Air Quality Unit - Lesson 2 : Why Should We Be Concerned About Air Quality?

Why Should We Be Concerned About Air Quality?

Subject/Target Grade

Science and Social Studies/

Middle School (7-9)                      


Two 45-50 minute periods 

(+ homework activity) – Classroom setting                     


per class

•     Effects of Common Air Pollutants About Air Quality?

(teacher resource)

•     Effects of Common Air Pollutants poster 

Download: Effects_of_Common_Air_Pollutants_Poster.pdf

•     Indoor Air Pollution (teacher resource)

Download: Indoor_Air_Pollution_Teacher_Resource.pdf

•     Air Pollution Can Trigger Asthma poster

Air Pollution Can Trigger Asthma Poster
Air_Pollution_Can_Trigger_Asthma_Poster.jpgAir Pollution Can Trigger Asthma Poster

Air Pollution Can Trigger Asthma Poster

•     Air Pollutants (answer key) 

Download: Air_Pollutants_Answer_Key.pdf

•     Categories of Air Pollutants

Download: Categories_of_Air_Pollutants_Transparency_Master.pdf

(transparency master) • The Asthma Story (answer key) per small group

•     large sheet of paper (11 x 17 inches or larger)

•     individual pollutant strips cut from Air Pollutants (student activity)

•     Is There a Connection Between Air Pollution and Asthma?

maps per student

• straws or coffee stirrers

•     costumes or materials for name tags

•     One Breath at a Time: The Play (student resource)

Download: On_Breath_at_a_Time_The_Play_Student_Resource.pdf

•     The Asthma Story (student resource and activity)

Download: The_Asthma_Story_Student_Resource__Activity.pdf

•     The Asthma Story (answer key)

Download: The_Asthma_Story_Answer_Key.pdf

•     Air Pollution and Health (student assessment)

Download: Air_Pollution_and_Health_Student_Assessment.pdf

Download: Air_Pollutants_Answer_Key_JglnnfK.pdf

Download: Effects_of_Common_Air_Pollutants_Teacher_Resource_WoDTJPl.pdf
Download: Is_There_a_Connection_Between_Air_Pollution_and_Asthma_Student_Resource.pdf

Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations

Grade 6-7 Science:

•     Describe the effect humans and other organisms have on the balance of the natural world.

• Describe the origins of pollution in the atmosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere and how pollution impacts habitats, climatic change, threatens or endangers species. E.ES.07.42

(continued on next page)

Lesson Overview

By performing a play, students explore a variety of common air pollutants, how they are formed, and their health and environmental effects. A lesson feature allows students to explore the relationship between air pollution and asthma in Michigan.

Students answer three essential questions: What types of pollutants are in the air and what are their health effects? What is asthma and how does air pollution aggravate the problem? What are local, regional, and global air issues?

This lesson also includes an extension that provides students with an opportunity to do in-depth research as homework. The research is done concurrently with the  rest of the unit, with students giving their presentations at the end of the unit.


Students will be able to:

1.      List the common air pollutants and cite their major sources.

2.      Describe the human health and ecosystem effects of polluted air.

Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations:

Middle School:

MS-ESS3-4. Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capital consumption of natural resources impact Earth's systems. 

MS-ESS3-3. Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

High School:

HS-ESS3-6. Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.

Background Information

Air pollution can happen indoors as well as outdoors. Together, a variety of gases and particles make up the “Universe of Air Contaminants.” These contaminants are primarily human-produced (anthropogenic emissions from combustion and evaporation) with contributions from natural sources (fires, dust, volcanoes, lightning, and gases from plants, animals, and bacteria).

Air contaminants can be classified as primary pollutants, secondary pollutants, or precursors. Primary pollutants are emitted directly into the atmosphere (sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides). Secondary pollutants are formed chemically (ozone) or physically (some particles) in the air. Precursors are pollutants (gases) that help form secondary pollutants.

For regulatory purposes, the outdoor air contaminants of concern are criteria air pollutants (pollutants with emissions standards set for the protection of human health), fugitive emissions, ozone precursors, ozone depleters, air toxics

Advance Preparation

1.      Prepare the script for each participant in the play. Change wording to suit your situation. Highlight the lines for each person so the play is easier to follow. Assemble costumes or materials and name tags for each character.

2.      Cut apart each row in the Air Pollutants student pages and the pollutant names. Each row describing a pollutant will be matched to a pollutant name.

3.      Review the Effects of Common Air Pollutants and Indoor Air Pollution teacher resources as well as materials on the MEECS Air Quality CD for Lesson 2.

(hazardous air pollutants), greenhouse gases, and acid rain precursors.

•      The six criteria pollutants identified in the Clean Air Act include carbon monoxide, lead, ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.

•      Fugitive emissions are emissions not caught by a capture system (which are often due to equipment leaks), evaporative processes, or wind-blown disturbances creating dust.

•      Ozone precursors include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the formation of ground-level (tropospheric) ozone. In general, VOCs are organic compounds that contain carbon (not CO and CO2) and participate in atmospheric reactions. Fuel and fuel burning release VOCs. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain VOCs, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. These products can release organic compounds (volatile organic chemicals) while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

•      Ozone depleters cause thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer. They include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were once used in spray cans and refrigeration systems.

•      Air toxics include the hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), which are 188 categories of air contaminants that are considered a threat to human health causing cancer, birth defects, and damage to body systems. Benzene, asbestos, some pesticides, and mercury are examples. Michigan has its own regulations for toxic air contaminants that go beyond federal regulations.

•      Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, CFCs, and oxides of nitrogen (N2O), contribute to global climate change. Black carbon from fuel and biomass burning also contributes to global climate change.

•      Acid rain precursors include sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. These substances are not only primary pollutants but they also form secondary pollutants such as nitric acid vapor, droplets of sulfuric acid, and particles of acid-forming sulfate and nitrate salts. All of these contribute to acid deposition.

Some air contaminants may belong to multiple families, and they may be regulated under many different state and federal regulatory programs. For example, xylene is a volatile organic compound (VOC), hazardous air pollutant (HAP), and a toxic air contaminant. Nitrogen oxides are criteria pollutants, and they contribute to ozone formation and acid rain.

Individuals who are most susceptible to air pollution are children, the elderly, and people with lung and cardiopulmonary diseases. In parts of Michigan, ozone and particle pollution are sometimes at levels that are unhealthy for many people. In southeast Michigan and west Michigan, Ozone or Clean Air Action Days are called when meteorologists predict elevated pollutant levels. People can sign up to get regional alerts about predicted air quality conditions at Enviroflash at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality web site 


Examples of short-term health effects of air pollutants include irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, and upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Other symptoms can include headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions. Short-term air pollution can aggravate the medical conditions of individuals with asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. In the great “Smog Disaster” in London in 1952, 4,000 people died in a few days due to the high concentrations of air pollution.

Long-term health effects of air pollution include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys. Continual exposure to air pollution affects the lungs of growing children and may aggravate or complicate medical conditions in the elderly.

A growing concern is health effects of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This leads to higher temperatures that will contribute to increased ozone formation and increased emissions of ozone precursors, fine particles, and air toxics. Health effects include aggravated asthma, reduced lung capacity, increased hospitalizations for those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and premature deaths.

The health risks from indoor air pollution should not be underestimated. Most people spend the majority of their time indoors where certain air contaminants are at much higher levels than outdoors. Although not regulated by the U.S. EPA, important indoor air pollutants include radon, carbon monoxide, cigarette smoke, combustion products, and air toxics such as formaldehyde and asbestos. Indoor air pollutants are associated with high cancer risks. In the United States, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. It contributes to over 20,000 deaths per year.

It is estimated that in the United States, outdoor air pollution contributes to the death of between 65,000 to 200,000 people annually (mainly due to exposure to fine particle pollution) and 85,000 to 150,000 deaths per year from indoor pollution. There are likely millions who become ill due to air pollution. Air pollution in the United States may cost at least $150 billion in health care and lost work per year.

By the year 2010, it is estimated that air quality regulations associated with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 will prevent 23,000 Americans from dying prematurely and avert more than 1,700,000 incidences of asthma attacks and aggravation of chronic asthma. In addition, in 2010, regulations will prevent 67,000 incidences of chronic and acute bronchitis, 91,000 occurrences of shortness of breath, 4,100,000 lost work days, and 31,000,000 days in which Americans would have had to restrict activity due to air pollution-related illness. Plus, 22,000 respiratory-related hospital admissions will be averted, as well as 42,000 cardiovascular (heart and blood) hospital admissions, and 4,800 emergency room visits for asthma (Miller, 1999). 

For those health and ecological benefits that could be quantified and converted to dollar values, U.S. EPA’s best estimate is that in 2010 the benefits of Clean Air Act programs will total about $110 billion. By contrast, the costs of achieving these health and ecological benefits are likely to be only about $27 billion, a fraction of the economic value of the benefits (U.S. EPA, 1999).

Sources:  Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Air Quality Division. Retrieved May 31, 2018 from  https://,4561,7-135-3310---,00.html

Miller, G. Tyler. (1999). Living in the Environment. Pacific Grove, CA: Books/Cole Publishing.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (1999). 1990 Clean Air Amendments. Retrieved March 14, 2005, from http://www.epa.  


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Air and Radiation. Retrieved May 31, 2018, from aboutepa/about-office-air-and-radiation-oar


1. Generate examples of air pollution and its effects. 

What are some of the signs of air pollution in the community? Record indications of air pollution suggested by students. If necessary, prompt the brainstorming by listing "smoke" as a sign of pollution. The completed list may include smoke, odors, haze, high ozone levels, stunted or discolored plants and trees, automobile and truck emissions and damaged or discolored buildings and statues. 

How does air pollution affect people? Record students' answers on the board. If necessary, prompt students by asking if they know anyone who has asthma or other respiratory problems. Air pollutants can cause or contribute to breathing problems, headaches, irritated eyes and damage to the brain, heart, kidneys and lungs. Certain air pollutants can cause cancer. 

Using the U.S EPA poster on Effects of Common Air Pollutants and the Air Pollution Can Trigger Asthma poster as a guide, review the parts of the respiratory system: nasal passages, pharynx, trachea (windpipe), lungs, bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli and the diaphragm. Note that there are also cardiovascular effects from air pollution. Further information about effects of air pollutants is found on the MEECS Air Quality CD. 

Have you ever experiences breathing problems that may be related to air pollution? Ask if any of the students in the class would like to share what it is like to have an asthma attack. Have the other students breathe through a straw (or a coffee stirrer) for a few minutes to experience diminishing lung function.

Caution: Students with asthma should not attempt to breathe through a straw as it could trigger an asthma attack.

How does air pollution affect the environment? Record student ideas. Damage to plants and buildings, acidification of lakes and streams, decreased visibility, and damage to fish and wildlife are examples.

2. Perform One Breath at a Time: The Play 

Tell students that to learn about the types and effects of air pollution, they will perform a play. Assign parts of the play and allow students to review their lines. They will serve as “experts” for the pollutants they are playing. Students can dress in costumes or they can wear name tags that identify their characters.

Note: If you have the time, you could have students research their pollutants before the play.

3.   Review the major air pollutants.

After the play has been performed, divide the class into small groups of students. Have a group member write the titles “Pollutant,” “Description,” “Examples of Sources,” “Health and Environmental Effects,” and “Other Information” across the top of a large sheet of paper. Then have them write the names of the air pollutants down the lefthand margin of the paper in the following order: particle pollution, carbon monoxide, radon, air toxics, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons, carbon dioxide, and lead. Have a student record what the group remembers about the pollutants from the play.

Provide the groups with the strips cut from the Air Pollutants student activity pages. As the groups discuss each pollutant by recalling the lines in the play, they should match the strip with the name of the pollutant.

4. Tying it all together.

Go over the correct answers to the Air Pollutants matching exercise. Using the transparency master on the Categories of Air Pollutants as a guide, have students highlight the following pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Explain that the EPA has set emission standards for these pollutants based on how they affect human health and they are called criteria pollutants.

Point out that particles and ground-level ozone are major problems in parts of Michigan with NOX and VOCs contributing to ozone formation. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide contribute to global climate change, and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides contribute to acid deposition. Also note that radon and air toxics are linked to cancer, and CFCs are associated with the ozone hole.

5. Read The Asthma Story silently or out loud.

Orally summarize what was learned from  the story. Provide each group with the maps, Is There a Connection Between Air Pollution and Asthma? Have the students complete The Asthma Story student pages.

Use this opportunity to tie in and review the information that they have learned about the different types of pollutants and their health effects, noting that effects can be acute (shortterm) and chronic (long-term).

Assessment Options

1.      The student worksheet, Air Pollution and Health, can be used as an assessment. Have students list pollutants and their health and environmental effects.

The teacher transparency Categories of Air Pollutants can be modified for use as a quiz (open or closed notes).

Adaptations/Extensions/ Enhancements

1.      Using a variety of resources, have students research an air quality issue that affects

Michigan. They should focus on making the issue relevant to the general public and relevant to Michigan and their local communities. Then they write a paper, prepare an oral report (PowerPoint presentation), or prepare a poster that describes the issue and how it has been addressed. This extension on the MEECS Air Quality CD should be completed as homework concurrent with the rest of the unit, so that students will give their presentations at the end of the unit. Examples of issues are: global climate change, acid deposition, ground-level ozone, ozone depletion, particle pollution, air pollution health inequities in urban areas, and indoor air quality.

2.      Another option is for students to design a demonstration or do original research (e.g., a survey or experiment) related to an air pollution topic that is relevant to Michigan. Resources for this are found in other parts of the curriculum and on the accompanying MEECS Air Quality CD. Students will give a presentation of their research at the end of the unit. This extension should be completed as homework concurrent with the rest of the unit.

3.      Set up large pieces of paper throughout the room listing the various air pollutants and air pollution issues. Have students update the sheets with the information that they discover as the unit progresses. Alternatively,  have each student prepare a poster about one of the pollutants in the play.

3.      Your school could become involved in the U.S. EPA’s Clean School Bus USA Program (see Additional Resources section). Prevention of excess idling of buses, fuel switching, and retrofits are ways to reduce diesel emissions and protect health. In 2004, a grant went to Ann Arbor Public Schools to retrofit 110 buses and to provide a two-year supply of biodiesel fuel for 18 buses belonging to the neighboring Manchester Community Schools. Another grant went to the Okemos Public Schools and six neighboring districts for retrofitting 40 to 50 buses.

4.      U.S. EPA’s Tools for Schools has checklists for auditing classroom air quality (see Additional Resources section and the accompanying MEECS Air Quality CD).

5.      Show the online Lung Attack animation at the Air Info Now web site (http://www.airinfonow. org/html/lungattack/lungplay.htm).

Additional Resources

Air Jeopardy!

Air Jeopardy! is an online trivia game packed with information about air pollution, weather, and other air quality issues. A list of answers and questions used in the game is also available for your convenience.  North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. (2011). Air Jeopardy! Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Air Quality and the World Trade Center

Explore the air quality issues associated with the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Results of air monitoring and health effects are available at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s web site. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2005). EPA Response to September 11, 2001. Retrieved June 11, 2011, from

American Lung Association's State of the Air Report 2010

The American Lung Association report examines ozone and particle pollution trends in the 

United States. American Lung Association. (2010). State of the Air 2010. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Asthma in the Air

This short video is available from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It is suitable  for lower middle school. Children with asthma speak out about air pollution. Since the video was  produced in Milwaukee and it mentions ozone over Lake Michigan, it is suitable for Michigan students. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (2004). Asthma in the Air. Publication CE-268-99. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Asthma and Indoor Environments

U.S. EPA has launched a national public education and prevention program in response to the asthma epidemic in the United States. The goal of the outreach program is to raise public awareness of indoor environmental asthma triggers (e.g., secondhand smoke, dust mites, mold, pet dander, and cockroaches) and actions that can be taken to reduce children’s exposure to them in homes, schools, and child care settings. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2011). Asthma And Indoor Environments. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Asthma Initiative of Michigan 

Michigan asthma statistics by county and the most current Michigan asthma report are at this site.

Asthma Initiative of Michigan. (2011). Asthma. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Clean School Bus USA

Clean School Bus USA is a public-private environmental partnership that seeks to reduce children’s exposure to diesel exhaust and the amount of air pollution created by diesel school buses. The program emphasizes three ways to reduce public school bus emissions through anti-idling strategies, engine retrofit, and clean fuels as well as bus replacement. In Michigan, the East Michigan Environmental Council can assist with this program. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2007). Clean School Bus USA: Basic Information. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Detroit Air Toxics Initiative (DATI)

The original DATI risk assessment report was the first of its kind in Michigan. That project involved characterizing the potential health risks of 223 air toxics at seven monitoring sites in the Detroit area. MDNRE Air Quality Division (AQD) has performed an updated risk assessment to reflect air toxics monitoring data collected five years after the original DATI project. Michigan Department of  Environmental Quality. (2010). Detroit Air Toxics Initiative. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from,1607,7-135-3310_4105-139044--,00.html

Health Effects on Air Pollution on Children 

Although this was written with a bias towards California air issues, Health Effects of Air Pollution on Children answers questions such as: Why are children more susceptible to the effects of air pollution  than adults? Which air pollutants have the greatest impact on the health of children and adults? What can be done to reduce the effects of air pollution on children’s health? Kleinman, M. (2000). Health Effects  of Air Pollution on Children. c

Health Effects of Smog

This 19 minute video shows where smog comes from, how it is formed, and who is most vulnerable to its effects. It looks at the real cost of air pollution and how lowering smog levels benefits all of us. (Available in DVD or VHS format as well as online). Department of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

(2003). Health Effects of SMOG. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Heat Island Effect

For millions of Americans living in and around cities, heat islands are of growing concern. Elevated temperatures can impact communities by increasing peak energy demand, air conditioning costs,  air pollution levels, and heat-related illness and mortality. Tips for addressing the effect of heat islands are at this web site. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2011). Heat Island Effect.  Retrieved June 1, 2011,

Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools 

This program shows schools how to carry out a practical plan of action to improve indoor air problems at little or no cost using straightforward activities and in-house staff. This U.S. EPA web-based resource contains lots of tools to help communities, and design professionals integrate good indoor air quality practices into the design, construction, renovation, operation, and maintenance of K-12 school facilities.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2011). Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools Program. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Inside the Human Body - The Respiratory System 

This Canadian web site allows you to find appropriate lung health information for your students by grade level. Access reproducible activities to use in your classroom or have your students participate in an interactive lesson by playing educational games. Canada’s Digital Collections. (2004). Inside The Human Body: The Respiratory System. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from Long-Beach Press Telegram Toxic Air Series

Animation on how smog contributes to asthma is provided. Long Beach Press-Telegram. (2004). Toxic Air: How Poor Air Quality Affects The Respiratory System. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Michigan Lung Association 

The Michigan Lung Association has links to many programs and health information.

American Lung Association of Michigan. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

National Allergy Bureau

This web site is presented by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. It shows  pollen and mold counting stations across the country as well as maps of the pollen seasons. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. (2010). National Allergy Bureau. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

National Heart Lung and Asthma Institute

On this site, there is a short video on asthma to help people to understand the condition. The video would be suitable for a presentation to the whole class or as individual work in a computer lab. National Heart Lung and Asthma Institute. (2011). Asthma. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Video Collection from the California Air Resources Board

In the training and compliance video section, Classification of Air Pollution (103) provides an  overview of air pollution and regulations. For a chemistry class, Basic Air Pollution Chemistry (111) would be appropriate. California Air Resources Board. (2011). ARB Videos. Retrieved June 1, 2011,  from

Download: Effects_of_Common_Air_Pollutants_Teacher_Resource.pdf

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