You have probably heard of something called "global warning" before. Perhaps you are also familiar with the term "Greenhouse effect." Because those two terms are so important in understanding the pollution problem associated with burning biomass and fossil fuels, we should touch upon their definitions now.
Scientists believe that global warming is caused by the "Greenhouse effect." The greenhouse effect describes the accumulation of carbon dioxide in our earth's atmosphere. A layer of gas forms that traps heat inside the atmosphere, thereby acting as the glass ceiling of a greenhouse. Because heat is trapped by the carbon dioxide, it is believed that the earth is slowly warming. A potential (but relatively distant) danger of global warming is the melting of the so-called "polar ice caps" at the north and south poles. This occurrence would cause the ocean level to rise and perhaps flood many coastal cities.
The Advent of Fossil Fuels
Before humans were around on the earth, there was a relatively even recycling of carbon dioxide and oxygen. Plants require carbon dioxide to live, and they emit oxygen in return. Animals, on the other hand, need oxygen, but exhale carbon dioxide. But as humans began to burn fossil fuels to create energy (especially beginning just before the 20th century during the "Industrial Revolution"), more and more carbon dioxide was emitted into the air until the balance was slowly destroyed.
The Harmac Pulp Mill on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
How Do Fossil Fuels and Biomass Pollute?
All fossil fuels and biomasses consist of carbon and hydrogen atoms. When these fuels are burned, or "combusted," carbon atoms unite with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide:
Other Polluting Byproducts of Fossil Fuel and Biomass Burning
Carbon dioxide is not the only byproduct of direct combustion of fuel. Small "particulates" that can become imbedded in the human respiratory system are also emitted. Particulates can cause coughing and damage to the lungs. Further, they can lead to cancer and lung disease.
Carbon monoxide is produced when less oxygen is available in the immediate area. Carbon monoxide is more directly harmful to humans because it is odorless, colorless, and reduces the body's ability to transport oxygen. This leads to fatigue, nausea, and headaches (flu-like symptoms).
The Spectrum of Pollution
According to the Electronic Universe Project, "Materials on the low end of the energy scale such as wood and charcoal create the most pollution. Sources on the high end of the energy scale, such as natural gas burn very cleanly resulting in less air pollution."