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Amanda Lee

Mr. Burns
Big History
21 March 2016
Little Big History Essay: Air Pollution
During the Hadean era of early earth, atmospheric levels of oxygen
were less than 1%, levels of gases toxic to humans were high (Hadean
Era), and the Air Quality Index, a scale that measures the amount of air
pollution in the air today, would be off the charts. Although the words air
pollution often bring to mind man-made emissions, pollution is not
always caused by humans. Depending on perspective, it can be also
naturally occurring. While the atmosphere of early earth is theoretically
toxic to humans, the air that is suited to humans is toxic to organisms that
thrived in the harsh environments billions of years ago. Therefore, from
different points of view, different emissions can be considered to be air
pollution. Air pollution is present due to naturally occurring emissions,
and it is in earths atmosphere because of the actions of people and is
also affected by earths features, which increase the impact air pollution
has on the health and lifestyles of humans.
Over the various time periods of early earth, before the evolution of
humans, the atmosphere contained air pollution that would be toxic to
humans, and also comprised of emissions that were lethal to many
organisms of the time. Today, earths atmosphere contains mostly
nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) (Feinstein). In contrast, the early
atmosphere had very low levels of atmospheric oxygen, while amounts of
carbon dioxide and methane were very high. There was little protection
from UV radiation, and there was a strong a strong greenhouse effect due
to the pollutants in the air (Hadean Era). Such gasses accumulated to
form the primordial atmosphere [it] would have been extremely toxic to
life as we now know it (Kazlev). The noxious gases that constituted the
atmosphere were naturally formed, poured out by volcanoes; emissions do
not have to be man-made to have the potential to be harmful to life. Then,
3.8 billion years ago, life developed, and about 2.4 billion years ago, some

cells developed the ability to photosynthesize to use water and carbon

dioxide to produce food as well as oxygen, a waste product. Cyanobacteria
(Fig. 1), a group of oxygen-producing bacteria, eventually liberated
enough O2 to open the way for the evolution of oxidation reactions as the
energy source for the synthesis ATP (Sadava). In other words, this
Oxygen Holocaust permanently changed life on earth. The increasing
levels of oxygen were the destruction of the majority of organisms at the
time, because they were adapted to anaerobic processes (Mini-Thresholds
of Life), meaning that oxygen, which is essential for the survival of
humans, was air pollution to the anaerobic bacteria. Gradually, organisms
that evolved aerobic metabolism gained an advantage, and these
organisms are the most prevalent today. Therefore, natural air pollution
billions of years ago, made up of oxygen, played a vital role in the
evolution of life. Like the field of biology, the field of astronomy also plays
a role in the atmosphere of the earth. Meteorites, rocks that speed
towards earths surface from space, cause substantial amounts of air
pollution when they make contact with the ground. The impact scatters
dirt into the sky and sparks wildfires, and the dust and smoke merge and
block out the sunlight. A meteorite that is a kilometer in diameter would
result in a dramatic drop in photosynthesis rates and in global
temperatures, affecting life significantly (Johnson). Such natural air
pollution occurs today as well.
Recently, there is also air pollution emitted by natural formations on
earth, and on other planets as well. In 1883, the Krakatoa volcano
eruption hurled 45 cubic kilometers of dust into the air (Fig 2.). The debris
darkened skies up to 440 km away from the eruption site, the Sundai
Strait in Indonesia, and in the immediate vicinity, the dawn did not return
for three days. Then, a layer of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants began
to block the sunlight, resulting in a decrease in global temperatures up to
1.2 degrees Celsius for the next half decade. Such weather patterns
continued to be erratic until 1888 (Krakatoa). Additionally, another
volcano, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted and poured air
pollutants into the air less than 30 years ago (Thompson). Such emissions

are naturally occurring, but are equally destructive and impactful as many
man-made pollutants. Additionally, natural air pollution caused by volcanic
activity is not restricted to only earth. Other planets also have pollutants
that would be very toxic to life, as we know it. The majority of the planet
Venus is made up of carbon dioxide (96%), and a little nitrogen (3.5%).
The composition of the atmosphere causes a runaway greenhouse effect
(Redd) that heats the planet to have a surface temperature of
approximately 750 degrees Kelvin. Venus also has sulfuric acid clouds,
which are caused by volcanic emissions. Therefore, the early volcanic
activity is largely responsible for much of Venuss air pollution and
climate. However, although some air pollution is not caused by mankind,
much of it is.
Humans produced significant amounts of air pollution in ancient
civilizations, and then further increased the quantity of contaminants
released into the air during the Industrial Revolution. Humans have
tainted earth's atmosphere since first use of fire half a million years ago
(Industry). Then, after the formation of civilizations, the contamination
of the air grew noticeable. In third century BC, one of Aristotles students,
Theophrastus, complained about ancient Greeces air: [the] smell of
burning coal was disagreeable and troublesome. Around 200 years later,
Seneca also recorded the oppressive air, but in ancient Rome (Air
Pollution: History). Additionally, evidence in the ice core samples from
Greenlands glaciers reveals a change in methane and lead concentrations
in the environment at the time: concentrations went up, but not in step
with warm periods the changes observed must have been coming
from something else (Stromberg). Researchers believe that it was
because of metallurgy, domesticated livestock, and other human activities
(Stromberg; Industry). Before the advent of humans, the atmosphere
experienced natural changes, but never deliberate contamination. Over a
thousand years later, the widespread use of coal further increased the
amount of pollutions that humans released into the air, and it proved to
be deadly. During the Industrial Revolution in Britain during the 1800s,
machines that emitted fossil fuels replaced manual labor (Casper). Steam

locomotives, the quintessential machines of the Industrial Revolution,

used coal as a fuel source to compensate for lack of firewood and
charcoal (History of Fossil Fuel Usage Since the Industrial Revolution).
Coal seemed to be the ideal energy source because it was cheap,
plentiful, easy to transport, and burned longer than wood (Feinstein).
However, it was not until much later did most of society realize the
damage that they had done. Londoners and Americans experienced
terrible smog events that demonstrated the disastrous effects that a
combination of unfavorable topographical features and air pollution can
Earths natural features can greatly impact the movement and
effect of air pollution, and smog events influenced by them sparked
societys recognition of the dangers of air pollution. The airborne
contaminants are greatly affected by earths weather and circulation
patterns. The winds can carry pollution far from their sources, and rain
and snow bring the air pollution particles down to earth. Additionally,
when combined with air pollution, temperature inversions can also have
large consequences (Unit 11: Atmospheric Pollution). The Great London
Smog of 1952 (Fig. 3) was caused by an inversion layer due to a layer of
warm air sitting on top of cold air near the surface of earth, pinning it
down. This caused cold fog to roll over London and prevented air from
dissipating. The cold weather caused people to burn more coal for warmth
(Casper), so the already contaminated air became even more polluted,
and the weather prevented the polluted air from dispersing and moving
away from London. The amount of smoke in the city rose about 300%,
sulfur dioxide by 700% (Coates). 1,100 tons of smoke particles, 2200 tons
of carbon dioxide, 150 tons of hydrochloric acid, 882 tons of sulfuric acid
were in the air each day it was the equivalent of breathing concentrated
lemon juice (Casper; Coates). Thousands of people were killed (Casper).
This smog disaster illustrates the effect of atmospheric conditions on air
pollution trends. Another striking example of this phenomenon is the
worst smog disaster in the history of the United States. The temperature
inversion in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 trapped the pollution generated

by smelting plants, furnaces, and coal burning locomotives there, resulting

in seventy deaths (Feinstein). Therefore, earths natural features that
influence the movement of air particles can magnify and worsen the effect
of air pollution on people. However, despite all the negative results these
events caused, they resulted in heightened awareness of the health
effects air pollution has on people. Four years after the Great London
Smog event, the United Kingdom issued the Clean Air Act of 1956 to
control pollution through smokeless zones and the promotion of smokeless
fuels. Another Clean Air Act followed it ten years later, and more acts were
announced in Canada, the United States, and other countries soon after
(Feinstein). However, although these Clean Air Acts indicate that people
were beginning to realize that air pollution has negative effects on people,
they did not fully understand the nature of these effects and their
The chemical makeup of air contaminants affects their influence as
a pollutant. Fossil fuel combustion is responsible from nearly 90% of
worldwide energy. It is also the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions
(Casper). Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, meaning they are made up of
hydrogen and carbon. Hydrogen is the simplest of all elements with only
one proton and one electron, and it was the first element created during
the big bang. In stars, hydrogen atoms are fused to form heavier chemical
elements. Two hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium, then when stars run
out of hydrogen fuel, they begin using helium. Three atoms of helium form
carbon (Christian). Then, when hydrogen and carbon atoms share
electrons and form covalent bonds to be more stable, and they become a
molecule a hydrocarbon. The creation of hydrogen in the big bang and
the fusion of helium in carbon in stars is the beginning of the creation of
coal, an example of a hydrocarbon fossil fuel. Coal is a sedimentary rock
that was formed mostly during the Paleozoic era (over 300 million years
ago): forests were dominated by giant tree ferns and horsetails their
fossilized remains formed the coal we now mine for energy (Sadava). The
organic matter was buried and after being exposed to high pressure and
temperatures, coal was formed. Today, it is mined and used in power

plants. It is blown into a furnace and heats tubes of water above it to a

boiling point. Then, the water vapor turns a generator to produce
electricity, the steam condenses back into water, and cycle repeats. When
coal is burned, it releases more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel.
China obtains around 75% of its electricity from coal, and it opens a new
coal-fired plant weekly. Many have expressed that coal is both a benefit
and a liability for countries: coal is Chinas double-edged sword the new
economys black gold and the fragile environments dark cloud (Casper).
Humans, in just a few centuries, have been reversing the energy
transformation that arose after millions of years of decomposition. This
current rate of increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the
atmosphere is unprecedented in earths history, and unsurprisingly, it has
had a huge impact on the health of humankind.
Different chemicals are emitted into the atmosphere in various
situations, and many of them have adverse effects on the respiratory
system of humans. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate
matter are just a few examples of chemicals with well-studied detrimental
impacts. Carbon monoxide is released in copious amounts from vehicle
emissions due to the incomplete combustion of oil. It influences the shape
of red blood cells, reducing their carrying capacity for oxygen. This then
results in symptoms of dizziness and fatigue in humans (The Health
Effects of Air Pollution; Sadava). Nitrogen dioxide is emitted due to high
temperature combustion of fossil fuels in vehicles. It inflames the mucous
membrane of the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory tracts, resulting in
increased sensitivity to allergens, and in extreme cases, serious
respiratory diseases. In contrast, particulate matter (PM) can penetrate
much deeper into the lungs. The degree of penetration is determined by
the particle size. PM 10 (particles 10 micrometers in diameter) typically
settles in the lungs, and PM 2.5 (particles 2.5 micrometers in diameter)
can even pass through the lungs onto other organs (Fig. 4). Such
contaminants are released into the atmosphere mostly because of
biomass burning, and are carcinogenic (The Health Effects of Air
Pollution). In addition to PM, many other particles in the air are also

cancer-causing: outdoor air pollution is not only a major environmental

risk to health in general, it is the most important environmental cancer
killer due to the large number of people exposed (Simon). With the
amount of research demonstrating the relation between air pollution and
human health, it is undisputable that air contaminants have a negative
effect on respiratory health.
Both naturally occurring and man-made emissions have been
present throughout history, and the chemistry of the sources of air
contaminants on earth result in emissions that negatively influence
human respiratory heath. Because air pollution is defined as substances
is the air that cause detrimental health effects, various atmospheric
components can be defined as pollutants, depending on perspective.
These different perspectives can enlarge the scope through which the
topic of air pollution is studied, and chemicals that are harmless to
humans may be considered air pollution to other organisms.
Additionally, not only man-made pollutants are toxic to humans; air
pollution on earth during the Hadean era was severe, and

Works Cited:
Air Pollution: History. N.p.: Georgia Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 19
Feb. 2016.
This webpage has information on many different events, inventions, or
regulations in history that are related to air pollution. I used this website
as a starting point and used some of its topics for further research. I used
its information on air pollution in ancient empires (Greece and Rome) as
well as some of this pages graphics, including graphs and pictures on the
London Fog Incident. This source also led me to consider researching
natural, or non-man made, causes of air pollution.
Casper, Julie. Fossil Fuels and Pollution: The Future of Air Quality. New
York: Facts on File, Inc., Jan. 2010. Print.
I incorporated this books information on the emissions of fossil fuels
during the Industrial Revolution and also its effects in the form of the
Great London Smog of 1952 in my project. I also used information about
different processes of fossil fuel combustion, specifically coal and its role
in Chinas economy and its effects. This book was also a key resource
because of the large amounts of background information it has on the
topics I have included in my essay.
Christian, David, Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin. Big History:
Between Nothing and Everything. 1st ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
Education, 9 Aug. 2013. Print.
I used the Big History textbook to learn about the formation of heavier
chemical elements, which play a very important role in the chemical
makeup of the air pollutants. I also used this book to get an idea of the
different disciplines and thresholds that are involved in the complete
history of anything.
Coates, Peter. Environmental History Resources.
Environmental History Resources, 2016. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.)
I used this websites information on the London Smog event of 1952,
incorporating the statistics and comparisons from the site into my essay.
Cyanobacteria (Blue Green Algae) Microscopic View.
A microscopic image of cyanobacteria referenced in the first body
Evolution Of The Atmosphere: Composition, Structure And Energy. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 21 Feb.

This source details the consequences of the Oxygen Holocaust on the

early earths atmospheres chemical makeup. I have used much of its
information to incorporate the fields of biology and chemistry into my
topic. I used this sources information to emphasize photosynthesiss
lasting impact on earths atmosphere.
Feinstein, Stephen. Solving the Air Pollution Problem: What You Can Do.
United States: Enslow Publishers, 2011. Print. 6 Mar. 2016.
This book was a very important resource, providing detailed information
about the smog disaster in Donora, Pennsylvania, and an explanation
behind the topographical reasons behind the disaster. This then led me to
investigate further the effect of earths natural features on the movement
of air pollution. Additionally, this book also had a timeline of Clean Air
Acts, which helped me find one of my key points: although smog disasters
resulted in thousands of deaths, they also resulted in heightened
awareness about the threats of air pollution. Also, I used this books
information on earths atmosphere today, and the impact coal has on it.
Hadean Era. 6 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
I used information from this article on the atmospheric makeup of earth
during the Hadean era, and the effect of the chemical makeup of the
atmosphere on the climate of earth.
The Health Effects of Air Pollution. Aug. 2014. Web. 19 Mar.
This site was a key resource for information on the hazardous health
effects air pollution has on humans. The site provided interesting graphics
that increased my understanding of the chemical effects of contaminants.
Specifically, I used information on the source and health impacts of carbon
monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter.
History of Fossil Fuel Usage Since the Industrial Revolution. n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2016
This site provided the reasoning behind the use of coal, especially during
the Industrial Revolution.
Johnson, Sheila. The Effect of Meteorites on the Earths Ecosystems. n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.
This site explains the impact meteorite collisions with earth have on the
atmosphere and climate of the planet, and also the effect this has on life.
Kazlev, Alan. Palaeos Hadean: The Hadean Eon. 22 Feb.
1999. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

I used a quote from this site to emphasize the toxic nature of the
atmosphere of the Hadean era and to demonstrate that air pollution does
not have to be man-made in order to be hazardous to life.
Krakatoa. ScienceDaily, n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.
This article provided some basic information about the eruption of the
Krakatoa volcano, and also detailed facts about the amount of dust
released and the resulting global climate changes.
Krakatoa Volcano.
Image of Krakatora volcano referenced in the second body paragraph.
London Smog event.
An image of the London Smog event referenced in the third body
Mini-Thresholds of Life. Perf. David Christian. The Big History Project, 2014.
Video on Website.
This video on the big history website provided an account of early life on
earth, including information about the Oxygen Holocaust. David Christian
speaks about the impact that the change in earths atmosphere had on
the organisms way of life. I used this source for basic information on the
effect photosynthesis had on the earths atmosphere and a different
perspective on what air pollution is for various creatures.
PM relative sizes.
An image of the size of particulate matter compared to other objects that
is referenced in the last body paragraph.
Redd, Nola. Venus Atmosphere: Composition, Climate and Weather. Purch, 16 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.
I used the website for information on the chemical makeup of Venuss
atmosphere, its source, and how it affects the climate of the planet.
Sadava, David. Principles of Life. By David M. Hillis, H. Craig Heller, and
Mary V. Price. Sinauer Associates, 2012. 2-4. Print.

Chapter 1 lesson 1 in the Principles of Life textbook provided information

about the cause of the Oxygen Holocaust. Then, I also used chapter 18
lesson 3s facts about oxygens impact on other mass extinctions during
the various time periods of early earth. This source also led me to
consider other biology-related aspects of air pollution.
Simon, Stacey. World Health Organization: Outdoor Air Pollution Causes
Cancer. American Cancer Society, 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 7
Mar. 2016.
This website provided some background information on the carcinogenic
effect of pollutants, and also quotes from experts about the topic. It also
had showed some correlations between cancer and air pollution.
Stromberg, Joseph. Air Pollution Has Been a Problem Since the Days of
Ancient Rome. Smithsonian Magazine Feb. 2013: n.pag. Web. 21
Feb. 2016.
This magazine article is about proof of man made air pollution from the
times of Ancient Rome. I used its information about increases in methane
concentration to demonstrate the effect of humans on the earths air
Thompson, Andrea. Big Blasts: Historys 10 Most Destructive Volcanoes. Live Science, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.
This site led me to research the atmospheric effect of volcano eruptions. It
led me to research the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa further, and I directly
used its information about the eruption and effects of Mount Pinatubo.
Works Consulted:
Pollution. n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Figure 1: microscopic view of cyanobacteria (Cyanobacteria).

Figure 2: Krakatoa after eruption (Krakatoa Volcano).

Figure 3: the Great London Smog of 1952 (London Smog event).

Figure 4: PM 10/2.5 relative sizes (PM relative sizes).