Industrial PollutionOur management of Earth's natural systems is impacting air and water quality around the world.  Warmer temperatures associated with climate change increase the formation of tropospheric ozone, a main constituent of smog and contributor to cardiorespiratory disease.  Warmer temperatures and higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are associated with longer pollen seasons and increased pollen production, intensifying allergic respiratory diseases, such as asthma.  Biomass burning for agriculture in places like equatorial Asia is driving sharp increases in particulate air pollution and associated morbidity and mortality.  In some regions, air pollution has become so pervasive that it obscures the sun, altering regional weather patterns, reducing agricultural yields, and accelerating glacial melting. Man-made pollutants in water bodies pose a threat to drinking supplies. Water-borne pollutants in oceans and terrestrial water systems are also consumed by small organisms and thus enter the food chain.

Learning Objectives

  • L1: Assess the sociocultural, economic and political frameworks that perpetuate polluting activities around the world.
  • L2: Define and describe different types and sources of pollution.
  • L3: Understand the interconnectedness of the 'local' and 'global' in the context of the health impacts of pollution.
  • L4: Explain the natural systems that facilitate the flow of pollutants, highlighting inequalities in impact.


Pope A. Respiratory Disease Associated with Community Air Pollution and a Steel Mill, Utah Valley. AJPH [Internet]. 1989;79 :623-628. Publisher's VersionAbstract

This study assessed the association between hospital admissions and fine particulate pollution (PM10) in Utah Valley during the period April 1985-February 1988. This time period included the closure and reopening of the local steel mill, the primary source of PM10. An association between elevated PM10 levels and hospital admissions for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis, and asthma was observed. During months when 24-hour PM10 levels exceeded 150 micrograms/m3, average admissions for children nearly tripled; in adults, the increase in admissions was 44 per cent. During months with mean PM10 levels greater than or equal to 50 micrograms/m3 average admissions for children and adults increased by 89 and 47 per cent, respectively. During the winter months when the steel mill was open, PM10 levels were nearly double the levels experienced during the winter months when the mill was closed. This occurred even though relatively stagnant air was experienced during the winter the mill was closed. Children's admissions were two to three times higher during the winters when the mill was open compared to when it was closed. Regression analysis also revealed that PM10 levels were strongly correlated with hospital admissions. They were more strongly correlated with children's admissions than with adult admissions and were more strongly correlated with admissions for bronchitis and asthma than with admissions for pneumonia and pleurisy.


Kunii O, Kanagawa S, iwao Yajima, Hisamatsu Y, Yamamura S, Amagai T, Ismail ITS. The 1997 Haze Disaster in Indonesia: Its Air Quality and Health Effects. Archives of Environmental Health [Internet]. 2002;57 :16. Publisher's VersionAbstract

In this study, the authors assessed air quality and health effects of the 1997 haze disaster in Indonesia. The authors measured carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter with diameters less than or equal to 10 microm, inorganic ions, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The authors also interviewed 543 people and conducted lung-function tests and determined spirometric values for these individuals. Concentrations of carbon monoxide and particulate matter with diameters less than or equal to 10 microm reached "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" levels, as defined by the Pollution Standards Index. Concentrations of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were 6-14 times higher than levels in the unaffected area. More than 90% of the respondents had respiratory symptoms, and elderly individuals suffered a serious deterioration of overall health. In multivariate analysis, the authors determined that gender, history of asthma, and frequency of wearing a mask were associated with severity of respiratory problems. The results of our study demonstrate the need for special care of the elderly and for care of those with a history of asthma. In addition, the use of a proper mask may afford protection.

Berners-Lee M, Hoolohan C, Cammack H, Hewitt CN. The relative greenhouse gas impacts of realistic dietary choices. Energy Policy [Internet]. Submitted;43 :184-190. Publisher's VersionAbstract

The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions embodied in 61 different categories of food are used, with information on the diet of different groups of the population (omnivorous, vegetarian and vegan), to calculate the embodied GHG emissions in different dietary scenarios. We calculate that the embodied GHG content of the current UK food supply is 7.4 kg CO2e person−1 day−1, or 2.7 t CO2e person−1 y−1. This gives total food-related GHG emissions of 167 Mt CO2e (1 Mt=106 metric tonnes; CO2e being the mass of CO2that would have the same global warming potential, when measured over 100 years, as a given mixture of greenhouse gases) for the entire UK population in 2009. This is 27% of total direct GHG emissions in the UK, or 19% of total GHG emissions from the UK, including those embodied in goods produced abroad. We calculate that potential GHG savings of 22% and 26% can be made by changing from the current UK-average diet to a vegetarian or vegan diet, respectively. Taking the average GHG saving from six vegetarian or vegan dietary scenarios compared with the current UK-average diet gives a potential national GHG saving of 40 Mt CO2e y−1. This is equivalent to a 50% reduction in current exhaust pipe emissions from the entire UK passenger car fleet. Hence realistic choices about diet can make substantial differences to embodied GHG emissions.

McGrath JM, Lobell DB. Reduction of transpiration and altered nutrient allocation contribute to nutrient decline of crops grown in elevated CO2 concentrations. Plant, Cell & Environment [Internet]. 2013;36 :697-705. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Plants grown in elevated [CO(2) ] have lower protein and mineral concentrations compared with plants grown in ambient [CO(2) ]. Dilution by enhanced production of carbohydrates is a likely cause, but it cannot explain all of the reductions. Two proposed, but untested, hypotheses are that (1) reduced canopy transpiration reduces mass flow of nutrients to the roots thus reducing nutrient uptake and (2) changes in metabolite or enzyme concentrations caused by physiological changes alter requirements for minerals as protein cofactors or in other organic complexes, shifting allocation between tissues and possibly altering uptake. Here, we use the meta-analysis of previous studies in crops to test these hypotheses. Nutrients acquired mostly by mass flow were decreased significantly more by elevated [CO(2) ] than nutrients acquired by diffusion to the roots through the soil, supporting the first hypothesis. Similarly, Mg showed large concentration declines in leaves and wheat stems, but smaller decreases in other tissues. Because chlorophyll requires a large fraction of total plant Mg, and chlorophyll concentration is reduced by growth in elevated [CO(2) ], this supports the second hypothesis. Understanding these mechanisms may guide efforts to improve nutrient content, and allow modeling of nutrient changes and health impacts under future climate change scenarios.

Gillespie KM, Xu F, Richter KT, McGrath JM, Markelz RJC, Ort DR, Leakey ADB, Ainsworth EA. Greater antioxidant and respiratory metabolism in field-grown soybean exposed to elevated O3 under both ambient and elevated CO2. Plant Cell and Environment [Internet]. 2012;35 :169-184. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Antioxidant metabolism is responsive to environmental conditions, and is proposed to be a key component of ozone (O(3)) tolerance in plants. Tropospheric O(3) concentration ([O(3)]) has doubled since the Industrial Revolution and will increase further if precursor emissions rise as expected over this century. Additionally, atmospheric CO(2) concentration ([CO(2)]) is increasing at an unprecedented rate and will surpass 550 ppm by 2050. This study investigated the molecular, biochemical and physiological changes in soybean exposed to elevated [O(3) ] in a background of ambient [CO(2)] and elevated [CO(2)] in the field. Previously, it has been difficult to demonstrate any link between antioxidant defences and O(3) stress under field conditions. However, this study used principle components analysis to separate variability in [O(3)] from variability in other environmental conditions (temperature, light and relative humidity). Subsequent analysis of covariance determined that soybean antioxidant metabolism increased with increasing [O(3)], in both ambient and elevated [CO(2)]. The transcriptional response was dampened at elevated [CO(2)], consistent with lower stomatal conductance and lower O(3) flux into leaves. Energetically expensive increases in antioxidant metabolism and tetrapyrrole synthesis at elevated [O(3)] were associated with greater transcript levels of enzymes involved in respiratory metabolism.

Pattanayak SK, Pfaff A. Behavior, environment and health in developing countries: Evaluation and valuation. Annual Review of Resource Economics [Internet]. 2009;1 :183-222. Publisher's VersionAbstract

We consider health and environmental quality in developing countries, where limited resources constrain behaviors that combat enormously burdensome health challenges. We focus on four huge challenges that are preventable (i.e., are resolved in rich countries). We distinguish them as special cases in a general model of household behavior, which is critical and depends on risk information. Simply informing households may achieve a lot in the simplest challenge (groundwater arsenic); yet, for the three infectious situations discussed (respiratory, diarrhea, and malaria), community coordination and public provision may also be necessary. More generally, social interactions may justify additional policies. For each situation, we discuss the valuation of private spillovers (i.e., externalities) and evaluation of public policies to reduce environmental risks and spillovers. Finally, we reflect on open questions in our model and knowledge gaps in the empirical literature including the challenges of scaling up and climate change.

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