Why people do not care about poisonous gases?
Posted on March 25th, 2013

Dr Hector Perera            London       

How many poisonous gases are around us? Honestly too many to count and that depends on where you are and what time of the day or night.

Our lives are dependent on the air around us.  It is called the earth’s atmosphere.  It consists of several layers of gases and they are upheld by gravity.  The first layer from the earth is about ten miles wide into space.  This layer is called the troposphere.  The gases found here in the largest quantities are nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. 

A substance in the air that can be harmful to humans and the environment is known as air pollutants. In addition, they may be natural or man-made. Pollutants can be in the form of solid particles, liquid droplets, or gases. If you just take a walk down your busy main street, you would notice the air is not the same as in a quite park or in a garden in a country side. In Sri Lanka places like Peradeniya botanical gardens and Haggala gardens are two good examples for clean fresh air. The smell of gases emitted by far too many vehicles such as diesel buses, motor cycles and cars really pollute the air we breathe.

Not long ago I was near Dehiwala fly over and looked around to see the traffic. Honestly I couldn’t believe the load of traffic moving over the fly over as well as the vehicles climbing the Hill Street. Glad the congestion at the junction is eased off due to the fly over but the vehicles going up the Hill Street gave a trail of dusty smoky atmosphere polluting the surrounding air. The three wheelers with passengers on board really struggled up the hill giving a smell along with unburned fuels.

This is the reason why certain vehicles entering a certain area in London are subjected a tax called congestion charge. If there was no limit to the number of vehicles coming to certain parts of London, no need to explain these emitted gases really pollute the atmosphere. Most people are too reluctant to live near busy roads or near motor ways because of air pollution. The value of a property also depends upon the location, if very near a busy road that is less value than a similar property in a quieter road. It has been reported many children attending schools and colleges near busy roads suffer from different kinds of respiratory problems. I was just wondering why some parents choose country side boarding schools or country side schools for the children?

The major primary pollutants produced by human activity include: sulphur dioxide from volcanic eruptions and by various industrial processes. Often the coal is burnt to get power and energy. Coal always contaminated with sulphur compounds and the combustion of these compounds along with coal produces oxides of sulphur which dissolves in rain water to produce H2SO4 or sulphuric acid. This is a part of acid rain that destroys forestry, fish in lakes, erodes buildings and many more damages. We all know nitrogen is a non reactive gas but under high temperature combustion of air even nitrogen gets oxidised to form oxides of nitrogen. This can happen in internal combustion engines of motor vehicles and also in full blast of gas used in cooking with methane gas but do the people care about these things? Have you noticed the queue of motor cycles and vehicles waiting for the signals to change at any light signal? Some vehicles including motor cycles raise the engine unnecessarily, roaring as if they are lined up to race in a formula one race. That hastiness waste fuel unnecessarily apart from polluting the air, no wonder some parts of London are subjected to congestion charging so less traffic enters London.

During thunderstorms nitrogen gas reacts with air to form oxide of nitrogen that reacts further with oxygen to nitrogen dioxide which dissolves easily in rain water to nitric acid. This acid is needed to form nitrates or plant fertilizers but NO2 is one of the most prominent air pollutants.

Carbon monoxide (CO)- is a colourless, odourless, non-irritating gas but a very poisonous gas. It is a product by incomplete combustion of fuel such as natural gas, coal or wood. Vehicular exhaust is a major source of carbon monoxide. Most people ignore to properly ventilate the kitchen during cooking then there is less oxygen in the air to burn methane to produce heat. When there is less oxygen to burn this poisonous carbon dioxide is produced. Apart from that when firewood is burnt in cooking, the yellow flame indicates it is undergoing incomplete combustion that means carbon monoxide is produced. People stay quite close to firewood stoves while cooking then invariably they inhale these poisonous gases. I can ask the question again, would they care? Even if they cared they have no solution because that is the nature of firewood cooking.

In chemistry research labourites certain organic solvents are used for various reactions for example, benzene, toluene and xylene. Now they have concluded that they are suspected carcinogens and may lead to leukaemia through prolonged exposure. 1,3-butadiene is another dangerous compound which is often associated with industrial uses. Fortunately when they are handled with care in fume cupboards, this can be avoided to a great extent.

Many other air pollutants are there for example, chlorofloracarbons or CFCs, ammonia from agricultural processes, it gives as a characteristic pungent odour, odours such as from garbage, swage and industrial processes, radio active pollutants from nuclear explosives and by natural processes such as radioactive decay of radon.

We all can cut down air pollution but we are not paying enough attention. Let me get back to cooking where most of the times we burn cooking gas too much unnecessarily. Excess gas wastage means wastage of hard earned money to spend on gas for cooking. Use it efficiently saving sometimes as much as 60% of the wasting gas. In high temperature nitrogen also reacts with oxygen to produce oxides of nitrogen that dissolve in our breath to form acids. We need to adopt a scientific approach to cook with minimum gas then whatever the gas we saved is a form of saved money. The other advantages of energy saving scientific cooking are many but most important ones are saving energy, cutting down pollutant gas emission and cutting down waiting time in the kitchen. When energy saving authorities inquires this matter, I am prepared to give the full scientific details so it is up to these so called authorities to inquire on this technique to help the general public. The price of gas definitely escalates with the time and it’s high to find out energy saving techniques. How about depending on junk food takeaways so no cooking problems, no energy saving questions? The choice is yours. Any comments please [email protected]


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