Carbon dioxide occurs naturally in the atmosphere. It is an essential ingredient in photosynthesis, the process by which plants make food and energy. Levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have increased since the Industrial Revolution. The primary causes are deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels such as coal. As carbon dioxide levels have risen, so have its effects on air pollution. Carbon dioxide accounts for less than 1 percent of the atmospheric gases. However, a delicate balance exists between carbon dioxide and other gases. The concern over carbon dioxide is the significant change over a relatively short period of time.
Carbon dioxide contributes to air pollution in its role in the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide traps radiation at ground level, creating ground-level ozone. This atmospheric layer prevents the earth from cooling at night. One result is a warming of ocean waters. Oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, higher water temperatures compromise the oceans' ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Over time, the effects of carbon dioxide are compounded.
Another environmental effect of carbon dioxide on air pollution is climate change. The earth's surface temperature has risen over the last 100 years, according to studies done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Scientists believe carbon dioxide pollution is the primary culprit. The effects are highly complex. Evidence shows, however, that ocean water levels have increased, resulting in a loss of shoreline and coastal wetlands.
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Carbon dioxide is a contributor to the environmental effect known as acid rain. Emissions released from fossil fuel-burning energy plants combine with moisture in the air. The result is precipitation with a high acid content. Documented evidence shows the physical damage to trees and other plant life. Water and soil pollution occur from the acidic precipitation. A complicating factor is the mobility of emissions. The effects of carbon dioxide can be seen and felt far from their sources, making their impacts on air pollution more serious.
Human Health Impacts
Carbon dioxide emissions impact human health by displacing oxygen in the atmosphere. Breathing becomes more difficult as carbon dioxide levels rise. In closed areas, high levels of carbon dioxide can lead to health complaints such as headaches. Carbon dioxide levels may indicate high levels of other harmful air pollutants such as volatile organic compounds which contribute to indoor air pollution.