Grozina / Research  / Exploring the Global Impact, Uses and Laws Pertaining to Sulfur Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxide

Exploring the Global Impact, Uses and Laws Pertaining to Sulfur Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxide

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a toxic gas that is characterized by its strong odor – like a just-struck match. Although sulfur dioxide can come from natural sources such as volcanoes and hot springs, the leading source of emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels in power-plants, cars, ships, trains and by extracting metal from ore. Sulfur dioxide can also be converted into a liquid state under moderate pressure at room temperature; frozen at -99.4°F and boiled at 14°F under atmospheric pressure. It is in this liquified state that sulfur dioxide is used through the manufacturing of sulfuric acid as a preservative and disinfectant. 

As a food preservative, sulfur dioxide acts as a drying agent in fruits — most commonly prunes, raisins and apricots. It’s common in breakfast sausages and burger patties. Wine also contains sulfur dioxide, and while many consider wine to contain high amounts of the toxic substance, most would be surprised to learn that the amount found in some dried fruits far exceeds the number found in wine. 

Raisins and prunes contain between 500 and 2,000 parts per million of sulfur dioxide, while wine contains much less comparatively, between 20 and 350 parts per million. Sulfur dioxide has been used to preserve wine for thousands of years, preventing oxidation from altering the wine’s color and fragrance, and stopping the growth of yeasts. To keep sulfur dioxide levels safe enough for consumption, winemakers are required by law to keep levels below 350 parts per million. 

Consuming sulfur dioxide is not usually harmful to humans, however; individuals with asthma and children can be especially sensitive to it even only from short-term exposure. Consumption of foods containing sulfur dioxide can trigger symptoms of asthma: difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, and chest pain. Adverse reactions to sulfur dioxide exposure through consumption are relatively unlikely, but exposure to sulfur dioxide in air pollution is dangerous.

Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is a group of highly reactive gasses, which include nitrogen dioxide (NO2), nitrous acid (HNO2) and nitric acid (HNO3). Similar to sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides are highly toxic gasses produced during combustion, a result of the interaction between nitrogen and oxygen through the chemical reaction with fossil fuels that create smoke. In nature, it is produced from the extreme heating and cooling of electrostatic discharge which occur in lightning.

Two thirds of sulfur dioxide and one fourth of nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere come from electric power generators, vehicles and heavy equipment. Nitrogen oxides are primarily used as oxidizers in the engines of rockets, cars and other vehicles (United States Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C). The strong pain-relieving properties of nitrogen oxides enables the gas to be used as an anesthetic, making it the most commonly used inhalation anesthetic in dentistry. As nitrogen oxides are used in the production of energy, its property as a propellant can also be applied to the food industry in cans of whipped cream. 

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides both negatively impact the environment on a severe level. Both heavily contribute to the creation of smog, an intense form of air pollution that refers to the combination of smoke and fog. When nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide become exposed to sunlight, ozone is formed. Ozone can cause adverse reactions even in otherwise healthy individuals, causing lung tissue damage and eye irritation (National Geographic). In liquid states, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can enter the water cycle, resulting in acid rain. When these harmful gasses are emitted into the atmosphere and transported by wind and air currents, they combine with water, falling to the earth and contaminating bodies of water and soil.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces limitations on the emission of sulfur dioxide and the Clean Air Act of 1990 requires EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards for six principal pollutants. Since 1990, emissions from these pollutants have decreased by 50% (EPA), but emissions are still polluting the air in unsustainable levels. More so, as long as natural resources continue to be depleted, civil unrest will continue to escalate. 

A 1999 study done by Paul and Eric Reitan explains in further detail:

“The only practical route towards speeding the development of sustainable societies is through the cultivation of worldviews that, in contrast to the present dominant worldviews, have a chance of motivating sustainable behavior. This means that sustainable human societies will only become possible after the dominant worldview of how humans relate to the nonhuman world is changed profoundly. The specific ways of organizing societies that are sustainable are, we are sure, many. As long as societies share a dominant worldview that is compatible with sustainability, sustainable societies will be possible. So how do we get there? By elevating to the level of primary importance the study of worldviews, the frameworks that share our choices of how to live. When we recognize the failure of our present dominant world views, the ones that have brought us to the crisis we now face, we should be prepared to begin the next step. That is to think seriously about what worldviews are able to lead us to the behaviors that in the long run will work, and then, how to make those worldviews widespread.”

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