that atmospheric pollution derives from a series of substances that are produced by one or more “sources” (industries, cars and others). Luckily, after a more or less long time spent in the atmosphere, nature can “remove” a certain amount of it. For instance, the carbon dioxide produced by the combustion of fossil fuels and by the breathing of animal and vegetal living organisms is absorbed not only by the vegetation (through the photosynthesis), but is also largely counteracted by seawater, that can fix it through the phytoplankton and stabilise it in carbonated sedimentary rocks. The composition of the atmosphere is therefore in a state of dynamic balance, whose stability depends on the ability of these “self-depuration” processes to counteract or at least reduce the negative effects of man’s activities. The problem arises when the amounts of pollutants emitted in the atmosphere exceed its “self-depurating” ability, increase their concentrations in the air and reach limits that are harmful to man and to nature. In this case, the development model of man and of a country may be no longer “sustainable” in the long term.


Urban pollution

Most Italian cities are affected by urban pollution, which is a major problem. This is demonstrated by data from monitoring stations measuring pollutant concentration. Even in those cities and areas where these stations are lacking we can feel the air is polluted as we experience breathing difficulties or problems. Traffic is currently the main source of pollution in every city. Domestic heating emissions are another major pollution cause during winter.

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Actions to make a difference

What can you do to help reduce air pollution and contrast anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentration? International organisations, national governments and industries can contribute to curb pollutant emissions and “greenhouse gases” enacting specific environmental measures. In many countries excellent results have already been achieved and industries are paying increasing attention to effectively reduce pollutant emissions.

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Air pollution

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