Air quality limits, Geographic Air Pollution Causes

Hi everyone! Last week I wrote about air pollution, where it is bad, what causes it, and the main harmful components of air pollution.This week I am going to give you some exact numbers. First, though, let's start with a scary fact. Then I'm moving into how pollution goes away once it is in the air.

US limits on PM2.5 are 12 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a year. In Europe, the limit is 25. Note that for every increase of 10 micrograms, there is an associated 9% increase in lung cancer incidence, and a .6 years decrease in life expectancy. Scary, right? China has an annual average limit of 40, and India has an annual average limit of 50. They don't do so well in some cases. Beijing averages 56, and Delhi averages 150. In other words, Delhi's population has somewhere in the vicinity of 10 years less of life from air pollution alone.

What about other pollution? SOx, NOx, and ozone tend to accompany each other. Wherever you have SOx, you have the other two. Even clean-burning natural gas power plants produce NOx, just as a by-product of combustion is our nitrogen atmosphere. NOx becomes ozone and smog when mixed with sunlight and organic radicals (the latter of which exist just about everywhere). In other words, these three things are difficult to separate. Moreover, they are often accompanied by PM2.5. Research is having trouble teasing them apart and figuring out what might cause what. But, again, SOx and NOx become strong acids when they react with the water in your lungs, and ozone is toxic to life at ground level (always remember, ozone 15km overhead blocks out the bad parts of the sun, ozone at ground level damages living things).

SOx and NOx, once emitted, are typically cleared out by rainstorms, creating acid rain. It's better than breathing it in, right?

SOx and NOx, once emitted, are typically cleared out by rainstorms, creating acid rain. It's better than breathing it in, right?

The US has pretty good air quality overall. But if you look at the US government website that shows current levels of pm2.5, you'll see some cities in the US are straight up awful. While their annual average might be around 20-25, on the day I checked, San Bernardino, CA, had 137 micrograms per cubic meter. This is absurdly high. On days like this, people will have difficulty breathing.

Los Angeles on a polluted day. Thanks Curtis Barnes for the correction! Site.

In other words, you can go almost anywhere in the world and find places that are tough to breath in. That being said, there are some countries that are really bad almost everywhere. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, China, and Pakistan are all very polluted. Much of the middle east is as well.

So what makes these things hang out? The most common reasons are inversions. It's when warm air sits on top of colder air. Since air likes to rise when it is warm, if there is a layer of cold air that is polluted that also happens to be capped by warm air, that cold layer will sit there and stagnate. Instead of blowing up or away, it will simply accumulate pollution. Another cause is being surrounded by mountains. Mexico City, for example, is right in the middle of a bunch of mountains. The pollution cannot rise above the mountains, so it lingers and builds. It is also common for coastal areas, or areas next to high deserts, to have times when air refuses to vacate. Those mechanisms are a bit complicated, so we won't discuss them. Finally, being near 30 degrees North or South latitude tends to make air pollution stick around. LA, for example, is at 34 North. The reason for this being bad is that the Earth has the giant airflow patterns. Air is heated at the equator by the sun, then it rises. Eventually it cools and falls near 30 degrees north. The result is that inversions happen more frequently, cause there is air pushing down on the cities.

Diagram of temperature inversion. Site

That's about it for the major causes of air pollution buildup. Of course there has to be pollution to start with for these effects to matter.

Hokay, so, what makes PM2.5 go away when it starts hanging around? Either a wind comes through and blows it out, or a rain comes through. Rain scrubs PM2.5 by absorbing it, and it chemically converts SOx and NOx to acids that become solutes in the rain. Hence acid rain. Also hence why skies are most clear after rains, and how they can smell so fresh and clean after rain. So, if you are going to go for a run in Beijing or Delhi, wait til after a big rainstorm 🙂

Let's talk about that last point a little bit more. China is dry nearly all the time. It doesn't rain much there, so it has a bigger problem of building up air pollution. India has the monsoon season, but is also fairly dry otherwise. What about LA? If you have ever driven in a slight rainstorm in LA, you will see that everyone freaks out and has no clue how to drive in the rain. It's hilarious for about 5 seconds until you realize you are now in a traffic jam. It doesn't rain there, either.

So. Your most polluted places will be near 30 degrees latitude, potentially on the coast or in mountains, dry, and in the vicinity of polluting vehicles, industry, or power plants. Neat. right? I bet you thought it was just pollution alone that caused pollution to linger.

Hokay, that's all for now. Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster


Which Country has the Worst Air Pollution in the World?

Before I get into anything, this is a first in a series of three articles I am going to be releasing. Instead of my monthly release rate, I am going to be releasing them one each week. If you are traveling to or live in a polluted environment, I highly suggest you subscribe to the blog or do it as an RSS feed.

Now to the article!

If you guessed China, you guessed wrong. Did you get it wrong? If you say you didn't, I am going to call you a liar. Every person I know, when asked which country in the world has the worst air pollution, answered China. This includes experts on China, experts on air pollution, and experts on countries that are more polluted than china.

Also, the number of people that die per year from air pollution is staggering, more on that after the math.

China isn't even close to being the country with the most fouled air. That distinction belongs to India, by a huge margin.

Okay, well, let's delve further into it. Of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world, how many would you guess are in China? Okay, that was a trick question. China doesn't have any of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. And India holds the distinction of having at least 10 of them.

A gate in India that can't be seen through air pollution.

Before getting to the science grit, one more important thing. Owing entirely to city air pollution in India, at least one study shows that Indian citizens living in cities have 30% less lung capacity than Europeans living in cities. So, pretty much, pollution makes it so

Okay, let's back up and discuss air pollution a bit.

What is Air Pollution? (This is the technical part of the post)

In this above mentioned study, air pollution is strictly PM2.5. Why is that? Because PM2.5 is particulates smaller than 2.5 microns, roughly 1/30th the width of human hair. They are small enough that they penetrate deep into the lungs, where they cause permanent damage and can lead to cancer. PM2.5 is produced by powerplants (mostly coal-fired) and any combustion-based motor vehicle. The EPA has a great guideline for PM2.5 if you want to read more.

There are other pollutants that everyone seems to ignore. Back in the day, you heard a lot about acid rain. Acid rain is caused by SO_2 and NO_2 . Combusting anything creates NO, cause there is so much N_2 in the air (78% of the stuff we breath is N_2 ) that some of it combines with oxygen during combustion, creating NO. NO reacts with O_2 to produce NO2 and O-, the latter of which produces ground-level ozone (more on that soon). Let's look at what happens to SO_2 and NO_2 in air:

2SO_2 + 2H_2O + O_2 \rightarrow 2H_2SO_4

So that's sulphuric acid.

2NO_2 + H_2O \rightarrow HNO_2 + HNO_3

And that is nitrous and nitric acid. Another fun reaction is:

NO + VOC + sunlight \rightarrow O_3

VOCs are Volatile Organic Carbons. It pretty much means organic matter in the air. It comes from plants. O_3 , or ozone, is bad for people and plants at ground level.

So let's review what happens here. Power plants burn fossil fuels, they produce PM2.5 which causes cancer, coal-fired powerplants produce SO_2 which becomes acid in your lungs, and all combustion plants produce NO_2 which also becomes acid in your lungs. PM2.5 is the worst, but the other pollutants are also bad. Burning coal causes the most of all of these pollutants. Lower grade coal, the stuff burned more often in China and India (the US has high grade coal), has less energy relative to pollutants, so it makes more pollution.

Now, exactly how bad are ozone, NOx ( NO_2 ) and SOx ( SO_2 )? They are all similar, so lets just look at SOx health effects according to the EPA. In short, exercising in an environment with this stuff is bad for you, and sends people to the emergency room. In the worst case scenario, it exacerbates or triggers asthma, heart attacks, and aneurysms, killing people nearly instantly. Long term exposure increases asthma and other health hazards. Now keep in mind that this stuff is considered less of a problem than PM2.5.

Back to the Qualitative

Okay, now that we know what the stuff is and what it does, let's get to some specific numbers. The World Health Organization indicates that air pollution is "single biggest environmental health risk in the world" the largest health hazard in the world, killing 7 million people per year.

What's the best way to deal with this stuff? Staying indoors helps a lot. Your house acts as a good barrier against it. Having a filter also helps. If you live in China or India, build one of these at your home. The filter will stop working eventually, so it will have replacement costs, but you can probably get clean air for around $100 per year for a single room in your house. Now keep in mind, this is a HEPA filter, which filters out only particles. Good luck with that SOx, NOx, and ozone. The guy who stapled together the filter and the fan states that it's the only thing you need for clean air in his blog. Clearly the PhD he is learning in psychology does not qualify him to know a lot about air quality. It doesn't disqualify him from knowing about it, but being completely unaware of the chemicals I described above does.

HEPA + fan. Good for PM2.5, useless vs. ozone, SOx, and NOx.


In other words, this filter will work inside, but you are still going to get bad chemicals living in your lungs. If you want to filter more, be prepared to shell out thousands of USD. Also, if you plan on going outside, or you want to exercise, if you work outside, you're pretty well screwed. There are a few masks that work, but all have their flaws or are expensive. More on this later, we've hit 1000 words and it's time to go.

Before we let me repeat one thing. If you are in a polluted area: Do. Not. Exercise. Anywhere. That. Isn't. Filtered. And no mask on the market filters out SOx, NOx, and Ozone.

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster