Air pollution is putting many things in the air that we’re not supposed to breathe. Among the most noxious air pollutants are nitrogen oxides, highly reactive gases containing nitrogen and oxygen, collectively known as NOx.
Many of the nitrogen oxides are colorless and odorless. However, one common pollutant, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) along with particles in the air can often be seen as a reddish-brown layer over many urban areas.
NOx, which are mainly produced from vehicle exhausts, have a wide variety of health and environmental impacts as identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA):
Ground-level Ozone (Smog) - is formed when NOx and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in the presence of sunlight. Children, people with lung diseases such as asthma, and people who work or exercise outside are susceptible to adverse effects such as damage to lung tissue and reduction in lung function. Ozone can be transported by wind currents and cause health impacts far from original sources. Millions of Americans live in areas that do not meet the health standards for ozone. Other impacts from ozone include damaged vegetation and reduced crop yields
Acid Rain - NOx and sulfur dioxide react with other substances in the air to form acids which fall to earth as rain, fog, snow or dry particles. Some may be carried by wind for hundreds of miles. Acid rain damages; causes deterioration of cars, buildings and historical monuments; and causes lakes and streams to become acidic and unsuitable for many fish.
Particlulate Matter - NOx reacts with ammonia, moisture, and other compounds to form nitric acid and related particles. Human health concerns include effects on breathing and the respiratory system, damage to lung tissue, and premature death. Small particles penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory disease such as emphysema and bronchitis, and aggravate existing heart disease.
Water Quality Deterioration - Increased nitrogen loading in water bodies, particularly coastal estuaries, upsets the chemical balance of nutrients used by aquatic plants and animals. Additional nitrogen accelerates "eutrophication," which leads to oxygen depletion and reduces fish and shellfish populations. NOx emissions in the air are one of the largest sources of nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Climate Change - One member of the NOx, nitrous oxide or N2O, is about 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas on a per molecule basis. It accumulates in the atmosphere with other greenhouse gasses causing a gradual rise in the earth's temperature. This will lead to increased risks to human health, a rise in the sea level, and other adverse changes to plant and animal habitat.
Toxic Chemicals - In the air, NOx reacts readily with common organic chemicals and even ozone, to form a wide variety of toxic products, some of which may cause biological mutations. Examples of these chemicals include the nitrate radical, nitroarenes, and nitrosamines.
Visibility Impairment - Nitrate particles and nitrogen dioxide can block the transmission of light, reducing visibility in urban areas and on a regional scale in our national parks.
In July 2009, the US EPA proposed to strengthen the nation’s nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air quality standard for the first time in 35 years given the latest knowledge of its health effects. (http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/d0cf6618525a9efb85257359003fb69d/980927903e5cdc85852575e40068b819!OpenDocument)
The European Union has also set directives that limit levels of NOx that must be met by 2010. However, meeting the limits set for NOx emissions have proven to be the toughest to meet for most EU countries. (http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/10/eea-20091002.html).