Atmospheric Science

Anthropogenic and natural air pollution emissions

Air pollutant emissions (commonly referred to as simply emissions) is the term used to describe any gases, liquid droplets and solid particulates which are emitted or discharged into the atmospheric air and adversely affect the health of humans, animals, ecosystems or the usefulness of a natural resource.

Air pollution emissions may be categorized as being either anthropogenic (that is, resulting from human activities) or natural events that are not the result of any human activities.

The focus of this article is to define the term "air pollutant emissions" as well as identifying and discussing the various anthropogenic and natural sources of air pollutant emissions.

This article does not include any discussion of the specific chemicals and other substances that are designated as air pollutants, the health effects of air pollution, the governmental regulations for controlling and limiting the emissions of air pollutants or the available technologies for reducing air pollution emissions.

Anthropogenic sources of air pollution

The anthropogenic sources of air pollution emissions include:

Stationary point sources: A stationary point source is a single, identifiable source of air pollutant emissions. For example, the emissions from a combustion furnace flue gas stack.

Mobile sources: Mobile sources include the exhaust emissions from vehicles driven by fuel-burning engines. For example: automobiles, trucks, buses, trains, marine vessels, airplanes, etc.

Area sources: An area source is a two-dimensional source of diffuse air pollutant emissions. For example, the emissions of methane and ammonia from piggeries and other livestock operations.

Evaporative sources: Evaporative sources are volatile liquids that, when not completely enclosed in a tank or other container, evaporate and release vapors over time. For example, liquids such as paints, solvents, pesticides, perfumes, hair sprays, aerosol sprays and gasoline.

Controlled burns: Controlled burning is a useful technique practiced in forestry management and in agriculture. Such controlled burns result in the formation and release of smoke, ash, dust, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other air pollutants.

Waste disposal landfills: Microbes and chemical reactions act upon the waste and generate landfill gas that contains methane and carbon dioxide as well as small amounts of ammonia, mercaptans and other sulfides. Eventually, that gas escapes from the landfill and is released into the atmosphere.

Natural Sources of air pollution

The natural sources of air pollution emissions include:

Volcanoes: Volcanic activity produces smoke, ash, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants.

Geysers: The air pollutants emitted by geysers include hydrogen sulfide, arsenic and other heavy metals.

Digestive gases: Methane and other gases generated by the digestion of food and emitted by animals such as cattle.

Oceans, Rivers and Estuaries: These are sources of methane emissions thought to be caused by the digestive systems of marine life, methanogenesis in sediments and drainage areas along coastal regions, and possibly seepage from methane hydrates on the ocean floors.

Dust: Windblown dust from areas with little or no vegetation such as desert areas.

Sea salt: Wind-blown sea water which evaporates in the atmosphere and releases sodium chloride and other particulates into the atmosphere.

Radioactive decay: Radon gas is released into the atmosphere by radioactive decay occurring in the Earth's crust.

Forest fires: Forest fires created by lightning, or other natural causes, result in the formation and release of smoke, ash, dust, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other air pollutants.

Plants and trees: Biogenic sources such as pine trees and certain other plants and trees which release volatile organic compounds (VOC). About 80% of the overall emissions of VOC are from biogenic sources.

Wetlands: Microbial action in wetlands result in significant amounts of methane being formed and released to the atmosphere. In fact, wetlands are the largest natural source of methane emissions.

Termites: Termites are the second largest natural source of methane emissions. The methane is produced by their normal digestive process.

Lightning: Lightning converts atmospheric nitrogen to nitrogen oxides.

Soil outgassing: Another biogenic source wherein microbial action in soils result in the formation and release of significant amounts of nitrogen oxides.

Primary and secondary air pollutants

Primary air pollutants are those that are directly emitted from an emission source (such as listed above). Secondary air pollutants are those that are formed by reactions between the primary air pollutants and normal atmospheric constituents. In some cases, the reactions that produce secondary air pollutants utilize energy derived from sunlight.

Some examples of secondary air pollutants are: sulfuric acid, nitric acid, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN), ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate.

Particulate matter (PM) is present in the atmosphere as both a primary and a secondary air pollutant. Primary PM is released into the atmosphere directly from a source, such as ash in the flue gas emitted from a coal-fired furnace. Secondary PM is produced in the atmosphere in the form of ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate. Most of the secondary PM is the respirable fraction known as PM2.5 which is very small particulate matter having a size of 2.5 μm or less.

The distinction between "emissions" and "effluents"

In general, the term "emissions" is applied to air pollutants released or "emitted" into the atmospheric air. By contrast, the term "effluents" is generally applied to pollutant-containing wastewaters released from industrial or public facilities, agricultural operations and other sources.

caption Content Source: Wikimedia Commons


References from the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Other references and notes:



Beychok, M. (2013). Anthropogenic and natural air pollution emissions. Retrieved from


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