Invisible but indispensable

This post is also available in: Dutch, Papiamentu.


What constitutes air, anyway? We often hear things like: it smells good here, it stinks, dry air insulates well, or: we should keep an eye on the air pressure of our tires. But these remarks only deal with some of the properties of air.
Air, on earth, is composed of 78 % nitrogen and 21 % oxygen. The remaining 1% of air is made up of a combination of noble gases, water vapor and carbon dioxide, which constantly vary in concentration. We therefore can conclude that air is a mixture of gases. Due to differences in air pressure, this gas mixture starts moving, hence we experience wind.
Air provides all living beings with oxygen and then transports the exhaled gases to the big ‘gas cleaning chambers’ of the earth. Our green areas. Without air there would be no life on earth, and a poor quality causes deterioration of human health . But also flora and fauna are hit hard if the air quality is degraded.

Poisonous breath

Unfortunately, human activities can have adverse effects on air quality. For example, we speak of air pollution at the moment that the air quality is affected in such a way that there is disturbance of the normal ratio of the gases. The ratio is primarily affected at the moment that polluting gases are injected into the air. The most common pollutants are nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, Volatile Organic Compounds ( VOCs ) and particulate matter ( PM10 ). The origins of air pollutants on Curacao, such as particulate matter ( PM10 ), nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and VOCs, are largely found in the chain of combustion processes in industry and traffic. In areas where there is intensive farming and/or agriculture, or water purification by means of conventional techniques, the emission of methane, ammonia and nitrogen gases is also part of the equation. In the vicinity of gas stations and on motorways emissions of benzene take place, one of the VOCs.

In addition to this, but less frequently, a situation may arise in which the concentration of the gases normally present will change without addition of gaseous pollutants. In this case we also talk about poor air quality .

Under the influence of the weather, temperature, sun and rain, the emitted pollutants are being transported, being neutralized, removed from the air (in precipitation) or converted into other (harmful) substances. Air has the capacity to take on a certain level of pollutants and neutralize them by means of  chemical conversion or diffusion. Unfortunately, the present emission levels are so high that the natural buffer capacity is not able to keep it all under control anymore. Our natural air buffer suffers from a chronic burnout, as it were.

To get some insight into the emission of gaseous pollutants on Curaçao we consulted the results of the monitoring stations in Kas chikitu and Beth Chaim over a period of 30 days. As a baseline for analysis the air quality standards set by the European Union and the Netherlands are given in the table below. We would have liked to use Curaçao standards, but unfortunately these do not exist. All graphs were downloaded from the website on July 26, 2013.

tabel-engSource: F.M.W. de Jong , Air Standards for 31 priority substances , RIVM Rapport601357003/2011 and Directive 2008/50/EC.

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Right up front the conclusion can be drawn that there is a severe overshoot of the acceptable values of emission of those pollutants included in the graphs. Besides the fact that the emissions of sulfur dioxide surpass the norm on a daily basis, peak emissions of this pollutant, as measured at Beth Chaim, are 30 times higher than the allowable value. This also applies to TSP. TSP, or Total Suspended Particles, is a parameter used to determine the level of emission of particulate matter. The results of monitoring station Kas Chikitu are basically showing the same trend. With the additional fact that hydrogen sulfide is also measured at this location.

Effects of poor air quality

Maybe you are thinking now: whatever. I don’t see anything strange, I do not smell anything weird! What do have all those names, chemical formulas and charts have to do with me? Precisely because you are continuously exposed to air, whether you are inside, sitting in your car or walking outside should encourage you to demand a good quality!
About 11,352 liters of air pass through the human lungs on a daily basis, under conditions of rest. ( int. Health / , July 27, 2013 ) Every human being breathes a daily amount of air roughly equivalent to the contents of 298 sea containers.

Poor air quality is indeed a danger to human health and wellbeing. Biodiversity and our flora and fauna do not escape the effects of continuous exposure to gaseous pollutants either. Because of the fact that the measuring stations only quantified the levels of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and hydrogen sulfide during the month in question, in the next article we will only discuss the adverse effects on human beings and their environment of these particular pollutants.