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Air Pollutants

There are many types of air pollutants. The exact composition and concentration of
pollutants depend on the source activity or process, the type of fuel and/or chemicals
involved, and in some cases the meteorological conditions under which the pollutant is
emitted. Air pollutants are pervasive, and are responsible for a range of adverse health
and environmental effects. These pollutants include hydrocarbons (HC), carbon
monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2),
ozone, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and toxic air
contaminants such as lead (Pb). Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous
oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), and high-global warming potential gases (e.g.,
perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons, nitrogen trifluoride,
hydrofluoroethers, and ozone depleting substances) have been implicated in global
warming effects. Sources of air pollution also emit quantities of other substances which
are often referred to collectively as toxic or “hazardous” air pollutants (HAPs). These
pollutants can have more serious health impacts than some of the general pollutants,
depending on the level of exposure. In many cases, toxic pollutants constitute a small
fraction of the total HC or PM emissions.

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Greenhouse Gases

One of the key contributors to global warming is the increased emissions of greenhouse
gases (GHGs). When solar radiation passes into the Earth’s atmosphere, most is absorbed
by the Earth and some is reradiated back into the atmosphere. GHGs trap the heat, keep it
from passing through the atmosphere to space, thus causing the lower atmosphere to
warm. Some GHGs occur naturally in the atmosphere, while others are emitting strictly
by human activity.

CO2 is emitted by combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), solid waste,
biomass (e.g., wood products), and by industrial processes (e.g., cement kilns). Also,
CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere (or “sequestered”) when it is absorbed by
plants as part of the biological carbon cycle. CH4 is emitted during the production and
transport of fossil fuels, and can be emitted through livestock and other agricultural
practices and by the decay of landfill wastes. N2O is emitted by fossil fuel and solid
waste combustion, and during agricultural and industrial activities, Hydrofluorocarbons,
sulfur hexafluoride, and perfluorocarbons are emitted from a wide range of industrial
processes, including during their production as well as their use in refrigeration and air
conditioning, during semiconductor manufacturing, and as substitutes for ozone depleting
substances (ODCs). Although these gases are typically emitted in smaller quantities
relative to CO2, they have a higher global warming potential (GWP), and are sometimes
referred to as “high GWP gases”.
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Mercury and Other Toxic Air Pollutants

Toxic air pollutants are substances that cause or may cause cancer or other serious health
effects, such as reproductive or birth defects, and neurological, cardiovascular, and
respiratory disease. They can be found in gaseous, aerosol, or particulate forms. Some
toxic air pollutants, such as mercury (Hg), are persistent bioaccumulative toxics (i.e., they
are stored indefinitely in the body and increase over time). These toxics can deposit onto
soils or surface waters, where they are taken up by plants and are ingested by animals,
with concentrations increasing as the toxics move up through the food chain to humans.
Sources of hazardous air pollutants include stationary sources such as factories, dry
cleaners, and hospitals, as well as mobile sources such as cars, buses, and construction
equipment.

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Ozone

Ozone (O3) is created by a chemical reaction between NOx and VOCs that is generated
by heat and sunlight. A large share of ozone-generating pollutants are produced by motor
vehicles, although any fuel combustion source emits the pollutants that can contribute to
ozone formation. Ozone is a major problem in many urban areas around the world where
it can reduce lung capacity and increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, especially
in infants and the elderly.

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Particle Pollution

Particulate matter can be either emitted directly by sources (primary) or formed in the
atmosphere from precursors (secondary). Primary particles are generated by combustion
such as the burning of diesel fuel, and by mechanical generation such as the churning of
road dust, brake wear, and construction activities. Secondary particles form in the air due
to complex chemical reactions that convert gaseous precursor pollutants into particles.
Most dangerous are the fine particles (PM2.5) which can be absorbed deep in the lungs,
causing aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, lung cancer, cardiac problems, and
premature death.

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Climate Change

Global climate change refers to any significant change in measures of climate (such as
temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer).
Global warming, a term which refers to an average increase in the temperature of the
atmosphere near the Earth’s surface, can contribute to changes in global climate patterns
and is influenced by both human activities and natural causes. One of the key
contributors to global warming is the increased emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs)
resulting from human activities.

Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural
practices, have caused the concentrations of heat-trapping GHGs to increase significantly
in the atmosphere. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, atmospheric
concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) have increased at an accelerating pace
because of human activities. According to the 2007 findings of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO) have increased 35%,
methane (CH4) concentrations have increase almost 150%, and nitrous oxide (N2O)
concentrations have risen by 18% since the pre-industrial era. These increases have
enhanced the heat-trapping capability of the earth's atmosphere. According to NOAA and
NASA data, the Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by about 1.2 to 1.4
degrees since 1900. There is general consensus among the world’s leading climate
modelers that the buildup of GHGs will lead to further increases in the worldwide
average temperature, with potential impacts that may include rising sea levels, erosion of
coast lines, increased storm intensity, changing rainfall patterns, and loss and migration
of species.

In 1993, most world countries joined an international treaty -- the United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) -- to begin to consider what can
be done to reduce global warming and to cope with whatever temperature increases are
inevitable. In 2005, an addition to the treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol formally
entered into force. The Kyoto Protocol contains quantified, country-specific emission
reduction targets for the period of 2008-2012 and legally binding commitments to these
reductions for 36 countries. In January 2005 the European Union Greenhouse Gas
Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS) commenced operation as the largest multi-country,
multi-sector Greenhouse Gas emission trading scheme world-wide. The aim of the EU
ETS is to help EU Member States achieve compliance with their commitments under the
Kyoto Protocol. The Prototype Carbon Fund, a partnership between seventeen companies
and six governments and managed by the World Bank, became operational in April 2000.
This fund helps establish the market for project-based greenhouse gas emission
reductions while promoting sustainable development.

In 2004, the international Methane to Markets Partnership was launched as a voluntary,


non-binding framework for international cooperation to advance the recovery and use of
methane as a valuable clean energy source. Under the Partnership, countries make formal
declarations to minimize methane emissions from key sources, stressing the importance
of implementing methane capture and use projects in developing countries and countries
with economies in transition. The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and
Climate is an innovative new effort to accelerate the development and deployment of
clean energy technologies.

There have also been a number of regional, state and local initiatives to address climate
change in the United States. In 2005, Governors of seven Northeast States signed a
Memorandum of Understanding to develop a CO2 cap and trade initiative known as the
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). In 2006, California became the first state to
pass a comprehensive GHG emission reduction regulation under legislative bill AB32,
which has the potential to cover a wide range of source categories depending on how
significant sources are ultimately defined. The recently established national Climate
Change Registry is a collaboration between states, provinces and tribes aimed at
developing and managing a common GHG emissions reporting system that is capable of
supporting various GHG emission reporting and reduction policies for its member states
and tribes and reporting entities. Many states have also developed their own individual
climate change action plans to identify and implement specific activities and responses to
potential climate change impacts within their states.

Control Strategies

Reductions in air pollution can be achieved by a variety of methods including pollution


prevention, control technologies, and control measures, and may be implemented through
regulatory, market-based or voluntary programs. A control strategy may include a
combination of different voluntary measures or mandatory controls, may focus on one or
several pollutants or sources of air pollution, and can be implemented on a local,
regional, national, or international scale. Energy efficiency, process changes,, and
solventless coatings are examples of pollution prevention strategies. Many of the air
quality improvements to date have been achieved through technological developments.
Air pollution control technologies have achieved stunning results in reducing emissions
from the manufacturing and mobile source sectors by as much as 90 to 99 percent.
Continuing advances in both pollution prevention and air pollution control technology
should enable further emissions reductions to offset increased emissions caused by
continued population growth and worldwide economic development.

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Subtopics

Mercury and Other Toxic Air Pollutants

Control of mercury emissions is based upon reduction of the emissions and pollutant
releases into the atmosphere by the industries that use mercury within their processes,
emit mercury or dispose of products containing mercury, such as thermometers. In the
U.S., national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants (NESHAPS) have been
established for industries emitting toxic air emissions that require the use of Maximum
Achievable Control Technology (MACT) for compliance. For example, mercury
NESHAP/MACT standards have been promulgated for hazardous and municipal waste
incineration, commercial/industrial boilers, chlor-alkali plants, and portland cement kilns.
Strategies for controlling mercury and other toxic air pollutants include pollution
prevention measures, including product substitution, process modification, work-practice
standards and materials separation; coal cleaning (relevant to mercury control); flue gas
treatment technologies; and alternative strategies. Significant sources of toxic air
pollution are motor vehicles, so programs to reduce emissions from cars, trucks and buses
also decrease concentrations of toxic air pollutants. These programs include reformulated
gasoline, the national low emission vehicle (NLEV) program, and gasoline sulfur control
requirements, among others.

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Ozone

Ozone control strategies generally target nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic
compounds (VOCs), the primary contributors to ozone formation in the troposphere.
Control strategies may comprise a set of regulations that specify emission limits and/or
control equipment that are deemed to be reasonable available control technology
(RACT), best available control technology (BACT), lowest achievable emission rates
(LAER), depending on the severity of the air pollution problem in the area. NOx and
VOC control equipment or programs may address specific industrial processes;on-road
vehicles; nonroad equipment such as locomotives; or nonpoint sources such as small
industrial boilers, dry cleaners, and consumer solvents. Pollution prevention measures
such as use of non- or low-VOC content solvents and coatings can also be part of an
effective ozone control strategy.

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Particle Pollution

Particle pollution, or particulate matter (PM) pollution control strategies reduce primary
PM emitted directly by a source, or PM precursor emissions (NOx, SOx, VOC, and
ammonia) that react in the atmosphere to form fine PM. Control strategies could include
a set of regulations that specifies emission limits in either mass or opacity units. PM
control equipment or programs may address specific industrial processes; nonroad
equipment such as locomotives and other equipment that burns diesel fuel; and nonpoint
sources such as dust from agricultural activities and travel on paved and unpaved roads,
and smoke from fireplaces and woodstoves.

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Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor air can become polluted if contaminants accumulate inside buildings. Common
contaminant groups include dusts (particulates), vapors and gasses, as well as biological
agents. Some indoor contaminants occur naturally, but most are generated by materials or
activities in or around the building. Certain indoor air pollutants, such as asbestos,
formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and lead, cause great health risks to individuals. Indoor
air pollution can occur in any type of building, including homes, offices, and schools.

Incomplete or inadequately controlled combustion is a major cause of indoor air pollution


world-wide. Sources of polluting combustion include fireplaces, wood stoves, kerosene
heaters, natural gas stoves, furnaces, and water heaters. When these sources are worn,
improperly adjusted, or inadequately vented, they burn inefficiently and produce
increased levels of smoke, deadly carbon monoxide gas, and other substances. Different
materials burn with different characteristics, but as a general rule, a hot blue flame
indicates an adequate mix of fuel and air, while a persistent yellow-tipped flame is
associated with increased pollutant emissions and need for adjustment. Routine
inspection and maintenance by a qualified technician helps maximize appliance
efficiency, reduce unwanted byproducts of combustion, and identify dangerous conditions
that should be corrected by venting to the outdoors.

Two other products of combustion, second-hand tobacco smoke and diesel exhaust, are
also frequent indoor pollutants. Second-hand tobacco smoke is associated with increased
number and severity of asthma attacks in children. Diesel exhaust, which is also
associated with increases in respiratory disorders, can enter buildings when vehicles idle
near windows and air intakes. The problem is particularly severe when the building
ventilation system air intake is located near a busy loading dock or an electrical power
generator that runs on diesel fuel. Where this condition exists, building owners may
request that drivers turn off their engines while making deliveries, the loading area can be
relocated, or the building air intake duct can be extended or routed away from the source
of contamination.

Paint, cleaning products, and other household chemicals can also produce unacceptable
levels of indoor air pollution. Components of these substances are released during normal
use and also if containers leak or are not closed tightly in storage. Because containers can
deteriorate, leak, and contribute to indoor pollution over time, limit stored supplies to that
which will be used in a reasonable amount of time. Properly dispose of aging containers
and excess or unused products.

Certain building materials also contribute to indoor air pollution under some
circumstances. Common construction materials that are associated with indoor pollution
include asbestos insulation, formaldehyde resin pressed wood products, lead paint, and
certain volatile organic compounds, such as those associated with some carpets.

Naturally occurring radon gas, molds that grow on wet or damp building materials, and
dust mites can pose health hazards if they are allowed to increase indoors. Radon gas is
gradually formed below ground in some types of geological formations and rises up
through soil. The gas enters buildings through cracks in the foundation or basement and
accumulates in areas with poor air circulation. Adding fans to increase air exchange
usually prevents this radioactive gas from building up in occupied spaces. Mold spores
and other parts can trigger asthma and allergies if they become airborne. Active mold
growth is best controlled by keeping building surfaces dry. This is particularly
challenging in hot, humid environments where moisture in air condenses on cool building
surfaces. Mold management typically involves construction, maintenance, insulation, and
ventilation combined. Dust mites are also associated with asthma and allergy symptoms.
Structures (body parts) of these very small organisms can become airborne and constitute
another component of indoor air pollution in dusty environments.

Regardless of the pollutant or its source, modern energy-efficient building practices have
inadvertently increased the problem by increasing the extent to which the building is
sealed from the outdoor environment. With less air leaks in and out of the building, more
heated or cooled air is retained, but so are the indoor air pollutants. Building owners and
occupants find that the best way to minimize air pollution in these buildings is by
reducing the amount of polluting sources (for example by purchasing furnishings that
give off lower levels of volatile organic compounds), taking steps to keep ventilation
systems operating effectively or improve venting when necessary, and improving routine
maintenance and venting of equipment and appliances that can contribute air
contaminants.

Measuring Air Pollution

Air pollution can be directly measured as it is emitted by a source in mass/volume of


emission (e.g., grams/m3) or mass/process parameter (e.g., grams/Kg fuel consumed or
grams/second). Air pollution can also be measured in the atmosphere as a concentration
(e.g., micrograms/m3). Ambient air monitoring data is used to determine air quality,
establish the extent of air pollution problems, assess whether established standards are
being met, and characterize the potential human health risk in an area. Alternatively, air
pollution concentrations can be simulated using computer models, and then validated
using data collected from direct measurements at selected monitors or sources. Air
pollution data and models are used together to examine the impacts of control strategies
on the ambient air.

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Air Quality Modeling

As an alternative to or in conjunction with direct monitoring, computer models are often


used to predict the levels of pollutants emitted from various types of sources, and how
these emissions eventually impact ambient air quality over time. The models themselves
vary in terms of sophistication, accuracy and precision of their outputs. Different models
are used to estimate emission rates, source activity levels, and ambient air quality
impacts. For example, models are available for estimating emissions from mobile and
stationary sources, predicting meteorological factors, locating potential emission point
sources, and the likely photochemical and dispersion characteristics of air pollution, as
well as predicting traffic patterns and congestion. In addition, emissions models and
preprocessors can be used to provide input data for air quality models that need emissions
based on chemical species, and broken down into very fine temporal (e.g., grams/second)
and spatial (1 km x 1 km grid) resolution.

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Monitoring

Air pollution monitoring activities are typically separated into two classifications: source
monitoring and ambient air monitoring. Monitoring can be made directly using
continuous measurement instrumentation or manual methods, or remotely using optical
sensing systems. Source monitoring involves the measurement of emissions directly from
a fixed or mobile emission source, typically in a contained duct, vent, stack or chimney.
Stationary source data is used to determine control technology performance, confirm
established permit limits are being met, and as input to ozone and/or health risk
prediction models. Major stationary sources may have continuous emissions monitors
(CEMs) installed to report real-time emissions based on pre-established reporting cycles.
Ambient air monitoring involves the measurement of specific pollutants present in an
immediate surrounding atmosphere. Most Major urban areas often operate several
ambient air monitoring instruments, each dedicated to measuring specific target
pollutants.

Vehicles and Fuels

Motor vehicles are a major source of air pollution worldwide. In many urban areas, motor
vehicles collectively produce 50 to 90 percent of local air pollution, depending upon the
pollutant. Vehicles can also produce a significant amount of the toxic or hazardous
pollutants found in our air. Motor vehicles are typically divided into on-road and nonroad
categories for regulatory purposes. Most nations set standards for both engines and fuels
in order to reduce air pollution. In the U.S., only EPA and the State of California are
permitted to establish new vehicle and fuel standards; other states may adopt California
standards if they choose. In addition to engine and fuel characteristics, mobile source
emissions are also affected by ambient conditions, driving behavior, and transportation
system characteristics.

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Cars, Trucks and Buses

Automobiles, motorcycles, trucks, and buses are commonly referred to as “on-road”


mobile sources. Automobiles and light-duty trucks are a major source of air pollution all
over the world. Emissions from these vehicles come from the tailpipe. Gasoline powered
vehicles also generate evaporative emissions from fuel tanks, out of the oil reservoir, and
around engine seals. Gasoline refueling vapors are also a significant source of emissions.
Most cars and light-duty trucks are fueled by gasoline, and generate large quantities of
volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and
carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Motorcycles represent a large part of the vehicle fleet in
developing countries. Two-stroke motorcycles are especially polluting and can emit more
air pollution than a small fleet of modern automobiles. Most heavy-duty trucks and buses
are powered by diesel fuel, which can generate significant amounts of NOx and sulfur
oxide (SOx) emissions (especially in areas with high-sulfur content fuels), as well as
potentially cancer-causing particulate matter. Emission controls for modern gasoline
vehicles are capable of reducing vehicle emissions by more than 95 percent compared to
uncontrolled carbureted vehicles. Diesel vehicle controls have also provided substantial
reductions, especially for particulate matter (PM), although further NOx reductions
require highly advanced engine technologies or retrofit of aftertreatment devices.

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Fuels

Gasoline and diesel fuels are complex mixtures of many different chemicals. The precise
combination of chemicals determines key fuel properties such as energy content,
volatility (i.e., ability to vaporize), and the fuel’s ability to ignite and burn in the engine.
In turn, the various fuel properties effect vehicle emissions, performance, and fuel cost.
Fuel producers have developed different gasoline and diesel formulations designed for
specific vehicle and engine technologies to provide adequate vehicle performance and
decreased emissions at a reasonable cost. In fact, a vehicle and its fuel should be viewed
as an integrated system, with fuel properties designed to match specific engine
technologies, and vice versa. Fuel standards can also be designed to control specific
pollutants. Depending upon the air quality conditions in a particular local area, fuel
properties can be adjusted to reduce CO, hydrocarbon, NOx, or even PM emissions from
vehicles. Some areas change their fuel formulations on a seasonal basis to address
wintertime CO and summertime ozone problems. In many instances adopting new fuel
standards can bring about immediate, cost-effective emission reductions, without making
changes to an area’s vehicle fleet. Other fuel changes may be designed for the
introduction of new, cleaner vehicles over the long-term. Alternatives to traditional fuels
include compressed natural gas, biodiesel, ethanol, liquefied natural gas, methanol and
propane. Hydrogen has been identified as a potential “fuel of the future,” with little to no
net emissions. The advent of fuel cells as a potentially viable power source for vehicles
has further raised the interest in hydrogen as a fuel.
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Other Engines and Equipment

Offroad mobile sources are defined as motorized equipment that is portable or self-
propelled, but not certified for operation on roadways. Typical offroad equipment
includes construction and farm equipment, airplanes, ships, locomotives, lawn and garden
equipment, mobile generators and pumps, among many others. Increases in air traffic and
shipping, along with construction activities, have resulted in significant emissions from
nonroad sources in recent years. As emission controls on automobiles, trucks, and buses
become more prevalent, the relative amount of air emissions generated by nonroad
sources is becoming more significant. In general, smaller, lighter equipment is dominated
by gasoline engines, while larger equipment relies heavily on diesel engines. In most
cases offroad equipment is not centrally registered. In addition, offroad equipment
operation profiles can vary widely depending upon the specific application and operator.
For these reasons, engine populations, use patterns, and resulting emissions from these
sources are much more uncertain than for on-road sources.

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