Environment of Earth

February 22, 2008

Air pollution and plants

Filed under: Air pollution,plants — gargpk @ 2:24 pm


Major primary air pollutants gases are sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen particularly NO2, HF, HCl, chlorine, ammonia, ethylene and other organic substances. Particulate air pollutants are soot, dust, fine particles of cement and various other substances. Various fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides used in aerial spray are also important air pollutants. The common sources of the pollutants, factors affecting the effect of pollutant and the injury symptoms produced in plants are discussed below.
Major gaseous pollutants
The gaseous pollutants are emitted in large amounts into the atmosphere due to a variety of anthropogenic activities and form most important atmospheric pollutants that injuriously affect the plants. Important such pollutants are discussed below.

Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
It is the most important and common air pollutant produced in huge amounts in combustion of coal and other fuels in industrial and domestic use. It is also produced during smelting of sulphide ores.
SO2 effects increase in high hymidity, windy conditions, in the early morning , in the deficiency of K and Cl2 and excess of sulphur in the soil. It interacts with ozone, NO2 and HF. The nature of interaction depends on the relative proportion of gases. The impact of SO2 decreases in low soil moisture, low temperature, deficiency of nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus and sometimes in excess of nitrogen also.

In angiosperms, young leaves and in conifers, needles are most sensitive to SO2 pollution. In general, seedlings are more sensitive than older plants. The effect of the gas usually decreases with age of the plant and lesser morphological and physiological symptoms appear in older plants.

Injury symptoms: The gas is a strong reducing agent. In low comcentration, it is oxidized and used in protein synthesis of the plant. However, in high concentration, it causes swelling of thylakoids and interferes with electron transport chain. In SO2 pollution, plants show initial reduction of photosynthesis and increased respiration. The gas reduces stomatal opening and thus causes general water stress in plants. SO2 replaces oxygen in cellular materials and changes their nature. It affects structural proteins in the cell membrane and thus changes the membrane permeability. High concentration of the gas causes accumulation of sulphydril and decrease of sulphides in plants. SO2 interferes with amino acid metabolism and reduces the synthesis of proteins and enzymes. It stimulates the oxidation of PGA and increases the pentose phosphate cycle activity. It reduces the level of keto acids, ATP, sucrose and glutamate in plants and increases the level of glucose, fructose and glycolate. It inactivates many enzymes either by breaking their S-S bonds or by changing their stereo structure. In lichens , the gas induces photooxidation in the phycobiont part.

Most common visible symptom of SO2 injury is water-soaked appearance of leaves which later become necrotic changing into brown spots. Colour and shape of necrotic spots is characteristic in different species and NO2 concentrations. In some species, characteristic intraveinal chlorosis is caused. In general, SO2 pollution results in abscission of older leaves and tip necrosis in flower and sepals.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)

Major sources of this gas are nitrate fertilizer factories. The NO gas produced during combustion of fossil fuels and other oxides of nitrogen viz. N2O3, N2O4 and N2O5 are all converted gradually to NO2 in the atmosphere.

The impact of the gas on plants increases with humidity, low light intensity and deficiency of nitrogen and iron in the soil. The effect of gas decreases in the conditions of drought. Sensitivity of plants to this gas changes by a factor of six during day and night. NO2 interacts with SO2, O3 and HF and the nature of interaction varies with relative proportion of gases.

NO2 mostly affects the leaves and seedlings. Its effects decrease with increasing age of the plant and tissue. Conifers are found to be more sensitive to this gas during spring and summer than in winters. Older needles are more sensitive to the gas than young ones.

Injury symptoms: The gas causes formation of crystalloid structures in the stroma of chloroplasts and swelling of thylakoid membrane. As a result the photosynthetic activity of the plant is reduced.

Most common visible injury symptoms are chlorosis in angiospermic leaves and tip burn in conifer needles. In angiosperms, most of the species produce water-soaked intraveinal areas that later become necrotic. Tip burn is common symptom in bracts, sepals and awns.


Many particulate and gaseous fluorides are produced when ores containing fluorine are processed and used in industries. Common gaseous fluoride pollutants are HF, SiF6, CF4 and F2. Particulate fluoride pollutants include Ca3AlF6 (Cryolite), CaF2, NH3F, AlF6, CaSiF, NaF and Na2SiF6. Aerosols are often formed from NaF, NaAlF6 and AlF6. Chief sources of fluoride pollutants are brickworks, aluminium factories, glassworks, steelworks, ceramic factories, phosphate fertilizer plants and uranium smelters. Some fluorine pollution also occurs during combustion of coal. Most injurious fluoride pollutant is gaseous hydrogen fluoride (HF).

Fluorides in general, are accumulated in the plant tissues over long times. They are first accumulated in the leaves and then are translocated towards tips and margins of the leaves. The injury symptoms are produced only after a critical level of fluoride is attained. Due to such accumulation over long times, flurides generally and HF particularly can induce injury at very low atmospheric concentrations. Critical concentration for fluoride injury is 0.1 ppm for several days. Toxicity of particulate fluorides depends upon the particle size, their solubility and humidity of the atmosphere.

HF gas is much lighter than air and so can cause damage in plants even at a distance of 30 km from the source. It is a hygroscopic gas and forms acidic cloud near the source. Generally the impact of HF pollution increases with humidity and excess of P in soil while decreases in low temperature, drought and deficiency of N and Ca in the soil. In some species, impact of HF has been reported to decrease with excess of N and Ca in the soil.

In most of the species, recovery from moderate fluoride injury can occur within few days if exposure to pollutant stops. However, some highly sensitive species e.g. pine and spruce can never recover fully. HF generally affects immature leaves in angiosperms and needles in conifers.

Injury symptoms: Fluorides combine with metal components of proteins or inhibit them otherwise and thus interfere with the activity of many enzymes. As a result the cell wall composition, photosynthesis, respiration, carbohydrate synthesis, synthesis of nucleic acids and nucleotides and energy balance of the cell are affected. In the leaves subjected to HF exposure, endoplasmic reticulum is reduced, ribosomes are detached from ER, number of ribosomes is reduced and mitochondria become swollen. Chlorophyll synthesis and cellulose synthesis are inhibited. Activities of UDP-glucose-fructose transglucosylase, phosphoglucomutase, enolase and polyphenol oxidase are reduced. On the other hand activities of catalase, peroxidase, pyruvate kinase, PEP-carboxylase, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, cytochrome oxidase and pentose phosphate pathway are stimulated.

In conifer needles common visible injury symptoms are chlorosis later turning into red/brown discolouration, tip burn later turning into necrosis of whole needle, formation of sharply defined red/purple bands between healthy and injured tissue. Similar symptoms are common in angiospermic leaves also. In addition, the angiospermic leaves in many species also show zonation of necrotic areas, leaf cupping, curling of leaf edges and ragged leaf margins. In sepals, petals, bracts and awns, water-soaked margins and later tip and marginal necrosis are observed.

Chlorine (Cl2)

Many industrial activities are the sources of chlorine pollution. Although chlorine concentrations change very rapidly in the atmosphere due to atmospheric chemistry and light rain can remove all the chlorine from the air in a very short time, chlorine injury can occur to plants near the source of pollution.

The impact of chlorine pollution increases in bright sunlight and decreases in drought and low temperature. Older plants are more sensitive to chlorine than seedlings. The age of tissue has little effect on the sensitivity and older as well as young tissues are almost equally afected by chlorine pollution.

Injury symptoms: Chlorine injury symptoms can appear from 18 hours to 8 days after exposure. In most plant species, recovery from chlorine injury can occur 3 to 4 days after exposure is stopped. Chlorine injury symptoms are quite variable in different species. Most common visible symptoms in conifers are chlorosis, tip burn and necrosis is needles. In angiosperm leaves, marginal or intraveinal necrosis, water-soaked appearance, leaf cupping and abscission are common.

Hydrogen chloride (HCl)

HCl gas is released in large quantities in combustion of PVC and all chlorinated hydrocarbon material in large fires or incinerators. The HCl gas is very hygroscopic and quickly changes to hydrochloric acid by reacting with atmospheric moisture and forms aerosol droplets.

The HCl injury can be caused to plants even at a distance of 800 meter from the source. Like fluorides, the chloride from HCl is accumulated in the leaves and translocated towards their margins and tips. Symptoms of HCl injury appear after a critical concentration is reached, usually between 24 and 72 hours after the exposure.

Impact of HCl pollution decreases with increase in humidity, deficiency of Mg and excess of Ca. Mature plants are more sensitive to HCl than seedlings. Similarly, young fully expanded leaves are more sensitive than immature unexpanded leaves.

Injury symptoms: Most common visible injury symptoms in conifer needles are red or brown discolouration and tip burn. In angiosperm leaves, common symptoms are intraveinal water-soaked streaks, yellow or brown necrosis, tip necrosis, bleached areas around the necrosis and shot-holing. Tip burn, necrotic stipple and discolouration in sepals and petals are also observed.

Ammonia (NH3)

Continuous releases of ammonia from the sources are rarely high enough to cause acute injury but occasional high release or spillage may cause ammonia pollution. High concentrations of ammonia are sometimes found around intensive farm units e.g. chicken batteries. Extent of injury reduces rapidly with increase in distance form the source. Under certain conditions the ammonia may remain as a cloud above ground level causing more injury to trees than to the ground flora. Injury symptoms may take upto 9 days to develop. In most plant species, recovery may occur in about 2 weeks after exposure is stopped.

Impact of ammonia on plants generally increases with humidity and decreases with drought. Effect of darkness on ammonia sensitivity is highly variable among species. Some species are more sensitive to low concentrations of ammonia than to its high concentration. Age of tissue has little effect on sensitivity and both young and old tissues are equally sensitive to ammonia.

Injury symptoms: Most common visible symptoms in conifers are black discolouration, usually sharply bordered tip burn and abscission of needles. In angiosperm leaves, common symptoms are water-soaked appearance later turning black, intercostal necrosis, slight marginal and upper surface injury, glazong/bronzing of upper surface, desiccation and abscission.

Organic gases (Ethylene)

Among organic gaseous pollutants, ethylene is most common. Other organic gases are propylene, butylene and acetylene. Ethylene is continuously emitted from many sources involving combustion or processing of petroleum or its products or burning of organic materials e.g. straw burning. Other organic gases are also produced in various chemical industrial processes.

Ethylene is a natural plant growth substance so the injury effects produced by it on plants are very similar to growth abnormality symptoms. Other organic gases also produce symptoms similar to those of ethylene pollution. However, the sensitivities of species to different gases are variable.

Ethylene injury symptoms develop in plants only in exposure to high concentrations and take several days to develop. After exposure to the gas is stopped, level of recovery is variable in different species. Generally, younger plant parts recover but older parts do not. Much ‘acute’ damage to plants is caused on the fringes of polluted area or by a steady leakage of gas in low concentration.

Impact of ethylene on the plants increases with high temperature. The gas interacts with SO2 and CO2 in atmosphere and the interaction is antagonistic i.e. high levels of these latter gases inhibit the development of ethylene injury.

Injury symptoms: In injuriously high concentrations of ethylene, growth of plants is stopped. In low concentrations, growth abnormalities appear. In conifers, yellow tips in needles and abscission of branches and cones is common. In angiosperms, common symptoms are epinasty or hyponasty, loss of bark, abscission of leaves and flowers, premature flower opening and fruit ripening.

Minor gaseous pollutants
Many other air polllutants which are highly injurious to animals and human beings also cause damage to plants. However, plants are affected by these gases at quite higher concentrations than the animals.Common such gaseous pollutants are CO, H2S, Br2, I2 and Hg-vapour.

Hydrogen sulphide (H2S)

Plants show wilting on exposure to this gas but the symptoms develop after about 48 hours. No injury occurs below the exposure of 40 ppm for 4 hours.

Carbon monoxide (CO)

Like ethylene this gas produces epinasty, chlorosis and abscission. However, concentration of over 1000 times that of ethylene is needed to produce same degree of damage. No injury to plants occurs below exposure of 100 ppm for 1 week.

Bromine (Br2) and Iodine (I2)

Studies show these gases are highly toxic to plants.HI and I2 are readily absorbed and accumulated by plants producing visible injury symptoms similar to those of SO2. Injury occurs at exposure of 0.1 ppm for 18 hours.

Common injury symptoms of bromine in angiosperms are necrosis of leaf margins, leaf tips and tendrils; brown discolouration and black spots later spreading to entire leaf. In conifers, yellow/white needle tips or red/brown discolouration later becoming grey/brown are common symptoms.

Hercury vapour (Hg)

Unlike other pollutants, flowers are more sensitive to Hg than leaves. Injury symptoms usually appear within 24 hours of Hg exposure but often go on increasing upto 5 days.

Common injury symptoms due to Hg-vapour pollution are abscission of oldest leaves, interveinal necrosis, chlorosis around veins, flower abscission, loss of petal colour, buds remaining closed and later becoming necrotic, blackening of stamens, pistils and peduncles.

Particulate pollutants

Different types of solid particulate materials are also important air pollutants. Each of these affects the plants in characteristic manner. Some common particulate air pollutants have been discussed below.

Cement-kiln dust

Cement factories are the chief source of cement dust pollution. The composition of such dust varies with the source. Main component of cement dust is CaO and varying amounts of K2O, Na2O and KCl and traces of Al, Fe, Mn, Mg, S and silica. Dust with more than 24% CaO is more injurious to plants. Fine particles cause more damage than larger particles. Cement-kiln dust is alkaline in natureand dissolves in atmospheric moisture forming a solution of pH 10-12.

In generals, plants having hairy surface of leaves trap more dust and are, therefore, damaged more than the plants with shiny leaf surface. The cement dust forms crusts on the surface of leaves, twigs and flowers. This inhibits gaseous exchange from the surfaces of plant parts. Such crust on the leaves also inhibits light penetration and consequently reduces photosynthesis. Such crusts are especially thicker in conditions of dew, mist or light rains. In dry conditions, dust blowing with wind is highly abrasive and damages the cuticle of leaves. Cuticle is also damaged due to alkalinity of cement dust. Due to damaged cuticle plants become more susceptible to infection by pathogens.

Lime and gypsum

Lime and gypsum processing industries and mining deposits are chief sources from where fine particles of these substances are blown away to great distances. Deposited on the soil from the air, these change the pH of the soil and thus affect the nutrient availability to plants. Such deposition usually causes appearance of various nutrient deficiency symptoms in the plants. Lime and gypsum are less adhering as compared to cement-kiln dust. However, these are also trapped and deposited on the surface of plant parts particularly the leaves with hairy surfaces and produce injury symptoms similar to cement dust. Lime and gypsum particles blowing with wind are also highly abrasive for cuticle.


Burning of fossil fuels, organic matter or natural forest fires produce huge quantities of fine carbon particles which form the soot pollution. Soot can be dispersed over a quite wide area and transported to great distances by blowing winds.

Soot deposited on the surface of leaves may be washed away by rains so its damage may be reduced. However, in bright sunlight and high temperature, the damage is increased.

Soot deposited on the surface of leaves inhibits light penetration, increased surface temperature due to absorption of heat and clogging of stomata. The result of these is reduced gaseous exchange, reduced photosynthesis and general weakening of the plant growth. Necrotic spots also develop in many species due to soot deposition.

Magnesium oxide

Magnesium roasters are the chief sources of such pollution. The magnesium oxide dust may be carried by winds and deposited even at a distance of 5 km from the source.

In the atmosphere, magnesium sulphate (MgSO4) combines with carbon dioxide and water to form Mg(CO3)2. Both these compounds are alkaline and slightly soluble in water. Deposited on the soil these compounds can soon increase the soil pH to levels injurious to plants. Deposition of these substances on the soil prevents germination of seedlings. The seedlings that are able to emerge usually have yellow/brown tips of leaves and their roots are stunted. In areas of heavy pollution, composition of the vegetation changes completely.


Boric acid and borax are common raw materials in many industries. Oven and refrigerator manufacturing industries are chief sources of boron pollution. Severe injury to plants is observed even at a distance of 200 meters from the source and mild injury may be observed upto 500 meters in all the directions from the source.

Impact of boron pollution is more severe on older leaves than on younger leaves. Boron is also accumulated in the leaves and produces injury symptoms quite similar to fluoride pollution.

Chlorides of sodium, potassium and calcium

Sodium and calcium chlorides are commonly used in colde countries on the roads during winters to melt ice and snow. Potash industry produces aerial emission of KCl and NaCl in ratio of 3:1. All such chlorides are carried away by winds and deposited on the soil and plants. Injury symptoms produced by these chlorides in plants are very similar to those produced by SO2 and fluoride pollution.

Sodium sulphate

Sodium sulphate dust can cause necrosis of leaves. The damage increases in moist condition.

Pesticides, insecticides and herbicides

A large variety of such chemicals are sprayed on the crops these days. These substances may drift with wind to nearby areas. Generally, these chemicals are deposited on the soil and form important soil pollutants. However, in frosty conditions when crops and other plants damaged by early frost are quite susceptible to foliar spray of these chemicals, these may also be injurious air pollutants. Injury symptoms vary with the plant species and the type of chemical. Generally, the symptoms are produced on foliage and are quite similar to those produced when these substances act as soil pollutants.

Many of the primary pollutants under specific environmental conditions may interact with each other and produce secondary environmental pollutants or certain complex environmental conditions that are injurious to plants. Such secondary pollutants and pollution conditions are discussed below.


In presence of strong sunlight and in hot weather a series of complex chemical reactions involving nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons may produce certain photo-oxidant chemicals. These chemicals do not have any specific anthropogenic source but are formed over wide areas in which suitable environmental conditions are prevailing. Two such photo-oxidants that can reach ambient concentrations toxic to plants are PAN (Peroxyacetylnitrate ) and ozone.

PAN (Peroxyacetylnitrate-CH3CO.O2.NO2)

Impact of this secondary pollutant is not affected by humidity. However, the impact decreases with lowering of temperature and increasing drought conditions. The impact also increases in the morning and in bright sunlight. Young plants and young rapidly expanding leaves are more sensitive to this pollutant. PAN interacts with SO2 and O3 in complex manner producing variable impact conditions.

The common visible symptoms of exposure to PAN are chlorosis and necrosis in leaves. It also interferes with photosynthesis, respiration and absorption and synthesis of carbohydrates and proteins. It inhibits photorespiration, NADP reduction, carbon dioxide fixation, cellulose synthesis and the enzymes associated with photosynthesis and respiration.

Ozone (O3)

The impact of ozone on plants increases with humidity and decreases with drought, darkness, low temperature, high soil salinity, deficiency of soil phosphorus and excess of soil sulphur. Middle aged leaves and young plants are more sensitive to ozone. This pollutant interacts with SO2, NO2, PAN and heavy metals in complex manner.

Common symptoms of ozone pollution are yellowing, flecking and blotching in leaves, premature senescence and early maturity. It interferes with pollen formation, pollination, pollen germination and growth of pollen tubes. Increase in the level of RNA, starch, polysaccharides and number of polysomes is observed in ozone pollution. Ozone stimulates respiration, inhibits oxidative phosphorylation and changes membrane permeability. In some species, it inhibits the synthesis of glucon and cellulose and reduces the level of reducing sugars, ascorbic acid and ATP while in other species the effect is opposite to it.

Secondary pollution conditions
Certain primary inorganic and organic pollutants in the atmosphere under certain specific environmental conditions, undergo a variety of complex photochemical and other chemical reactions. These reactions produce certain specific secondary atmospheric pollution conditions that also adversely affect plants. Important such secondary atmospheric pollution conditions are acid rains, photochemical smog, ozone depletion and greenhouse problem.

1 Comment »

  1. Hello i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anywhere,
    when i read this article i thought i could also create comment due to this good post.

    Comment by website design templates — September 6, 2014 @ 3:09 am | Reply

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