How are the atmosphere and environmental pollution related?

While the waste that is disposed of in nature stays in one place, air pollution does not stop at national borders. The wind can carry exhaust gases or particles that we humans emit into the atmosphere over very long distances to the most remote areas. This often does not only lead to air pollution, as many pollutants can be deposited on the ground or deposited in the atmosphere through rain and thus contaminate the soil, lakes and oceans all over the world.

Already the Romans polluted the air

More than 2000 years ago, the extraction of silver in Europe resulted in the emission of lead dust. The use of drinking vessels and other lead objects has caused chronic poisoning. Lead dust was transported long distances through the atmosphere, also to Greenland, where the lead was deposited in the ice like an archive. The analyzes of ice cores show very well that we can trace the economic situation in the Roman Empire, the wars and the plagues that influenced the exploitation of silver, and therefore the emissions of lead, based on on the chronological sequence of lead deposits.

Acid rain

Lead emissions in Roman times were still relatively low and lead concentrations in Greenland ice easily detectable, but not alarming. The use of leaded gasoline, however, caused much higher emissions in the second half of the 20th century. Thus, lead deposits in Greenland ice have reached a whole new dimension. Thus, lead in the air has become a problem for the entire northern hemisphere. In the meantime, emissions have again been significantly reduced, among other things, due to the ban on leaded petrol. As a result, the impact on the environment and our health has also been reduced. However, burning fossil fuels also releases many other pollutants.

Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), talks with environmental economist Alexandra Brausmann, meteorologist Andreas Stohl – both from the University of Vienna – as well as Katharina Rogenhofer , federal spokesperson for the People’s Climate Petition and former student of the University of Vienna. Martin Kotynek, editor-in-chief of the daily “Der Standard” hosts the event which takes place on Monday June 14, 2021 at 6:00 pm. The discussion is in English and there will also be a Live-Ticker.

In the 1950s and 1960s it was believed that only cities had this problem and that it could be solved locally. Over the following decades, we came to the conclusion that the atmosphere distributes pollutants across the continent. For example, we found that fish in Norwegian lakes were dying from acidification of water bodies. The sulfur emissions causing this acidification were carried into the atmosphere from western and central Europe. We have also been able to combat this “acid rain” by reducing sulfur emissions. In the meantime, the Norwegian lakes are again significantly less acidic.

Ozone and other air pollutants

However, it has become increasingly evident that huge domes of pollutants hang over central Europe and the west and east coasts of North America. They are made up of a complex mixture of nitrogen oxides and other gases, particles and secondary air pollutants, such as ozone. These pollutant domes are still hanging over Europe and North America, but are already much worse in Asia.

Intercontinental air pollution

In the late 1990s, I was able to personally contribute a lot to the discovery of the phenomenon that air pollution does not stay on individual continents but is blown from one continent to another. Today we know, for example, that in the case of ozone, it can be very difficult to reach threshold values ​​by regional measurements. The importation of increasing concentrations of ozone from the huge industrialized urban agglomerations of Asia is causing serious problems in North America, among others, and it cannot be overlooked in our region either. And also the accidents at the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants have shown that air pollution, in this case radioactive substances, can spread very far.

Microplastics everywhere

Currently, we are mainly talking about microplastics. Its global presence has already been proven. It is found in national parks, the Arctic or even Antarctica. Through the atmosphere, even the smallest plastic particles from tire debris, textiles, and other sources can reach virtually any region on Earth. We are already facing plasticization of the environment. This means that not only do we release microplastics directly, but they also come from secondary sources. This is the basis of the hypothesis that the ocean and farmland are already contaminated to such an extent that they themselves are today huge sources of microplastics, releasing microplastics into the atmosphere that we breathe.

As a result, larger plastic particles that would not normally be carried this far through the atmosphere can “jump” like grasshoppers into the atmosphere over and over again. This way, even the most remote parts of the world are polluted with plastics. Of course, this also increases the overall contamination of the air with microplastics, even in our region. With the air we breathe, the smallest of these plastic particles reaches our lungs and from there probably our bloodstream as well. Unfortunately, we can only speculate on the impact on our health.


Transport through the atmosphere is the reason why we cannot solve the problem of environmental pollution at local or regional level but why we need global measures. We humans are really affecting the entire planet: this is the time of the Anthropocene.

How to reduce environmental pollution?

Can we escape our responsibility by attributing it entirely to governments or even to international organizations? If we do not act in Austria, can we expect the poorest countries to take them before us? Or isn’t the rule the same here as for the climate: think globally, act locally? So you, dear reader, may be part of the solution to the problem. (Andreas Stohl / red)

This article was originally published in German on Der Standard as part of the “Semester Question”, a cooperative project of the University of Vienna and Der Standard.

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