Major Types of Air Pollution and Their Global Distribution


Grade Level & Subject: 6 – 12 Science, Geography
Length: 1 class period
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:  
Categorize different types of air pollutants
Investigate the diffusion of air pollutants around the world
Identify what segments of the population are most at risk from air pollution
Determine factors that affect the type of air pollutant found in a specific location
National Standards Addressed:
This lesson addresses the following National Education Standards: 
Content Standard:  NSS-G.K-12.1 THE WORLD IN SPATIAL TERMS
As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should
Understand how to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective.
Understand how to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth's surface.
As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should
Understand how human actions modify the physical environment.
Understand how physical systems affect human systems.
Understand the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources.
As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding:
Personal health
Populations, resources, and environments
Risks and benefits
As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding:
Personal and community health
Environmental Quality
Natural and human-induced hazards
Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
 Materials Needed:
Reproducible #1 – Types of Air Pollutants
Reproducible #2 – World Map
1000 mL beaker
Pie pan
Students will be assessed through the following activities:
Participation in group work 
Class discussion
Completion of Reproducible #1 – Types of Air Pollutants
Active participation during discussion using Reproducible #2 – World Map
Relevant Vocabulary: 
Chlorofluorocarbon: Any of several simple gaseous compounds that contain carbon, chlorine, fluorine, and sometimes hydrogen, and that are believed to be a major cause of ozone depletion —abbreviation CFC. 
Emission: Substances discharged into the air (as by a smokestack or an automobile engine). 
Nitrogen Oxide: Any of several oxides of nitrogen most of which are produced in combustion and are considered to be atmospheric pollutants. 
Ozone: A reactive form of oxygen that is a major air pollutant in the lower atmosphere.   
Particulate Matter: A small mass of solid or liquid that remains dispersed in gas or liquid emissions. 
Pollutant: Anything that pollutes; especially, any gaseous, chemical, or organic waste that
contaminates air, soil or water. 
Sulfur Dioxide: A toxic gas SO2 that is easily condensed to a colorless liquid and is a major air pollutant especially in industrial areas. 
Background Information: 
Air pollution is a serious problem in our nation and the world as a whole. Although this type of pollution can take many forms, some of which are invisible to the naked eye, it is most commonly seen as exhaust, smog, factory emissions, and dust. Air pollution can come from a variety of sources including transportation such as personal vehicles, trucks, etc; industry such as factories that burn fossil fuels or coal; agriculture that produces methane; and construction machinery that uses fossil fuels.   Although air pollution is an issue all over the world, the worst cases of pollution exist in China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.  
Air pollution is a serious issue because when the air we breathe carries pollutants, it can affect us in many ways.  A variety of diseases have been linked to exposure to air pollution including asthma, lung cancer and heart disease.  Although everyone can be affected by this type of pollution, young children and elderly people are at an especially high risk.  Air pollution can also damage materials, agriculture, and is a component of climate change.  
Though there are many different chemicals in air pollution, this lesson will focus on the six most common types: lead, nitrogen oxide, ozone, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxides.   These can be in the form of solids, liquids, or gases. Air pollution is both a result of human activities and natural factors. 
• Air Pollution – Encyclopedia of Earth
• Air Pollution – National Geographic
• Air Pollutants – Environmental Protection Agency   


Teacher Preparation Step:

  1. Gather all materials listed under the materials section.
  2. If possible, students will need access to computers. If not, please print out information on each of the following six pollutants from the U.S. EPA website:[1] Lead, nitrogen oxide, ozone, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxides
  3. Each student will need a copy of Reproducible #1 – Types of Air Pollutants.

Warm-up:  Making Smog

  1. Begin this lesson by asking students to observe a demonstration. 
  2. Fill your 1000mL beaker with about 250mL of warm water. 
  3. Fill the aluminum pie pan with ice and set it next to the beaker. 
  4. Light a match and swirl it around inside the beaker, trying to get as close to the water as possible without touching it. 
  5. Immediately place the pie pan with the ice in it on top of the beaker and ask students to observe as fog fills the beaker. Eventually remove the pie pan with the ice and see the "smog" rise out.
  6. Ask the students to explain what they saw and how it relates to air pollution.  Answer: Students should explain that the beaker became ‘cloudy’ and that it was difficult to see inside.  This represents smog, or air pollution in the atmosphere.

Activity One: What is Air Pollution?

  1. Break the class up into six groups.  Assign each group the name of an air pollutant.  Ask them to use the following resource to find information on their pollutant only:  If computers are not available, print information from the site listed above and put together a class set of packets for the students to use as a resource.  Have them fill out Reproducible #1 – Types of Air Pollutants for their assigned air pollutant only. 
  2. Ask groups to come together as a class and call each group up to front of the room to present their findings.  Choose one member of the group to write notes on the board while another speaks to the class.  The remainder of the class should take notes on Reproducible #1 – Types of Air Pollutants about the air pollutants they did not research.

Activity Two:   Where in the World?

  1. Display Reproducible #2 – World Map on the overhead/whiteboard.  Lead a discussion by asking the following questions:
  2. What areas seem to have the highest amount of air pollution? Answer: Northern Africa and Asia. The lowest? Answer: Australia, Northern North America, Eastern South America, Russia.
  3. Why do you think these areas have the most pollution? Answer: Many factories burning coal, wood burning for heat, fewer regulations on air quality, etc.
  4. What are some ways in which air pollution could be reduced regionally? Answer: passing laws to eliminate coal and wood burning, widespread use of alternative fuels, funding for research on new fuel types, using alternative forms of transportation, etc.
  5. What do you think this map would have looked like 100 years ago? Answer: would have still been significant air pollution but would have most likely been concentrated in different areas. Where would the most air pollution have been? Answer: In Europe and North America because of the Industrial Revolution.
  6. If we continue producing air pollutants like we are today, what do you think this map will look like in 10 years?  100 years? Answer: Red areas will have spread into many different locations; perhaps a new color will have been introduced to signify a higher pollution concentration.

Wrap Up: Here, There, and Everywhere

  1. Review the lesson by asking students to recall the names of the six major air pollutants and the regions of the world where they were most prevalent.  What was one fact that they learned about air pollution distribution today that they did not know before?
  2. For homework that evening, ask students to look up the air quality index of their town for that specific day as well as for another town of their choice (where a relative lives, where a student was born, etc).  Tell them that air quality indexes can be found in the local newspaper or online.  Instruct them to compare the two air qualities.  If they are different, why?  What factors in each town may have impacted the air quality on that day (factories, weather patterns, etc).  The next day, invite students to share their findings with the class. 

Extension: Alternative Fuels to the Rescue!

  1. Have students research an alternative fuel source that could be used to power vehicles, factories, etc. (such as ethanol, hydrogen, solar, wind, etc).  Would the use of this fuel decrease air pollution? What are the pros and cons? Would it be practical for their community to use this fuel in public transit or industry?  Why or why not?  Assign students to present their findings to the class.


After researching types of air pollution, students presented their findings to their classmates.  They uncovered several causes of air pollution and discovered how the pollutants affect the environment.  Students used a map to identify geographic locations where air pollution is a pressing issue and discussed causes behind the pollutants.  


Lesson plan credits

Sharvari Chwastyk – Author

            Middle School Science Teacher, Cabin John Middle School

Maggie Ollove – Editor

            Education Associate – Earth Day Network

[1]“Air and Radiation.”United States Environmental Protection Agency.