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Lessen Air Pollution: Innovative Measures to Clean the World

Discover innovative solutions and effective policy measures to lessen air pollution. Let's contribute to cleaner air for a healthier planet.

What are we doing to lessen air pollution? On Friday, December 5, 1952, fog descended on the city of London. Instead of burning off, it lingered through the day, thickened at night, and then hung over the city until the following Tuesday. It was so thick in places that people could not see their hands before their faces. But this was no ordinary fog–it was smog, a combination of smoke and haze that killed at least 4,000 people (and a number of cows) and sickened many more.

In the West, at least, we don't see pollution events like that anymore. After the Great Smog, the United Kingdom forced the adaptation of smokeless fuels. However, smog events still occur with some frequency in China, especially in northern industrial cities. China's clean air campaign, however, has reduced pollution there by at least 40%, but it's not quite enough yet.

Air pollution threatens human and animal health, and while we have made much progress, it is still present. Just as innovations and policies have kept London from experiencing another deadly smog event, continuing innovations and policies will help lessen air pollution further. This article will help you understand air pollution and how innovations and policies are helping clean up our cities. It will also help you understand what you can do to help.

Understanding air pollution

Air pollution is defined as contamination of indoor or outdoor air by a chemical, physical, or biological agent that modifies natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Air pollution can impact climate change both by worsening it and, paradoxically, by mitigating it. But, the effects of air pollution also cause respiratory disease and increase morbidity and mortality on a social scale. It harms wildlife, pets, and livestock.

Types and sources of air pollution

There are a variety of things that can pollute or contaminate the air. The main types of air pollution are:

  1. Particulate matter (PM). This includes dust, ash, and pollen. In the summer of 2023, wildfires in Canada caused major air pollution events in swathes of the Midwest as well as the East Coast from Vermont and New Hampshire down to the Carolinas. At one point, New York City was experiencing the worst air quality in the world. This kind of pollution has always been common in fire country, but climate change increases the acreage burned and the range smoke can be transmitted. PM falls into different sizes, the most common being PM2.5 (typically ash or soot from incomplete coal combustion) and PM10 (pollen and dust). Ultrafine particles are even smaller and are produced by furnaces and vehicles.
  2. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2). NO2 comes from high-temperature combustion, that is to say, from internal combustion engines, boilers, furnaces, gas stoves, and power generation.
  3. Ozone. Ozone is part of smog and is formed by photochemical reactions with pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides produced by vehicles and industry. Poor ozone days tend to happen on bright (but not necessarily) warm days.
  4. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a significant pollutant produced by stoves, open fires, furnaces, and motor vehicles.
  5. Radon. Radon is a radioactive gas that filters through the ground in some places. It tends to concentrate in the lower levels of buildings.
  6. Other chemicals. Other common air pollutants include lead, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Many of these come from the same sources, and a lot of air pollution could be dealt with by reducing specific things and activities.

Common sources of air pollution

  1. Transportation. Internal combustion and jet engines produce NO2, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and the precursors to generate ozone. This is why air quality is worse in cities with bad traffic. Aviation can leave these pollutants high in the atmosphere.
  2. Industry. Factories, generators powered by fossil fuels, chemical plants, etc, produce a lot of air pollution. This can spread over a wide area downwind of the plant and can cause health problems for people and animals in the area.
  3. Offgassing from building materials. The materials in a home or office can produce chemicals such as formaldehyde that reduce indoor air quality, depending on how they are made. Lead paint can produce lead particles, as can ammunition.
  4. Furnaces, boilers, fireplaces, and gas stoves. Burning a fire indoors is great, but it can increase air pollution inside your home. So can cooking with a gas stove. Poorly vented stoves and space heaters can all produce various pollutants, especially particulate matter.
  5. Wildfires, at certain times of the year and in certain places.
  6. The ground and environment, as with the emanation of radon from rock and soil.
Major wildfire in the forest, lots of smoke causes major air pollution.

Health and environmental impacts: why we need to lessen air pollution

Human health can be impacted by air pollution in many ways, and it can be deadly or contribute to death. The most common impacts are:

  1. Triggering or worsening of asthma and allergy-type symptoms.
  2. Lung disease or loss of lung function.
  3. Lung cancer, particularly from radon (which is the second most common cause of lung cancer after smoking) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are produced by diesel engines, wood-burning stoves, and cooking meat.
  4. Eye and throat irritation, which can persist for a while after exposure
  5. Increased risk of cardiovascular problems, including heart disease and elevated blood pressure
  6. Reproductive problems in both men and women

Lead and carbon monoxide both present specific problems. Lead is dangerous to developing nervous systems and can cause reduced IQ, hyperactivity, stunted growth, hearing problems, and anemia in children. Carbon monoxide causes flu-like symptoms such as difficulty breathing and fatigue and can be deadly at high levels. Keeping your air clean helps with your health overall. In fact, air pollution has been shown to reduce global life expectancy by more than two years.

Air pollution also has environmental consequences. For example, ozone stunts growth in some plants and makes them more vulnerable to disease - notably black cherry, quaking aspen, tulip poplar, white pine, ponderosa pine, and red alder. This can change the composition of a forest, impacting the entire ecosystem. Black carbon, a major component of PM that primarily comes from diesel engines and wildfires, is a potent warming agent that accelerates glacier melting. While some air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, may help lower global temperatures, producing more is a short-sighted way to tackle the problem. The effects of air pollution on ecosystems vary, but animals can also be affected by lung disease, cancer, and eye and throat irritation, impacting food chains.

Innovations in air quality monitoring to lessen air pollution

The first step to lessen air pollution is to understand the extent of the problem. In the past, the only way to observe pollution events was to look at them literally and assess excess deaths and other health impacts.

However, we now have sensors that can detect chemicals, particulate matter, and even pollen in the air. Air quality reports and pollen levels are routinely provided in weather forecasts.

Advanced sensors and technology

Air quality is monitored through stations strategically located to provide information to local residents, researchers, and/or the owners of potential sources of pollution, such as factories.

A typical air quality monitoring station bristles with sensors. For example, lasers are used to scan the density of particulate matter, while other sensors are designed to analyze air for the presence of common pollutants such as NO2 or ozone. Carbon monoxide detectors work the same way and are routinely used to test indoor pollution levels. Satellites are also used to monitor air quality over wide areas.

One significant innovation is in the area of cost. Air quality sensors have become smaller and cheaper, now allowing them to be deployed globally. However, low-income countries are still behind. For example, the NPS is now using monitors that cost only $260 and only require electricity and WiFi. This means that people can, in fact, easily purchase and deploy these sensors on their own property.

The Internet of Things takes this a step further. Because these types of sensors connect to the internet, they can be networked to improve air quality monitoring. While low-cost monitors are not always as accurate as more expensive ones, using multiple sensors helps even out those problems.

Factory owners and power plant managers can use fenceline monitoring technology to help them spot problems with their emissions and areas where they can reduce "fugitive emissions," which escape from processes or equipment leaks rather than coming out of the smokestack.

All of this comes together to increase monitoring and help people make the right decisions for their health. For example, individuals with asthma may want to avoid outdoor exercise on days when the air quality is poor. Personal air quality monitoring stations are now something that can be put together relatively cheaply and easily.

 A small air quality sensor placed on a table indoors indicating a minimal amount of air pollution

Cutting-edge technologies to lessen air pollution

In the 1950s, the cutting-edge technology was smokeless fuel. Now, we have come a lot further, and we have a variety of technologies that can reduce emissions and keep the air clean.

Electric Vehicles (EV)

Fully electric vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions. Hybrid vehicles produce fewer or no emissions in the situations in which motor vehicles produce the most pollution, such as when stuck in traffic. EVs are thus a major way to reduce emissions, and they are becoming more popular. In addition to being clean, EV trucks have more power at the low end, making them excellent tow vehicles. If you charge at home and only drive a short distance, such as a commute, you can avoid ever stopping for gas. They are also often cheaper and lower maintenance.

EVs are, of course, affected by the source of the electricity used to power them. If your area uses a lot of fossil fuels, then you are, to some extent, moving pollution around. However, this is still better than high levels of tailpipe emissions in cities and neighborhoods. One of the things slowing EV adoption is charging infrastructure. Full EVs have ranges that run from 80 to 350 miles before they need to be recharged. A fast charger can charge a vehicle in twenty minutes if you can find one.

When charging from the mains, these batteries generally charge overnight. Fortunately, public EV chargers are becoming more common and can be found in places that range from gas stations to shopping malls to restaurants along the freeway. In some cities, neighbors are getting together to go in on a fast charging station.

EVs are thus becoming more and more convenient, and battery range continues to expand.

Electric car charging at charging station.jpg

Clean energy sources

Power plants are a major source of air pollution. The more of the grid can be switched to clean sources such as solar and wind, the better. Historically, the problem with solar and wind is that they can be unpredictable, producing too much energy at times and too little at others. Many power companies thus use a combination with a fossil fuel plant backing up solar and wind farms. Geothermal energy is more predictable but is not available everywhere.

New energy storage innovations are, however, helping. In the past, these options included batteries, pumped-storage hydropower (using renewable energy to pump water uphill when energy demand is low, or production is high and then using the water to run turbines when demand is high. However, innovations in battery storage are key, with residential energy storage systems becoming increasingly popular (and cheaper) over time.

The use of solar power to generate hydrogen fuel to be burned later is also starting to be seriously explored.


Green building design

Air pollution is not just an outdoor thing. In fact, indoor air pollution can have even worse impacts on health, especially in the winter or during heatwaves, when people stay indoors. Climate change is creating colder winters in some places and more heatwaves, potentially driving people indoors even more.

Eco-friendly buildings mitigate this by measures that range from simple substitutions, such as using low-VoC paint instead of regular paint, to building a high-quality ventilation system from the start. A good ventilation system both improves indoor air quality and significantly reduces the energy the building uses. Designing to use more natural light also helps reduce energy.

Existing buildings can be improved by simple measures such as better filters, restoring the ability to open windows, and using materials that don't exhaust pollutants.

Policy measures for air quality improvement

The government has an important role to play. Unfortunately, many businesses won't take measures to lessen air pollution or improve air quality in their buildings without a nudge from regulators.

Government regulations

The most comprehensive air quality law passed in the United States was the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, which authorizes the EPA to establish ambient air quality standards and regulate emissions. The EPA is authorized to inspect sources of pollution, require pollution controls to be installed in new and modified facilities, and enforce compliance through fines.

Sometimes, however, local jurisdictions can have a higher impact. For example, Virginia has a comprehensive set of laws and regulations to help control air pollution and emissions, including helping local communities set up open burning ordinances. Specific local situations, such as high radon levels, are often best dealt with locally, but national standards help with power plant emissions.

Emission reduction targets

Another tool governments use is to set targets for greenhouse gas reduction. The EPA assists organizations in setting public greenhouse gas reduction targets, which helps encourage innovation and provide accountability.

Countries and jurisdictions all over the world are setting targets. For example, Bogota, Columbia, aims to lessen air pollution by 10 percent by 2024, which includes electrifying public transit. While not everyone is meeting their targets, public targets provide accountability for voters and stakeholders.

Urban planning and transportation

Reducing the number of cars can lessen air pollution. This means discouraging people from driving or, better yet, making driving unnecessary. Some countries use the stick approach of congestion taxes in cities, including London. Others are investing heavily in improved public transportation networks and often electrifying buses. Streetcars have reappeared in many European cities.

The idea of the 15-minute city, where neighborhoods are designed so that everything you need is within a 15-minute walk, helps at least the younger and able-bodied stay out of cars. Buffered bike lanes have also become more common, making cycling safer along busy roads.

Young female professional taking a bicycle to work in the city

Health impacts and public awareness

Many people don't understand how air quality impacts them or their health, but it's vital for people to learn.

Health education and awareness

Without education, people are likely to become sicker from air quality, especially in large cities, and the impact of climate change causes different kinds of pollution events. How can you protect yourself? Some tips:

  • Monitor air quality forecasts in your area.
  • If air quality is poor, avoid strenuous activity out of doors.
  • If you have to go outside in poor air quality, wear a well-fitted N95 or KN-95 mask.
  • Use low-VOC paint in your home.
  • Replace your HVAC filters as needed.
  • If radon is an issue in your area, get your home tested and talk to a contractor about radon mitigation.
  • Switch to an electric stove if possible. If not, make sure the stove vent is well-maintained, and the kitchen is well-ventilated while cooking.
  • Get a carbon monoxide detector or more than one. Put one on every floor, including the basement, within ten feet of each bedroom door and near or over your garage. Replace every few years.

Protecting yourself from poor air quality should be second nature. Part of this is understanding the air quality index.

Air Quality Index (AQI)

The AQI is used in weather forecasts to inform the public of the levels of air pollution in their area at a given time. It is based on five major pollutants: Ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. (It does not include pollen, which is measured separately). The AQI value runs from 0 (no pollution) to 500. However, it is made easier to read by using a color scale.

Here's how to read the scale:

  • Green or Good - Air quality is satisfactory, and there is little or no risk of pollution.
  • Yellow or Moderate - Air quality is acceptable. Unusually sensitive people should take precautions.
  • Orange or Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups - People with health issues such as asthma may be affected. The general public is less so.
  • Red or Unhealthy - People with health issues or sensitivity may experience serious health effects. Other people may also experience effects.
  • Purple or Very Unhealthy - Health risks increase for everyone
  • Maroon or Hazardous - In emergency conditions, everyone is more likely to be affected.

If your area reaches maroon, you should stay indoors as much as possible. And if your home is not well sealed, you may find you have to wear a mask indoors! Bear in mind that these levels are also unhealthy for your pets and livestock. Some sites will show AQI split by pollutant. This is useful at Yellow or Orange levels if you know certain pollutants affect you.

What individuals can do to lessen air pollution

Most air pollution is created by industry. However, there are things you can do to reduce your personal contribution.

You can also do your share to lessen air pollution by:

  • Driving less. Walk, cycle, or use public transportation. Only get in the car if you're going further or have a lot of stuff to move.
  • Flying less. Take the train for shorter trips, and consider how necessary your flight is.
  • Switching to electricity for cooking and heating, if possible.
  • Keep your car in good repair. Properly inflate your tires. Refuel properly, and always tighten your gas cap.
  • Make your next new car an EV or, if the infrastructure is poor, a hybrid.
  • Don't burn garbage, especially plastic.
  • Use electric or hand-powered lawn equipment.
  • Use low-VoC paint and cleaning products.
  • Buy energy-efficient appliances and electronics.
  • Mulch or compost leaves and yard waste.

On bad air quality days, try to avoid driving altogether, combine errands to reduce trips, and avoid burning anything.

Solar farm on big, open land

Consider community solar

We're past the days when smog killed thousands of people in London. But air pollution is still with us. Thankfully, innovations in monitoring and mitigation continue to reduce it. You can help by driving less, using less electricity, and considering supporting community solar in your state—which can also help save you money off your electricity bills!

Get matched to a local solar farm and save on your electricity costs.