How Environmental Engineers Help Fight Air Pollution

This is how environmental engineers help minimize and eliminate air pollution.
Christopher McFadden

Air pollution is the bane of many people's lives who live in heavily built-up areas around the world. While in many developed nations it has become less of a problem over time, for a lot of developing nations the problem is only just beginning. 

It takes skill and dedication of a very special class of professionals to effectively control, minimize, or hopefully, eliminate air pollution - these professionals are air quality engineers. Thanks to their hard work and solutions along with the help of regulatory organs, we are turning the tide against this industrial menace. 


What are the main health effects of air pollution?

Millions of people around the world live in areas where urban smog, particulate pollution, and toxic pollutants are at a level that could pose very serious health concerns to them.

air pollution engineers haze
Source: Peter Griffin

Some of the most notable reactions to inhalation or general exposure to air pollution include, but are not limited to: 

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and breathing difficulties
  • Existing lung and heart problems, such as asthma, becoming worse
  • Increased risk of heart attack

Not only that, but long term exposure to air pollution has also been linked to an increased likelihood of developing certain types of cancer as well as damage the immune, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems.

If the levels are high enough, it can even lead to death. 

While air pollution affects many people, there are some demographics who are at more risk than others. The most sensitive members of the public include young children, older adults, people who are active outdoors a lot, and people with underlying health conditions like asthma.

air pollution is bad for you
Source: ElizabethViera/Wikimedia Commons

For these reasons, among many, it is in the best interest of us all to get to grips with air pollution and try to eliminate it as much as possible. But first, let's find out why air pollution is such a big problem.

What are the main environmental effects of air pollution?

Well, of course, air pollution happens to be pretty bad for the environment too, not just human health. It can cause a variety of issues such as: 

  • Acid rain - The emission of sulfur and nitrous oxides can lead to the development of nitric and sulfuric acids that can fall back to Earth as wet or dry precipitation. Acid rain is incredibly damaging to soil, aquatic environments, and entire ecosystems in affected areas.
  • Eutrophication - Nitrous oxide emissions can also lead to an excess buildup of some nutrients, like nitrogen, in water bodies. This often leads to algal blooming which can devastate aquatic food chains. 
  • Poisoning of animals - Toxic pollutants in the air tend to accumulate on soil and surface waters over time. These can seriously affect the health of many animals and can even lead to birth defects, reproductive failure, and diseases. 
  • Ozone depletion in the stratosphere - Air pollutants like CFCs, HFCs, and halons have historically been shown to have a role in depleting the ozone layer in the stratosphere. As this natural UV filter in our atmosphere becomes thinner, more UV from the Sun is able to reach the Earth's surface. UV radiation in high doses can cause myriad health problems in humans and also directly damage crop plants, for example.
  • Climate change - Large scale production of manmade greenhouse gases is widely believed to be responsible for trapping more of the Sun's heat within the atmosphere. If the average global temperature rises by just a few degrees, it will have serious implications for human health, agriculture, water resources, and the ecosystems we rely on for food and raw materials. 

What can we do to help stop air pollution?

Many activities we do on a daily basis contribute to air pollution either directly or indirectly. For example, anything that uses electricity generated by the burning of fossil fuels, and thus, it tends to contribute indirectly to air pollution. 

Other things like driving a combustion-engined car, cleaning your windows with chemicals, or even styling your hair with aerosols all contribute, albeit in a small way, to build-up air pollution, locally and globally. 

air pollution renewables
Source: WangAnQi/iStock

While it is almost impossible to completely stop all these activities, there are some things we can all do to help as individuals:

  • Try to conserve energy as much as possible.
  • Use more efficient bulbs and appliances.
  • Try to limit driving or consider carpooling, public transport, biking, or walking.
  • Give your best to combine errands into fewer trips.
  • Keep your vehicle well maintained and tuned.
  • Try to avoid excess idling or consider getting a vehicle with a start-stop engine.
  • If you can afford one, get yourself an electric vehicle or hybrid.
  • Only run dishwashers and washing machines when full.
  • Try to actively choose environmentally-friendly cleaning products.
  • Always try to use water-based or solvent-free paints, especially those with no or low volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Also ensure that you fully seal cleaning products, chemicals, solvents, and others, to prevent the evaporation of VOCs into the air.

What do environmental engineers do and how do you become one?

If tackling air pollution is something that sounds interesting to you, you may like to find out what exactly the job of an environmental engineer entails, and how to become one. 

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The term "environmental engineer" is quite broad, when it comes to air pollution we are really talking about air quality engineering.

Air quality engineers, like many other types of engineers, perform a variety of tasks which fall into several categories: 

  • Modeling and understanding pollution and its sources.
  • Monitoring emissions and compliance with applicable regulations.
  • Designing and implementing quality improvement solutions.

Given the diversity in knowledge needed for these kinds of tasks, air quality engineers tend to have experience in various hard sciences like chemistry, biology, and statistics to back their decision-making processes better.

An air quality engineer's job is to monitor, control, and most importantly, reduce air pollution to help improve public health.

Perfect, but how do you become one? And what are the job prospects for the field in the future?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), environmental engineering, especially air quality engineering, is a relatively healthy field to get in to. The BLS predicts that we should see a 12% growth in positions between 2014 and 2024. 

air quality engineers testing
Source: Friends of the Earth

For environmental engineers, the median salary, as of 2019, was around $89,000 per annum, according to the BLS. Newer sources, like PayScale, record the average at around $73,000 at the time of writing.

Air quality engineers tend to require a bachelor's degree in either science or mathematics, in addition to engineering. Most tend to also pursue a master's degree that will expand their knowledge of the field, as well as specialize them where required.

In the U.S. some universities run relevant master's degrees, such as the University of California, Riverside

What can environmental engineers do to prevent pollution?

Let's explore the things that air quality engineers can do to help control and reduce air pollution. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. They can help model and improve our understanding of air pollution

One way that environmental engineers can help control air pollution is through modeling and critical analysis. For proposed developments of places like chemical factories, they can analyze its life cycle to identify what emissions will be like throughout the production processes. 

air quality monitoring
Source: VanderWolf-Images/iStock

They will also be able to model the kinds of air pollutants the factory will likely generate. Armed with this knowledge, they are able to advise on technologies, or other strategies, that can help reduce or even prevent particularly dangerous emissions. 

One great historic example of this was the application of air quality engineering methods to help tackle nitrogen dioxide emissions in major U.S. metro areas. The engineers noted the impact of automobiles and coal-fired plants and then, contributed to designs for cleaner engines and power plants. 

They also helped advocate for the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule to limit emissions. 

2. Air quality engineers can help monitor and enforce compliance with regulations

For environmental engineers who work for public bodies, it is their job to monitor air quality and ensure compliance with mandatory standards in place. This can be for existing infrastructure and buildings or by reviewing plans for proposed new sites.

air quality regs
Source: Gudella/iStock

For proposed new installations, any existing permission processes will include a review of the potential environmental impact and ensure that the best possible controls were considered by the designers. 

For existing sites, air quality engineers will assess compliance against standards, like the U.S. Clean Air Act, through regular monitoring and public health-based screening.

Air quality engineers also work in the public sector to perform similar tasks but in a more proactive rather than reactive way. It is their job to ensure their companies are meeting any legally binding regulations and prevent financial penalties or public relations issues. They may also be involved in negotiations with regulatory agencies for proposed or existing regulatory standards. 

3. They can also help design and implement solutions to help tackle air pollution

And finally, one of the most critical ways that air quality engineers help reduce air pollution is through their work in designing and building technological solutions. Whether it be better ventilation systems, emission filtration technologies, regenerative incinerators, and a multitude of other solutions, these devices are usually designed, monitored, and maintained by air quality engineers. 

air quality clean air
Source: courtneyk/iStock

Environmental engineers are also responsible for making improvements to existing scientific evaluation kits, along with applications of engineering methodology and consultation of regulatory guidance.

To sum up, air pollution is an inconvenience of living in industrialized societies today. But with many talented and dedicated environmental engineers on the job, it may someday become less of an issue worldwide. 

If you care about this sort of thing, why not start your career in this fast-moving and rewarding career path? Good luck!

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