Air Quality and Agriculture



One of the most widespread air pollutants is ozone, which harms vegetation as well as human health. Ozone is not emitted directly from smokestacks or vehicles. It is formed when other pollutants, primarily nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, react in the atmosphere in the presence of sunlight, usually during the warm summer months. Ozone causes considerable damage to vegetation throughout the world, including agricultural crops and native plants in natural ecosystems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established an ozone standard to protect human health. EPA has adopted an identical standard to protect public welfare, including plants, from ozone effects. However, there is evidence to suggest that this standard, based on human health effects, is not protective of very sensitive plant species; these plants may be harmed at ozone levels below the standard.


Ozone enters plants through leaf openings called stomata and oxidizes plant tissue, causing changes in biochemical and physiological processes. Both visible foliar injury(e.g., stipple and chlorosis) and growth effects (e.g., premature leaf loss, reduced photosynthesis, and reduced leaf, root, and total dry weights) can occur in sensitive plant species In a natural ecosystem, many other factors can ameliorate or magnify the extent of ozone injury at various times and places such as soil moisture, presence of other air pollutants, insects or diseases, and other environmental stresses.

Sulfur Dioxide

Major sources of sulfur dioxide are coal-burning operations, especially those providing electric power and space heating. Sulfur dioxide emissions can also result from the burning of petroleum and the smelting of sulfur containing ores.

Sulfur dioxide enters the leaves mainly through the stomata (microscopic openings) and the resultant injury is classified as either acute or chronic. Acute injury (Figure 2) is caused by absorption of high concentrations of sulfur dioxide in a relatively short time. The symptoms appear as 2-sided (bifacial) lesions that usually occur between the veins and occasionally along the margins of the leaves. The colour of the necrotic area can vary from a light tan or near white to an orange-red or brown depending on the time of year, the plant species affected and weather conditions. Recently expanded leaves usually are the most sensitive to acute sulfur dioxide injury, the very youngest and oldest being somewhat more resistant.

Figure 2. Acute sulfur dioxide injury to raspberry. Note that the injury occurs between the veins and that the tissue
nearest the vein remains healthy.

Chronic injury is caused by long-term absorption of sulfur dioxide at sub-lethal concentrations. The symptoms appear as a yellowing or chlorosis of the leaf, and occasionally as a bronzing on the under surface of the leaves.

Different plant species and varieties and even individuals of the same species may vary considerably in their sensitivity to sulfur dioxide. These variations occur because of the differences in geographical location, climate, stage of growth and maturation. The following crop plants are generally considered susceptible to sulfur dioxide: alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, clover, oats, pumpkin, radish, rhubarb, spinach, squash, Swiss chard and tobacco. Resistant crop plants include asparagus, cabbage, celery, corn, onion and potato.

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter such as cement dust, magnesium-lime dust and carbon soot deposited on vegetation can inhibit the normal respiration and photosynthesis mechanisms within the leaf. Cement dust may cause chlorosis and death of leaf tissue by the combination of a thick crust and alkaline toxicity produced in wet weather. The dust coating also may affect the normal action of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals applied as sprays to foliage. In addition, accumulation of alkaline dusts in the soil can increase soil pH to levels adverse to crop growth.

Cement-dust coating on apple leaves and fruit. The dust had no injurious effect on the foliage, but inhibited the action of a pre-harvest crop spray.