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Air Pollution In 2011 – How Bad Is It Really ?

Updated on December 12, 2012

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that air quality in 2011 is good, compared to forty years ago, but other sources say, “not good enough.”


From “Terrible” To “Bad” Is NOT Much Improvement

Ranking how important a substance is to human life requires that we consider how rapidly human death occurs without such a substance:

  • Air – three minutes
  • Water – three days
  • Food – three weeks

Although these exact time limits might vary slightly from one individual to another, depending on specific circumstances, the “rule of three’s” for survival provides a good general indication that air is the most important substance on Earth. This realization ultimately causes some people to remain unenthusiastic about small improvements in modern-day air quality, compared to air quality of forty years ago.

As ... Joanna Zelman (2011) ... puts it :

“The American Lung Association's newest State of the Air report is a bit like getting a 53 on your math test after you got a 49 on your last one.”

Zelman is talking about the American Lung Association’s ... STATE OF THE AIR 2011 ... official report on air quality in the United States, which indicates that U. S. air quality has been improving slowly since 1970, with notable improvements still taking place between the years 2007-2008. Despite notable improvements, however, the report also points out that air pollution lingers as a widespread, dangerous reality, because roughly half the people in the U. S. live in counties where ozone and particle pollution remain at unhealthy levels.

For 18 Years Between 1990-2008, U. S. Air Pollution Is DOWN 41%

Figure 3, United States Environmental Protection Agency 2010 Report, OUR NATIONS AIR: STATUS AND TRENDS THROUGH 2008
Figure 3, United States Environmental Protection Agency 2010 Report, OUR NATIONS AIR: STATUS AND TRENDS THROUGH 2008 | Source

United States Environmental Protection Agency Agrees

The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 official report, ... OUR NATION’S AIR: STATUS AND TRENDS THROUGH 2008 ... is in agreement with the American Lung Association’s cautious optimism, as it highlights the following trends:

  • Levels of six common pollutants continue to decline.
  • Levels of many toxic air pollutants have declined.
  • Acid rain and haze are declining.
  • Continued improvements are expected in coming years.

Age Old Problem, New Age Intensity

Some people might be surprised to learn that air pollution is NOT a new problem of modern times. The problem has been around for a while, starting in prehistoric times with natural causes and continuing into the current era with “unnatural” causes associated with human ingenuity.

Volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and dust storms produced the first air pollution. Then, with the advent of Homo Erectus (1.8 million years ago) and the discovery of fire, human beings started to contribute a larger share of threatening air to Nature’s unspoiled sources. Next, the industrial revolution and the invention of automobiles introduced fossil fuel emissions into the air pollution mix at ever increasing scales. Finally, as world population skyrocketed, and as more civilizations adopted fossil fuel technologies, the problem of air pollution reached soaring new heights.

As far back as ancient Greece (3rd century B. C.), Theophrastus (a student of Aristotle) noted that “the smell of burning coal was disagreeable and troublesome”. In thirteenth century England, people protested bad air. King Edward Ι even banned imported coal burning in 1237, and there is a case, in the year 1307, where a blacksmith was hanged for violating this decree. In general, however, such bans were unenforceable, and air quality degraded consistently, sometimes to life-threatening levels in future years.

Prominent air pollution disasters during the late 19th and early 20th centuries eventually led to more enlightened attitudes and more effective regulations to protect public health. Today, while some regions of the world show much improvement, other regions (only now at the height of fossil-fuel industrialization), show some of the worst air pollution in history.


NASA Pollution Maps Of Globe And U.S. A.

NASA Global Satellite-Derived Map Of PM2.5 Averaged Over 2001-2006 CREDIT: Dalhousie University, Aaron van Donkelaar
NASA Global Satellite-Derived Map Of PM2.5 Averaged Over 2001-2006 CREDIT: Dalhousie University, Aaron van Donkelaar | Source
NASA U.S.A. Satellite-Derived Map Of PM2.5 Averaged Over 2001-2006. CREDIT: Dalhousie University, Aaron van Donkelaar
NASA U.S.A. Satellite-Derived Map Of PM2.5 Averaged Over 2001-2006. CREDIT: Dalhousie University, Aaron van Donkelaar | Source

Fine Particle Panic

“PM2.5 is air-pollution jargon for “particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers”. A micrometer is one-millionth of a meter or one-thousandth of a millimeter. The two maps above, therefore, illustrate the distribution of particulate matter, in the 2.5-micron range, both globally and locally (in the United States).

Comparison Of Particulate Matter To A Human Hair

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Photo
U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Photo

According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency

“Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as 'fine' particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

Exactly What Air Pollution Is

  • Particulate Matter
  • Lead
  • Sulfur Dioxide
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Nitrogen Dioxide
  • Ozone (ground level)

Specific Examples Of Hazardous Air Pollutants

  • Asbestos
  • Benzene
  • Carbon Tetrachloride
  • Chlordane
  • Chloroform
  • Formaldehyde
  • Heptachlor
  • Hydrochloric Acid
  • Mercury
  • Methanol
  • Phenol
  • Toluene


William F. Hunt, Jr. (no date indicated). ... A Short History Of Air Pollution ... .


The Problem Goes Deeper

This article reviews the issue of present-day, OUTDOOR air pollution. Unfortunately, there is a deeper level to the air-quality problem – INDOOR air pollution, which is the subject of a forthcoming hubpages article.


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    • CWanamaker profile image

      Christopher Wanamaker 

      8 years ago from Arizona

      The importance of reducing air pollution cannot be stressed enough. I like your writing style. This hub is well researched and well organized.

    • stayingalivemoma profile image

      Valerie Washington 

      8 years ago from Tempe, Arizona

      very, vey well put together and informative! great pictures and explanations!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I never thought that our air pollution is taking to the high level, it really makes me feel uncomfortable.

      I hope the government and environmentalist can find a way to stop it or to just reduce it.


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