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Air Pollution and Smog are the Problems of Modern Cities

The word smog comes from smoke and fog. Smog is a sort of fog with other substances mixed in. Smog has been here a long time. Billions of years ago, volcanoes sent millions of tons of ash and smoke into the air. Winds whipped up dust clouds. Animal and vegetable matter decayed, adding polluting gases.

When people came along, they began to produce their own kind of air pollution. They discovered fire. In the Middle Ages, people in cities such as London used soft coal to heat their homes. The smoke from these fires, combined with moisture in the air, produced dense layers of smog. The smog would blanket the city for days, particularly in winter. The heat generated in large cities tends to circulate air within a dome-like shape. This traps the smog and holds it over the city.

Smog, and the chemicals and other substances in it, can be harmful, even deadly. Smog blurs vision. It irritates the eyes, the throat, and the lungs. Eyes water, throats get sore, people cough. Smog can make people ill. And it can make sick people sicker. Air pollution has been linked to eczema, asthma, emphysema, cardiovascular difficulties, and lung and stomach cancer. It also has a harmful effect on the environment. Food crops and animals suffer. Paint may peel from houses. It is obvious that we must do everything possible to reduce man-made atmospheric pollutants and smog.

Smog, along with smoke, is the most visible evidence of atmospheric pollution. But some atmospheric pollution is not visible and may not become visible until it is mixed with moisture. Lead compounds from leaded gasoline, hydrocarbons (unburned gasoline), carbon monoxide, and other gases may pollute the air without being seen. All air is polluted to some extent. That is, all air carries some polluting substances. Much of it is natural: smoke and ash from volcanoes, dust stirred up by the wind, compounds given off by growing vegetation, gases given off by rotting animal and vegetable matter, salt particles from the oceans, and so on.

Man adds to these pollutants by burning coal, oil, gas, gasoline, and many other things.

Before we get to the automobile, however, let us review what we know about combustion. Most fuels, such as coal, gasoline, and wood, contain hydrogen and carbon in various chemical combinations. During combustion, oxygen unites with the hydrogen and carbon to form water (H2O), carbon monoxide (CO), and carbon dioxide (CO2).

In addition, many fuels contain sulfur; this burns to produce sulfur oxides. Also, in the heat of combustion, some of the nitrogen in the air combines with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides (NOX). Some of the fuel may not burn completely, so that smoke and ash are formed. Smoke is simply particles of unburned fuel and soot, called particulates, mixed with air.

Altogether, it is estimated that 200 million tons of man-made pollutants enter the air every year in the United States alone. This is about a ton for every man, woman, and child in the country!

This man-made pollution is what clean-air laws are aimed at.

Consider Los Angeles, a large city set in a basin, with about 7, 000, 000 inhabitants. It is surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the Pacific Ocean. When the wind blows out over the ocean, it sweeps away pollutants. But at other times, the air is stagnant. Smoke and other pollutants from industry and automobiles do not blow away. They just build up into a thick, smelly, foggy layer of smog. The location of Los Angeles, plus all the people and industry there, make it one of the biggest " smog centers" in the country. And it is Los Angeles which has led in measures to reduce smog.

Los Angeles has banned unrestricted burning, for example, burning trash. Incinerators without pollution controls were outlawed. Industry was forced to change combustion processes and add controls to reduce pollutants coming from their chimneys. Laws were passed that required the addition of emission controls on automobiles. All these measures have significantly reduced atmospheric pollution in the Los Angeles area.

If not controlled, the automobile can give off pollutants from four places. Pollutants can come from the fuel tank, the carburetor, the crank-case, and the tail pipe. Pollutants from the fuel tank and carburetor consist of gasoline vapors. Pollutants from the crankcase consist of partly burned air-fuel mixture that has blown by the piston rings. Pollutants from the tail pipe consist of partly burned gasoline (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxide (NOX), and - if there is sulfur in the gasoline - sulfur oxides (SOX).


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