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Published June 2004 | public
Journal Article

Air pollution: A half century of progress


In the 50 years since the air pollution episodes of Donora, PA and London, U.K., a great deal of progress has been made in understanding the nature and sources of air pollution and the atmospheric transport and transformation of pollutants. Also, many significant technological advances in air pollution control equipment, such as the automobile exhaust gas catalytic converter, have led to effective reduction of emissions from a variety of major pollution sources. Finally, remarkable developments in instrumentation for sampling the trace species in the atmosphere have been and continue to be made. Relatively less progress has been made in understanding the biological mechanisms by which pollutants lead to human injury and mortality. In this review the focus is on the extraordinary progress that has been made over the last half century in understanding the atmospheric nature and behavior of pollutants, both gaseous and particulate. A major breakthrough was the determination of the gas-phase chemistry of both the natural and polluted atmosphere, chemistry that leads to the formation of ozone and a vast array of oxidized molecules. The mechanisms of the oxidation of atmospheric sulfur dioxide, one of the main primary pollutants, were elucidated. Finally, the chemistry, physics, and optics of atmospheric particulate matter (aerosols) have been laid open by many stunning research achievements. Whereas 50 years ago air pollution was thought to be confined to the area around a city, it is now recognized that species emitted on one continent frequently find their way to other continents. Strategies for dealing with a truly global atmospheric backyard now represent a major challenge.

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October 16, 2023