Air pollution: what are the environmental impacts?

Marie Voyer
April 2024

The production of electrical and electronic equipment in the industrial sector has a definite impact on the environment in general. The life cycle of these types of manufactured products (extraction of raw materials, transport, use) modifies air quality, among other things, with a more or less significant environmental impact. The environmental assessment of all electrical and electronic equipment must be a priority in order to reduce air pollution as much as possible during its life cycle. At Qweeko, we carry out the LCA of each product using air impact indicators for the preservation of life, the climate and the environment in general: contribution to the greenhouse effect, air acidification, tropospheric ozone formation, depletion of the ozone layer, particles and respiratory effects of inorganic substances. Let's take a closer look.

A major impact on the climate: greenhouse gas emissions into the air

The presence of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere plays a key role in regulating the climate. These gases trap a large proportion of the sun's energy. This retention is known as the greenhouse effect.

What is the greenhouse effect? When solar radiation reaches the Earth (1), around 30% of the rays are reflected (3), 20% are absorbed by the atmosphere, and 50% pass through it and end up absorbed by the ground (2). As a result, the Earth emits infrared rays (4), 5 to 10% of which escape into space (5), while the rest are retained by the atmosphere due to the presence of greenhouse gases (6). It is these infrared rays that contribute to the natural warming of the planet. Without this natural greenhouse effect, the Earth's temperature would be around -18°C. Thanks to this phenomenon, it is now 15°C.

However, the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas increases the concentration of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Higher or lower levels of GHGs increase air pollution and thus global warming. During the production of electrical and electronic equipment, each natural and industrial greenhouse gas has a greater or lesser warming potential. These include:

  1. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, a natural greenhouse gas created in large quantities as a result of certain human activities in the petrochemical and steel industries. CO2 is responsible for more than 50% of the global greenhouse effect.
  2. Nitrous oxide, a natural greenhouse gas, comes from the combustion of fossil fuels for heating and transport. Its warming power is 298 times greater than CO2, and its lifespan in the atmosphere is 120 years, compared with only 100 years for CO2. Even though it is present in smaller quantities in the atmosphere, this GHG has a major impact on increasing the greenhouse effect and destroying the ozone layer.
  3. Fluorinated gases such as CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs, PFCs, etc. are used in cooling systems (refrigerators, air conditioning), as solvents (cleaning of electronic components) and in the production of aluminium.
  4. Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) is a leak detection gas used in electrical insulation.

Air acidification

The release of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, hydrochloric acid and ammonia into the atmosphere causes air pollution in the form of acidification. In the presence of humidity, these gases are transformed into acids. This causes acid rain, which lowers the pH of soils, rivers and lakes.

This air pollution is mainly caused by the use of sulphur-based fuels (fuel oil, diesel, lignite, petroleum coke). Air pollution caused by nitrogen dioxide is the result of industrial processes initiated by transport vehicles and combustion plants. Each fallout of acid pollutants can also damage buildings.

Air pollution by tropospheric ozone

Tropospheric ozone is formed in the lower atmosphere, where we live. It is a highly irritating and reactive pollutant gas, harmful to human health because it penetrates easily into the respiratory tract.

Ozone is formed from a UV-induced air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, emitted by vehicle exhausts or incinerators. In the event of an air pollution episode, nitrogen oxide and VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) emissions from industry, transport and domestic use must be reduced.

Ozone depletion: an impact on human and animal health

The ozone depletion impact indicator reflects the level of air pollution. Ozone depletion results from the reaction between ozone and ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). When these substances are released into the atmosphere, they decompose under the effect of the sun's UV rays. This produces chlorine and bromine atoms. CFCs are found in many products that have been banned from sale since the late 1980s.

  • Some air-conditioning and refrigeration systems
  • Industrial cleaning solvents
  • Aerosol cans
  • Fire extinguishers.

The use of this type of substance contributes significantly to the depletion of the ozone layer, and even to the appearance of holes*. The consequences for human health, animal health and the environment are vast and harmful. The increase in UV rays can eventually lead to skin cancer, a weakening of the immune system, disruption of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and repercussions on plants and therefore agricultural crops

*Holes in the ozone layer first appeared in the 1980s. Since the early 2000s, the scientific community has observed that these holes are closing regularly, at a rate of 1 to 3% per year, and it is predicted that they will return to their pre-1980 state within 10 years for the northern hemisphere, 30 years for the southern hemisphere, and 40 years for the poles.

Air pollution: inhalation of fine particles and its respiratory effects

Fine particles with a very small diameter are found as pollutants in the atmosphere. This type of pollutant is particularly harmful to human health. Inhaling it can cause respiratory pathologies and irritations, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Suspended particulate matter (PM) is responsible for soiling buildings, as are nitrogen oxides, which include nitrogen monoxide, which becomes nitrogen dioxide when it comes into contact with the air.

These environmental indicators are essential tools for studying, analysing and reducing the impact of industrial production on the environment, climate and health. Indeed, by repeating the process of measuring these indicators, we can increasingly identify levers for reduction. In this way, the electrical and electronic equipment sector can plan for the long term to restrict its overall environmental impact in order to limit the negative repercussions associated with its activity.

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