Air pollution

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Fire in the spoil dump of the Messel oil shale mine (approx. 1955)
Air pollution over Indonesia and the Indian Ocean , October 1997;
Marked in white: aerosols ( smoke ) from fires in the lower air layers;
Green, yellow and red: overlying smog in the troposphere
Air pollution from a coal-fired power plant in New Mexico , 2004; The voluminous white flags are mostly uncritical water vapor, they are possibly environmentally relevant. rather the two left chimney exhaust gases.

As air pollution , the release is environmentally and harmful pollutants in the air , respectively. These pollutants include, for example, smoke , soot , dust , exhaust gases , aerosols , vapors and odorous substances . Air pollution is a form of pollution . It is the leading environmental cause of illness and premature death and affects everyone from the fetus in the womb to the elderly. Air pollution can affect almost all organs and systems in the body and is a major cause of pneumonia , bronchitis and asthma in children.

A joint statement by various academies of science states:

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: air pollution can harm health across the entire lifespan. It disease, disability and death causes, and impairs everyone's quality of life. It damages lungs, hearts, brains, skin and other organs; it increases the risk of disease and disability, affecting virtually all systems in the human body. "

“The scientific evidence is unmistakable: Air pollution can damage health over the entire lifespan. It causes illness, disability and death and affects the quality of life for everyone. It damages the lungs, heart, brain, skin and other organs; it increases the risk of illness and disability and affects practically all systems in the human body. "

Air pollution is particularly high in Third World countries , Russia , the People's Republic of China and other emerging economies . In the industrialized countries, air pollution has decreased in the last few decades due to air pollution control measures . It is assumed that the energy turnaround will make a major contribution to reducing air pollution in the future. Since measures to curb global warming often also reduce air pollution, improving air quality is an important positive side aspect of climate protection measures . In some cases, climate protection measures are worthwhile simply through the economic welfare gains from reduced air pollution.

The economic costs resulting from air pollution in 176 countries were estimated at 3.8 trillion US dollars in 2015. The EU Commission estimated the direct damage to people and the environment in the EU in 2013 at 23 billion euros per year; the negative external effects are estimated at around 330 to 940 billion euros per year.

History of Air Pollution

Measuring car for air pollution of the VEB Synthesewerk Schwarzheide , 1978

With the targeted use of fire by humans, the air began to be polluted with air pollutants. On peat deposits has been shown that the mining and processing of lead by human cultures for 6,000 years to increased lead emissions into the air caused that affected worldwide. In the last few decades these emission values ​​have decreased. a. by using " unleaded " gasoline and industrial requirements.

In ancient Rome and later in other European cities of the Middle Ages there are documented complaints about air pollution. As a rule, these complaints initially only concerned the annoyance of odor and dirt; a possible health risk was initially not recognized.

The smoke from the furnaces of glass melts in ancient Rome around 150 AD was so disturbing that the glassmakers were forced to move their workshops to the suburbs.

In England the 13th century strongly, there were many complaints and problems by burning sulfur-containing coal . In 1257 Queen Eleanor of England had to leave Nottingham because of the prevailing smoke . In 1272 King Edward I forbade the use of sulphurous coal on pain of death .

In 1464, a copper and lead smelter in Cologne was prohibited from continuing to operate his trade in the city due to complaints from the neighborhood. In Augsburg , a smelter was demolished in 1623 due to complaints from the neighborhood about unhealthy smoke and steam, and it was approved to reopen it outside the city.

When there was no exhaust filter technology, high chimneys were a common method to reduce local emissions : the exhaust gases were emitted at a height of up to 300 m in order to distribute them more widely and thus in lower concentrations.

Intentional air pollution: Pick-up at Rolling Coal , "Rolling Coal"

1947 shortly after in a large Californian a very critical article about smog in newspaper Los Angeles had appeared, from managers of the US, a group of oil industry in the city's Smoke and Fumes Commitee ( "Smoke and Dämpfe- Committee "): It was designed to fund scientific research in the oil and gas industry and to publicize scientific knowledge through public relations , “in order to direct the public perception of air pollution and rules to control air pollution in a certain direction. The stated aim was to prevent legislative action that the oil industry considered unnecessary and that it did not want. "

In December 1952 there was a smog disaster ( The Great Smog ) in London , in which up to 12,000 people died from smog.

For several decades, air pollution, which was previously a local or regional phenomenon, has become a global problem affecting all continents. Two severe cases of haze occurred in Southeast Asia in 2006 and 2015 . Massive forest fires in Indonesia in September and October 2015 led to a smog crisis in which around 100,000 people died.

In addition, there are also air pollutants, which are caused deliberately: This includes, among other things practiced in the US Rolling Coal - Fahrzeugtuning ( "Rolling Coal"), in which cars and pick-ups are converted so that they particularly much soot and pollutants discharge. The motivation of these mostly politically right-wing Americans is often to make a political statement against environmentalists and environmental protection measures.

Although there is a broad scientific consensus on the health damage caused by air pollution, it is increasingly being denied by political actors in some countries such as the USA, India or Poland. In part, these are the same forces that deny man-made global warming , for example the Heartland Institute .

Types of air pollution

The problem of air pollution can be regarding

  • its causes (substance-related, as the BImSchG does)
  • its impact (area-related) or else
  • its consequences (effect-related)

to be viewed as.


The main cause of air pollution worldwide is the burning of fossil fuels and biomass . Our current standard of living is characterized, among other things, by a high energy requirement, many industrially manufactured products made from a variety of raw materials and a high (sometimes still increasing) traffic volume. The energy , the transport , the production processes ( industrial , agricultural livestock and pesticides ) as well as businesses and households are important causes of anthropogenic (man-made) pollution.

The four main sources are stationary systems such as power plants and industrial plants, including in particular coal-fired systems with nonexistent or poor filter technology, households, the (controlled) burning of biomass in fields with fire cultivation and clearing of forests and traffic.

For the United States, a 2013 study found that around 210,000 people died prematurely in 2005 due to air pollution as a result of man-made combustion processes. Around 200,000 of them died from fine dust (PM 2.5 ) and around 10,000 from increased ozone levels . In that order, the three most important sources of emissions were traffic, power plants and industrial processes with approx. 53,000, 52,000 and 41,000 premature deaths from fine dust and 5,000, 2,000 and 2,000 deaths from ozone.

Important pollutants from the three areas (emitter groups) and the resulting problems are summarized below.

Important emitter groups, their most important pollutant emissions and the possible consequences for the environment
Area Pollutant (s) Possible effects Remarks
Power generation (SO 2 ) Acid rain , new types of forest damage Reduction of SO 2 emissions mainly through flue gas desulphurisation systems
Road traffic (NO x ) Acid rain , eutrophication , new types of forest damage , ozone formation Reduction of NO x emissions mainly through exhaust gas standards and thus through the installation of three-way catalytic converters
livestock farming (NH 3 ) Acid rain , eutrophication Reduction of NH 3 emissions u. a. through the Geneva Air Quality Agreement
Solvent use NMVOC Ozone formation Reduction of NMVOC emissions and a. through the Geneva Air Quality Agreement
Shipping (NO x ) , (SO 2 ) , fine dust
Air pollution from vehicles, here trucks on a South African motorway

Today, road traffic is one of the most important sources of air pollution in cities. The exhaust gases from motor vehicles pollute the ambient air primarily with nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds without methane (NMVOC), soot and other particles . The emissions from motor vehicles have gradually been reduced by increasingly stringent emission standards ; the number of vehicles increased. Extremely strong local air pollution can be found today in many of the so-called megacities around the world , for example in Beijing .

The emissions from worldwide shipping are considerable. As of 2018, shipping caused around 400,000 premature deaths and around 14 million asthma illnesses in children worldwide. Seagoing vessels operate the main motor usually with inferior and pollution-rich heavy oil (Engl. H eavy F uel O il (HFO)), which is obtained as residual oil in petroleum processing, and have almost never an exhaust filtering. The 2003 estimated emissions were for

  • Nitrogen oxides, NO x , between 3 and 7 million t (calculated as nitrogen, N)
  • Sulfur oxides, SO x , between 4 and 6.5 million t (calculated as sulfur, S)
  • Hydrocarbons, C x H y between 0.3 and 0.8 million t (calculated as methane, CH 4 )
  • Particles, PM 10 , between 0.9 and 1.6 million t (calculated as PM 10 )

The MARPOL Annex VI # has improved the situation. Since 2008, thanks to the often practiced slow steaming (deliberate slow driving) , the pollutant emissions have partially decreased, because low freight rates (see shipping crisis ) are forcing shipping companies to exhaust all possible savings. The issue, also with regard to climate protection, is the sustainable shortening of long transport routes, because emissions (CO 2 , NO x , SO 2 etc.) from Port Said to Warsaw via the sea and rail route via Rotterdam are 145 kg / TEU and via a northern Adriatic port 84 kg / TEU.

Air quality in metropolises

Graphic on air pollution with sulfur dioxide in Leipzig (GDR), November 1989

Megacities are cities in which more than 10 million people live. Well-known megacities are z. B.

  • London (England, approx. 14 million inhabitants)
  • Los Angeles (USA, approx. 18 million inhabitants)
  • Mexico City (Mexico, approx. 20 million inhabitants)
  • Tokyo (Japan, approx. 37 million inhabitants)

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) also measure the air quality in megacities as part of a global monitoring program. Particles and ozone are considered to be the greatest problems of air pollution in mega-cities.

Supraregional (global) air pollution

Reduction of sulfur dioxide in Germany according to the Helsinki Protocol 1987
Industrial sulfur dioxide emissions in east China in 2004

The fact that air pollutants do not stop at national borders has been known since the occurrence of strongly acidic precipitation in the Scandinavian countries, the main cause of which was sulfur dioxide emissions in the Central European countries. This easily water-soluble gas is stable for several hundred to a maximum of 1500 km along moist air currents in clouds.

Transport of oxidized sulfur to and from Germany 1998
country Export (from Germany) Import (to Germany) Difference (import - export)
Poland 73.1 ct 31.5 ct −41.6 ct
Czech Republic 35.2 ct 44.2 ct 9.0 ct
France 18.4 ct 35.3 ct 16.9 ct
Great Britain 0.7 ct 19.7 ct 19 kt
Belgium 0.4 ct 15.1 ct 14.7 ct
Netherlands 0.64 ct 0.74 ct 0.1 ct

According to the Federal Environment Agency , 983 kt of sulfur dioxide were emitted in Germany in 1998. According to the table “Transport of oxidized sulfur”, this amount increases by approx. 9 kt of sulfur dioxide from neighboring countries (comparison of import 153.2 kt with export 144.1 kt).

In the USA, sulfur dioxide emissions were reduced from 23.5 million t (1980), 21.5 million t (1990), 16.6 million t (2000) to 12 million t of sulfur dioxide in 2010.

China has the highest sulfur dioxide emissions in the world today. The amount rose from 2000 to 2005 to 25.5 million t (+27%); this corresponds to the USA level of around 1980. The table also shows that the goal of reducing air pollution is not a national task, but a transnational one (see below: International measures).

Spread of pollutants

Height inversion (temperature profile (red) compared to adiabatic (black)) leads to an unfavorable distribution of factory exhaust gases.

Air pollutants can be detected both in the immediate vicinity of their place of origin and far away from it. The main influencing factors of this spread are the wind and the stratification of the earth's atmosphere . Fumigation layers such as the one in the picture on the right are particularly dangerous . They occur particularly in urban climates and in the area of ​​large industrial plants. This was the case in Central Europe and especially London until the 1970s and is now mainly found in East Asian metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai . The spread of air pollutants can be forecast using a spread calculation.


An air pollutant can directly harm people, harm the environment, or harm both.

At the beginning of the 1980s, forest death caused great concern among the population. It has been suggested that air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides were causes of forest dieback. Sulfur dioxide and other pollutants in the air were carried to the ground by the rain (which turned the rain into acid rain ), reaching and damaging the roots of plants. The fact that damaged forest stands were far from the focus of emissions contributed to the concern. B. in the Black Forest and in other German low mountain ranges.

In 2019, air pollution was identified by the WHO as the greatest environmental risk to health.

Schematic representation of various causes and effects of air pollution: (1) greenhouse effect, (2) fine dust pollution, (3) increased UV radiation, (4) acid rain, (5) ozone pollution, (6) pollution with nitrogen oxides
Sources and multi-effects of air pollutants: One pollutant can contribute to several environmental problems

On the people

Medical knowledge

Estimated number of premature deaths from air pollution in 2004, country statistics based on
WHO data
Exposure to air pollutants in cities.

The pollutants in the air can, depending on the type of substance and the prevailing concentration (s), affect human health (mainly diseases of the respiratory tract and the circulatory system ) or, in the worst case, lead to death. According to the WHO, around eight million people die each year due to air pollution. Globally, the use of fossil fuels is the main cause of premature deaths from air pollution with a share of around 65%. 133 out of 100,000 inhabitants die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution. This means that the pollution in Europe is above the global average (120 out of 100,000 inhabitants). Globally, more people die as a result of air pollution (8.8 million per year) than from smoking (7.2 million per year).

Air pollution can affect almost all organs, systems and functions in the human body (including the lungs, heart, brain, blood circulation, digestive system and reproductive system) and cause a variety of acute and chronic diseases. It is a major cause of pneumonia , bronchitis and asthma in children and slows the growth of the lungs in children and adolescents. It contributes to heart disease and heart attacks , strokes , cancer , asthma, COPD , diabetes mellitus , allergies , eczema and skin aging. In addition, recent evidence suggests that it also leads to dementia and and affects brain growth in young children.

Air pollution causes lung cancer and increases the risk of bladder cancer . In 2010, more than 220,000 lung cancer deaths worldwide were due to air pollution, which corresponds to around 15 percent of all lung cancer deaths this year. On October 17, 2013, air pollution was officially classified as a cause of cancer by the WHO.

In principle, all people around the world are affected by air pollution from the womb to old age, but there are great differences in exposure. Unborn children, children, the elderly and people with previous illnesses are particularly sensitive; Women from low-income countries who cook on an open fire with solid fuels such as biomass or coal are particularly hard hit.

The increase in illnesses or the increase in mortality during such smog episodes is mainly attributed to the increased concentrations of five substances at these times:

The effect of these substances on humans cannot be viewed in isolation, but is also determined by factors such as B. influences the temperature or the humidity. A distinction must also be made between acute health effects and long-term chronic cancers, e.g. caused by fine dust.

Study results

According to the WHO , around eight million people died prematurely in 2012 as a result of air pollution. Approx. 3.7 million of these people died prematurely from outdoor air pollution and approximately 4.3 million from indoor air pollution. However, around 790,000 people per year in the EU continued to die prematurely from air pollution in 2015 than the world average. The number of premature deaths from air pollution in the EU was higher than the number of deaths from road traffic. Globally, fossil fuels are responsible for around 65% of premature deaths from air pollution. In Germany, around 124,000 people die prematurely as a result of air pollution. Of these, around 74,000 can be traced back to fossil fuels. It is believed that the energy transition can prevent millions of premature deaths worldwide each year. Studies for Europe found that switching from fossil fuels to non-polluting renewable energies could prevent approximately 434,000 premature deaths, or 55% of the total premature deaths caused by air pollution.

According to the results of the State of Global Air (SOGA) study published in 2019, children born today have a significantly reduced life expectancy due to air pollution. In South Asia, life expectancy is reduced by 30 months, in East Asia by 23 months, and in developed countries by less than 5 months. In this context, there is a link between air pollution and factors such as low birth weight, reduced lung development and asthma in children and adolescents.

According to a study published in 2018, air pollution also has a negative impact on intelligence. The effects increased with age, especially in men.

According to a study published in 2020, life expectancy is falling by 2.9 years due to air pollution.

Controversy over human impact assessment methods

There are several methods of describing the severity of the effects pollution has on humanity. For example, it is widespread to say how many years of life are lost in total due to pollution. Instead, or in addition, other data consider whether people have to live suffering for many years due to air pollution - but may not even die prematurely. Some evaluation methods primarily consider the financial burdens that arise for a people.

A measure of the prematurely deceased is highly controversial among statisticians. The Greek health scientist and statistician John Ioannidis criticizes that "prematurely deceased" is a "very problematic measure". Better is the measure of disability-adjusted life years , in which one counts how many years one has to live with a disability due to a corresponding illness. The mathematician and epidemiologist Peter Morfeld also agrees. He regards figures on "prematurely deceased" as dubious and, according to him, such figures are aimed primarily at the public and politics. They wouldn't have much to do with science . Robins and Greenland (1989) argued that the measure of "prematurely deceased" is wrong because the statistical model on which the calculation is based is not identifiable under certain conditions . According to a study published in 2019, your mathematically demanding argumentation was not sufficiently taken into account because it is considered to be very demanding. As of 2019, however, the number of people who died prematurely is still widespread in science and continues to be used in publications by scientific academies.

On the environment

Air pollution can lead to numerous environmental problems:

  • Acidification and eutrophication through emissions of acidifying and eutrophic pollutants (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia)
  • Impairment of air quality through emissions of ozone precursors, dust, heavy metals, persistent organic and other pollutants
  • Increase in light pollution from emissions of aerosols and dust

Air pollution also has a negative effect on plant growth and reduces e.g. B. the yield of important crops , which negatively affects the food supply of the world. For example, due to air pollution and climate change , the yield of wheat in India in 2010 was 36% lower than in a reference scenario without these negative factors; in some cases the decline in earnings was up to approx. 50%. About 90% of the drop in yield is due to the direct effect of short-lived pollutants such as soot and ozone , the rest to their contribution to warming .

On materials

Air pollution also affects materials that humans use as materials. Materials such as steel , glass and stone are attacked by air pollutants . The corrosion rate of steel even allows initial conclusions to be drawn about the extent of air pollution. With bronze it was observed that different alloys can lead to different types of corrosion despite the same environmental conditions.

On cultural goods

The acids formed due to air pollution in connection with water also attack cultural assets and lead z. B. to stone corrosion , damage stained glass or destroy, if they penetrate the ground with the rain , to a large extent archaeological cultural property, especially non-precious metals such as iron . Certain indications suggest that the appearance of bronze sculptures only changed with the appearance of industrial air pollution.

On photovoltaic systems

Polluted air lowers the yield of solar systems . According to an evaluation of data from 119 measuring stations in China by researchers at ETH Zurich, the average illuminance fell by 24 watts per square meter in the second half of the 20th century due to air pollution. The resulting loss of electrical energy is estimated at around 14 billion kilowatt hours in 2016 alone.

In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, solar energy researchers determined that in New Delhi, India, the air became significantly clearer and more sunlight reached the earth's surface due to the decline in air pollution as a result of the exit restrictions . Accordingly, after the issued curfews at the end of March 2020, solar radiation increased by around 8.3% compared to previous years; In April, solar radiation was 5.9% above values ​​from previous years. On the other hand, there would have been no significant differences in February and early March 2020. From this, the researchers deduce that a reduction in air pollution will increase the yield from photovoltaic systems, especially in heavily polluted urban regions.

Monitoring of air pollution control measures

In Germany there are a number of Federal Immission Control Ordinances (BImSchV) based on the Federal Immission Control Act (BImSchG). B. go back to the European Air Quality Directive 2008/50 / EC of May 21, 2008 . The operators of plants that require approval must specify the type, quantity, spatial and temporal distribution of the air pollution emitted by the plant in an emissions declaration.

Since May 26, 2011, EU citizens have been able to see exactly who is polluting the air in their surroundings: the European Commission and the European Environment Agency have published new maps as part of the European Pollutant Emissions Register showing on a scale of 5 × 5 km where emission sources such as road and air traffic for the release u. a. of fine dust. Previously, such values ​​could only be viewed selectively, for example for individual industrial plants.

The Federal Environment Agency and the federal states publish current measured values ​​(e.g. fine dust, ozone) from over 400 measuring stations in Germany on the Internet.

See also


Air pollution control and exhaust gas cleaning

  • Joachim Alexander: Air pollution control in Germany: Emissions and immissions development since 1970 . Reports on German regional studies 73, pp. 365–379 (1999), ISSN  0005-9099
  • Jürgen Assmann, Katharina Knierim, Jörg Friedrich: Air pollution control planning in the Federal Immission Control Act . Natur und Recht 26 (11), pp. 695-701 (2004), ISSN  0172-1631
  • Walter Kaminsky: Process for the desulphurisation of flue gas . Chemie Ingenieur Technik 55 (9), pp. 667-683 (1983), ISSN  0009-286X
  • Manfred Koebel, Martin Elsener: Denitrification of exhaust gases using the SNCR process: ammonia or urea as a reducing agent ? Chemie Ingenieur Technik 64 (10), pp. 934-937 (1992), ISSN  0009-286X
  • Commission decision of July 17, 2000 on the establishment of a European Pollutant Emissions Register (EPER) in accordance with Article 15 of Council Directive 96/61 / EC on integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC). Official Journal of the European Communities L192, pp. 36-43 (July 28, 2000), ISSN  0376-9461
  • Dieter Maas: EPER - European Pollutant Emission Register: Development and Status. KA - Abwasser, Abfall 52 (2), pp. 138-140 (2005), ISSN  1616-430X

Health aspects

  • Anonymous: Air pollution - a serious health risk in some of the world's major cities . Bundesgesundheitsblatt 36 (5), p. 202 ff. (1993), ISSN  0007-5914
  • Ursula Ackermann-Liebrich: Epidemiological approaches to clarify the connections between air pollution and health . Environmental Medicine in Research and Practice 4 (1), pp. 25-27 (1999), ISSN  1430-8681
  • Rembert Watermann: Alexander von Humboldt and the chemical research into the “health of the air” . In: Centaurus , Volume 8, 1963, pp. 48-68 ( doi: 10.1111 / j.1600-0498.1963.tb00548.x ).
  • D. Nowack: Effects of Air Pollution on Risk Patients . Respiratory and lung diseases 25 (6), p. 294 ff. (1999), ISSN  0341-3055
  • Nino Künzli, Reinhard Kaiser, Rita Seethaler: Air Pollution and Health: Quantitative Risk Assessment . Environmental medicine in research and practice 6 (4), pp. 202-212 (2001), ISSN  1430-8681
  • Annette Peters, Joachim Heinrich, Erich H. Wichmann: Health effects of fine dust - epidemiology of short-term effects . Environmental medicine in research and practice 7 (2) pp. 101–115 (2002), ISSN  1430-8681

Web links

Wiktionary: air pollution  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Air Pollution  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files
  • Special page air and air pollution control of the German Federal Environment Agency
  • Special page air from the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment
  • EURAD - daily forecast of air pollutants in Germany and Europe (Rheinisches Institut für Umweltforschung)

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