• What Pollutants Are Measured in the Air? - Hydrocarbons

Air Monitoring

What Pollutants Are Measured in the Air? - Hydrocarbons

Jan 16 2022

As the name suggests, hydrocarbons refer to any compound which is comprised solely of two elements: hydrogen and carbon. As organic compounds, hydrocarbons occur naturally in our environment and are often used as primary sources of fuel, such as methane, butane, propane and hexane. They are also heavily used in the pharmaceuticals industry, where hydrocarbons like benzene form the basis of many drug treatments, while they are a principal component of pesticides used in agriculture.

Hydrocarbons can become a type of air pollution during the combustion of fuel sources, but the most common cause of hydrocarbon contamination is the spillage of crude oil or other industrial commodities. This can occur on oil platforms and tankers used to transport the raw materials, but also through agricultural runoff and stormwater discharge. The effects on the environment and the natural world can be disastrous, while humans are also potentially at risk from elevated levels of hydrocarbon pollution.

Where does hydrocarbon pollution come from?

As naturally occurring compounds, hydrocarbons can be found in the world all around us. However, they can become problematic through anthropogenic activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels. During this process, certain contaminants are released into the atmosphere, including hydrocarbons such as methane. Other hydrocarbons can react with other contaminants in the air, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), to create volatile organic compounds (VOCs), another damaging form of air pollution.

Meanwhile, much environmental degradation is caused by the accidental leaching of hydrocarbons into soils and waterways. This can occur through excessive application of pesticides to crop fields, which negatively impacts soil quality. An abundance of rainfall can then wash this pollution into streams and lakes, with the hydrocarbons eventually ending up in our seas and oceans. Accidents sustained during the storage and transportation of crude oil and natural gas can also result in marine hydrocarbon pollution.

What are the effects of hydrocarbon pollution?

The damaging effects of hydrocarbon contamination are diverse and far-reaching. For example, methane is a hydrocarbon of particular concern due to its global warming potential (GWP), which is why methane monitoring is a must for all governments and industrial facilities. Not only can hydrocarbons deplete the ozone layer and contribute to climate change, but they can inhibit the growth of plants by restricting their ability to photosynthesise effectively. Prolonged exposure to hydrocarbon pollution among humans has been linked to respiratory complications and cancer diagnoses.

As for hydrocarbons which contaminate our seas and oceans, they can create a waterproof and airtight film on the surface of the waves. This prevents oxygen from transitioning between air and water, thus causing imbalances in subaquatic ecosystems and jeopardising the marine flora and fauna which live there. As a result, crude oil tankers are fitted with double hulls to reduce the risk of such spillages from occurring.


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Asian Environmental Technology 26.2 - April/May 2022

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