Name That Air Pollutant

Main content

Students create graphic organizers describing the four major air pollutants reported in the Air Quality Index (ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide) and then identify the pollutants with a guessing game.

Learning Objectives

  • Students will learn that different types of air pollutants have different chemistry and effects on health.
  • Students will learn that in the United States the Air Quality Index is used to communicate the levels of air pollution and threat to health.



  1. Have students read AQI: Air Quality Index from the EPA and create a graphic organizer to help them make sense of the information about the four major air pollutants that reported in the Air Quality Index and regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. Suggest that they take note of the sources of these four pollutants, and the effects of different pollutants on people and other living things. Note: The Clean Air Act also regulates lead as an air pollutant, but lead is not reported in the Air Quality Index. 
  2. Have four student volunteers each play the role of one air pollutant. Look at each student’s graphic organizer to make sure it includes the key information about the air pollutant they will portray.
  3. Have the rest of the class ask yes or no questions to deduce which student is portraying which air pollutant. Once a question has been asked of one person, the same question cannot be asked of another person. Students can refer to their graphic organizers as they decide which questions to ask. (You may wish to have each student come up with one question.)



Air pollution comes from many different sources, both natural and human-caused.

Natural processes that affect air quality include volcanic activity, which produces sulfur, chlorine, and ash, and wildfires, which produce smoke and carbon monoxide. Cattle and other animals emit methane as part of their digestive process. Even pine trees emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Human-caused air pollution comes from many sources. Industrial plants, combustion-fired power plants, and vehicles with internal combustion engines generate nitrogen oxides, VOCs, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulates. Cars are the primary source of these pollutants in urban areas. Stoves and incinerators, especially ones that are coal or wood-fired, and farmers burning their crop waste produce carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, as well as particulates. Other human-made sources include aerosol sprays and gases leaking from refrigeration systems, as well as fumes from paint, varnish, and other solvents. Additional pollutants, like ozone, are made in the atmosphere when human-made gases combine chemically.

Air pollution can cause a range of impacts to human health such as irritation to eyes, throat, and lungs. Wheezing, coughing, burning eyes, chest tightness, headaches, and difficulty breathing are all commonly reported when the Air Quality Index is high. Increased doctor visits, hospitalization, and school absences also frequently occur at such times. Not all health impacts are immediate; slow and subtle health effects from long-term air pollution exposure may culminate in life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.

Certain people appear to be more vulnerable to air pollution, namely the elderly, the young, and those with cardiopulmonary diseases such as asthma or severe bronchitis. Ozone and air particles appear to be especially harmful to children’s health. This is because their lungs are still growing, they are often outside for long periods, and they are usually quite active. As a result, pound for pound they inhale more polluted outdoor air than adults typically do.