Oxygen, of course, is the most critical component of the air we breathe. However, air consists majorly of two elements – oxygen (21%) and nitrogen (78%). Carbon dioxide, argon, and other gases make up the remaining 1%. Besides these gases, air also contains dust, smoke, and acid droplets; all of these result from human activity. Scientists believe that the high proportion of nitrogen in our atmosphere made Earth the perfect surface for life to develop on. Nitrogen made Earth the only planet to sustain life.
We all know, for humans, oxygen is the component of air of prime importance to us. However, the air we breathe in and breathe out does not have exactly the same composition. The air we breathe in has the same general composition as that of air globally, 21% of oxygen and 0.04% carbon dioxide. But, when we breathe out, the air contains 16.4% of oxygen and 4.4% of carbon dioxide. The percentage of oxygen exhaled is less than that inhaled because our cells use oxygen to release energy in our bodies. In the process of providing us with energy, our cells release carbon dioxide as a byproduct. This is why we exhale more carbon dioxide than we inhale.
Air also contains water vapour, 0.05% of it to be precise. When you stand in front of a mirror or glass windowpane and breathe on it, you must have surely noticed a thin film of moisture appear. Have you ever wondered where this moisture comes from? It is our body giving out the water vapour we breathe in.
How Clean is the Air We Breathe?
More than 90% of the global population lives in areas with air quality far below recommended standards. The number of people at the risk of air-pollution related diseases grows every year. So how clean really is the air we breathe?
Sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter contribute to ambient air pollution. A small quantity of these pollutants is naturally present in the Earth’s atmosphere. Their natural sources include dust storms, volcanoes, and forest fires. However, humans put a large quantity of these pollutants into the atmosphere. Activities like burning fossil fuels, burning crops, using chemical fertilizers, and emissions from vehicles release enormous quantities of contaminants. Let’s look at these pollutants in detail.
1. Carbon monoxide (CO)
Cooking and heating appliances in buildings and vehicular emissions are some of the most common sources of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide tends to accumulate in closed spaces, like offices or inside your home. Exposure to small proportions of carbon monoxide causes nausea and drowsiness. However, exposure to sufficiently large amounts can cause unconsciousness or even death.
2. Ozone (O3)
Photocopiers are one of the most significant sources of ozone in the workplace. You must always follow the manufacturer’s advice to avoid danger. Ozone inhalation can lead to cataracts, retinal damage, and lung damage in the most severe cases.
3. Particulate matter (PM)
Particulate matter is extremely small solid, or liquid particles present suspended in the air. The common sources of PM include fires, dust, coal burning, and car engines. Exposure to PM affects mainly the lungs.
Apart from ambient air pollution, some substances can cause indoor air pollution too. Smoking tobacco and cooking heat stoves are some sources that contribute to indoor air pollution.
Based on all we have learned so far, we can safely assume that the air we breathe today does more harm to our bodies and health than good.
Where Did the Air We Breathe Come From?
The air we breathe has travelled thousands of kilometres to reach us. Due to the effect of the sun’s heat, the air in our atmosphere is never still. It is always moving. The air we are breathing right now might have been on the other side of the world just a few days ago. While journeying across the globe, the air picks up quite a number of elements and particles. Some of these are vital to the functioning of ecosystems. Unfortunately, most of these are harmful to human health and the environment.
Tectonic forces created most of the air on our Earth billions of years ago. Tectonic forces are the same forces that create volcanoes, mountains, and earthquakes. The other process responsible for air production is photosynthesis. Plants and trees perform photosynthesis, replacing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with oxygen. 70% of oxygen in the atmosphere comes from the photosynthesis of marine plants like phytoplankton.
The first air that was ever formed on Earth came from a thin layer of hydrogen and helium. These gases blew away from the hot rocks forming the Earth. The volcanoes that formed soon after released water vapour, hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, and water vapour. After these two phases of atmosphere formation came the cyanobacteria. The cyanobacteria released oxygen into the atmosphere. The air during that period of time had almost the same composition as the air today.
How Does the Air We Breathe Affect Our Health?
The air we breathe affects our health in ways invisible to us. Breathing in polluted air causes breathing difficulties, asthma, and other lung problems. Exposure to low air quality for extended periods of time can put people at a higher risk of cancer and heart disease.
What do you picture in your mind when you think of air pollution? Do you think of cars idling in traffic? Or do you imagine power stations with black smoke billowing out chimneys? You’re not wrong, of course. But air pollution can occur in your home or workplace just as much as it occurs outside.
Whether it occurs outside or inside closed spaces, the effects of air pollution are the same. People who already have difficulty breathing are the ones that feel the impact the most. When people with asthma expose themselves to low ozone levels, their lungs get inflamed. As a result, the passages through which air travels to reach the lungs narrow, making it harder for those people to breathe.
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