The Six Infamous Pollutants

Jul. 14, 2011 | 0 Comments | Language Arts | 5-8

Lesson Steps



Grade Level & Subject: Language Arts, English, Science;Grade 5

Length: 2 – 3 Class Periods


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify and describe the six most common air pollutants
  • Identify health and environmental problems caused by the six infamous pollutants
  • Describe ways to reduce air pollution in their community
  • Write an informative and factual article intended for a public audience

National Standards Addressed:[1]

The following Standards for the English Language Arts come from the National Council of Teachers of English:

  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • Content Standard:NL-ENG.K-12.12 APPLYING LANGUAGE SKILLS
  • Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

The following National Science Education Standards come from the National Academies of Science:

As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of:

  • Personal health
  • Populations, resources and environments
  • Environmental quality
  • Natural hazards
  • Science and technology in society

Materials Needed:

  • Chart paper and marker
  • Reproducible #1 – Six Infamous Pollutants
  • Reproducible #2 – Six Infamous Pollutants Assessment Rubric
  • Reproducible #3 – Infamous Pollutant Biography
  • Reproducible #4 – Infamous Pollutants Biography – Sample Student Answers
  • Reproducible #5 – Meet the Pollutants Press Conference – Reporter's Notes
  • Reproducible #6 – “O” Game Pieces and “O” Questions
  • Reproducible #7 – “X” Game Pieces and “X” Questions
  • Reproducible #8 – Tic-Tac-Toe Board
  • Game pieces
  • Computers with Internet access and/or other air pollution reference materials
  • A variety of art materials for presentation props (Students should also contribute)
  • Cardstock, binder ring or other materials for binding the "Air Quality Journal"
  • Newspaper clippings about air quality issues (optional)  

Students will be assessed through the following activities:

  • Completed research, using web sites and/or texts
  • Completion of Reproducible #3 – Infamous Pollutant Biography
  • Contributed to group presentation
  • Recorded notes from press conference
  • Participation in tic-tac-toe games
  • Completion of article for Air Quality Journal



Relevant Vocabulary:

  • Air pollution: Air pollution occurs when the air contains gases, dust, fumes or odor in harmful amounts. That is, amounts which could be harmful to the health or comfort of humans and animals or which could cause damage to plants and materials. The substances that cause air pollution are called pollutants. Pollutants that are pumped into our atmosphere and directly pollute the air are called primary pollutants. Primary pollutant examples include carbon monoxide from car exhausts and sulfur dioxide from the combustion of coal.Further pollution can arise if primary pollutants in the atmosphere undergo chemical reactions. The resulting compounds are called secondary pollutants. Photochemical smog is an example of this.[2]
  • Air Quality:A measurement of the pollutants in the air; a description of healthiness and safety of the atmosphere.[3]
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): An agency established in 1970 by the United States government to coordinate federal programs aimed at combating pollution and protecting the environment.[4]
  • U.S.Clean Air Act: The Clean Air Act is the law that defines EPA's responsibilities for protecting and improving the nation's air quality and the stratospheric ozone layer. The last major change in the law, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, was enacted by Congress in 1990. Legislation passed since then has made several minor changes.[5]

Background Information:

The U.S. Clean Air Act stipulates that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set air quality standards for the six most common air pollutants that are found all over the nation. These include: Sulfur Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, Ground-Level Ozone, Particulate Matter, Nitrogen Oxide and Lead. To help teach this lesson, here is a little more information on each of these pollutants. It is important to note that all of these pollutants occur naturally in the environment. However, they become harmful to public health and the environment when they are produced in large quantities that are contrary to a natural state.

Sulfur dioxide is a highly reactive gas. It is released naturally through volcanoes but the largest amounts of emissions come from fossil fuel combustion at power plants and other industrial facilities. In humans, sulfur dioxide affects the respiratory system causing difficulty in breathing, and even premature death. Sulfur dioxide is also particularly harmful for the environment, harming both plant and animal life. Sulfur dioxide contributes to acid rain.

Carbon Monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas emitted from combustion processes. Although found naturally in the human body, in large quantities, it is extremely harmful to both animals and humans. The largest amounts of carbon monoxide come from cars, planes and other forms of transportation. By reducing the delivery of oxygen to the body’s organs and tissues, high levels of carbon monoxide will effect the cardiovascular system and can even cause death.

Ozone is formed from the emissions of NOx and VOC’s, which occur naturally but are also emitted in the largest quantities from motor vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions. Ground-level ozone contributes to smog. Because sunlight and hot weather causes dangerous concentrations of ground-level ozone, summer is the most harmful season for this pollutant. Breathing ozone can cause chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion. It also worsens the effects of bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.

Particulate Matter (PM) is composed of a variety of small particles and liquid droplets. It can be made up of both man made and natural particles, such as acids, metals, soil, dust particles, etc. Volcanoes, dust storms and forest fires are all responsible for particulate matter, as well as the burning of fossil fuels, power plants and industrial processes. Particulate Matter can be very hard for the respiratory system, especially for people with pre-existing conditions, including asthma and bronchitis. The fine particles in PM are so tiny that they can get deep into the lungs. PM can also cause an irregular heartbeat, difficulty in breathing and premature death. 

Nitrogen Oxide is formed from car, truck, buses, and power plant emissions. Nitrogen Oxide also contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone and PM. NOx, like many of the other air pollutants, affects the respiratory system. Even for healthy people, nitrogen oxide can cause airway inflammation. Nitrogen Oxide will also worsen the effects of pre-existing conditions, such as asthma and emphysema.

Lead is a metal found naturally in the environment. However, lead is also emitted into the air from fuels in motor vehicles and industrial sources. Lead can also be released into the air through ore and metals processing. Lead is particularily dangerous because it can leak into the food and water supply to be ingested by people. Lead-based paint that was historically used in houses is also a major exposure pathway for people. When lead enters the body, it is absorbed into the blood and bones. Lead can affect the nervous system, kidney function, and immune system, reproductive and developmental and cardiovascular systems.  Lead also adversely affects the environment; it has been show to cause loss of biodiversity, decreased growth and reproductive rates in plants and animals.

Although air pollution is a significant problem with no easy solution, there are some ways individuals can help. First of all, reducing the reliance on cars and trucks and using alternatives, such as public transportation and bikes will significantly reduce many of these pollutants. Also, writing letters to local and state governments to invest in cleaner energy alternatives will encourage the government to find ways to protect the air. Please check the EPA site for more information:    


  • What are the Six Common Air Pollutants? U.S.Environmental Protection Agency

  • Cleaning up Commonly Found Air Pollutants U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

  • Urban Air Pollution United Nations Environment Programme

  • Today’s AQI Forecast AIRNow




Teacher Preparation Steps:

  1. Review all steps in this lesson prior to beginning.
  2. Collect all items listed in the materials section, and make copies of hand-outs ahead of time. Reproducible #5 – “O” Game Pieces and “O” Questions andReproducible #7 – “X” Game Pieces and “X” Questions should both be printed double sided and cut along the lines so the questions are on the back of the cards.
  3. If students are playing the tic-tac-toe game in pairs, each pair will need:
    1. Reproducible #6 – “O” Game Pieces and “O” Questions
    2. Reproducible #7 – “X” Game Pieces and “X” Questions
    3. Reproducible #8 – Tic-Tac-Toe Board
    4. Game pieces (two different kinds to represent “X’s” and “O’s” – dimes and nickels, two different colored stones, etc.)
  4. Each student will need 3 copies of Reproducible #5 – Meet the Pollutants Press Conference – Reporter's Notes to take notes on each of the 6 pollutants.

Warm-up: The Air We Breathe

  1. Write the words “Air Quality” on the board and ask students the following questions:
    1.  What do the words Air Quality mean? Air Quality is a measurement of the pollutants in the air; a description of healthiness and safety of the atmosphere.
    2. Is the quality of the air in their geographical area good or bad? Why? Answers will vary but may include ideas about the amount of trees, cars, factories, people, fog, etc.
    3. What evidence is there of air pollution? Answers will vary but may include ideas about fog or physical symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath..
    4. Have students ever experienced burning eyes or shortness of breath on polluted days? Answers will vary.
    5.  What time of the year does the air seem dirtiest?This answer may vary according to region but in general, the air seems the dirtiest in summer because of higher particulate matter, higher humidity and less rain to wash everything away. There also tends to be more pollen in the air during the summer.    
  2. Tell students that the issue of “air quality;” – how good or bad the air is - is often in the news across the country. (Show recent, related news articles if available.)
  3. Ask students why there is so much talk about “air quality.”
  4. Lead students in a short discussion about the importance of air for living things. Explain that bad air can contribute to a variety of illnesses such as asthma and cancer. Explain that even though air is so very important, and we should know what’s going in and out of our lungs, it’s sometimes hard to grasp because you usually can’t see it, hear, smell, touch, or taste air pollutants. It will be the students’ challenge to make invisible air and air pollutants visible and interesting to learn about.

Activity One: Identifying Pollutants

  1. Ask students where air pollution comes from and as they answer, list their responses on the board, under the title: “Sources of Air Pollution.” Cars, trucks, airplanes, power plants, big factories, fireplaces, and gas stations.
  2. Ask students to identify what air pollution is actually made of; if students can name any of the six major pollutants, applaud them for knowing what so many people don’t know about the air they are breathing. Ozone (Oз), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Particulate Matter (PM), and Lead (Pb).
  3. Display Reproducible #1 – Six Infamous Pollutantson the projector or smart board for students to see.
  4. Explain to students that there are more pollutants, but that these are the “biggies” and they should be infamous, but many people don’t know anything about them. Tell them that it will be their job to find out to find out as much as they can about the pollutants and be able to share that information with others and make the pollutants “infamous.”
  5. Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one of the six infamous pollutants. Distribute Reproducible #2 – Six Infamous Pollutants AssessmentRubric and Reproducible #3 – Infamous Pollutant Biography.
  6. Challenge students to treat the Pollutant as an infamous character about whom they are putting together a biographical sketch. Tell them to use the EPA pollutants and air qualitywebsites for kids, listed on the hand-out, as well as encyclopedias or other resources, to answer the questions and get to know their Pollutant very well. Explain that groups will be preparing this biographical information for a “Meet the Pollutants” Press Conference in which each type of pollutant will be interviewed to find out what they are all about. (Explain that infamous people often hold press conferences and answer questions by reporters). Each person in the group will play a particle of whichever pollutant that group was assigned; each person will speak at the press conference presentation and tell part of the pollutant's life story (based on information from Reproducible #3 – Infamous Pollutant Biography); and each person in a group should be prepared to answer questions from the "press."
  7. The rest of the class will take notes and ask questions, acting as members of the press. Tell students that the groups may use props, special effects, or simple costumes to make the invisible pollutant visible and interesting to others. Mention that props also make good memory devices and help keep a presentation on track. Tell students that each group should have a main point or focus of its presentation, instead of just reciting a list of facts. For instance, a pollutant group could emphasize that their pollutant kills kids, or is the most dangerous, or had a difficult childhood, is not very threatening at all~ and explain how or why. A sample student presentation is included at the end of this document. Explain to students that for all activities in this lesson, they should follow the guidelines on the assessment rubric. At the end of the lesson, the teacher will collect the assessment rubric and grade accordingly. Be sure to mention that students should fill out the “Self-Assessment” portion of the rubric to get 5 extra points toward their overall grade. presentations.
  8. As students research and develop materials, circulate and assist them as needed. Encourage them to be creative yet scientifically accurate. Emphasize that each member of the group must participate in the presentation, and that each person must fill out his own version of the Reproducible #3 – Infamous Pollutant Biography, even if group members collaborate on the research. Allow time for the groups to plan and practice their presentations, after research is complete.
  9. After students have completed their research and prepared their presentations, set up the classroom for the press conference. Provide a central area for the presenters and an audience area for the rest of the students, who will be acting as reporters.
  10. Distribute Reproducible # 5 – Meet the Pollutants Press Conference – Reporter's Notepad. Students will need three note pages each to have one section for each of the six pollutants.  
  11. Explain to students that the “reporters” will ask questions, but they must also take good notes: they will be using their notes later. Because students may not be familiar with a press conference format, the teacher will serve as moderator, introducing each Pollutant group, inviting the presentation to start, asking the first question, and guiding the audience to ask subsequent questions. You might want to add some humor by calling the Pollutants by names, such as Ms. CO (carbon monoxide), Mr. Pib (Lead), or Dr. Nox (nitrogen oxide). Allow each pollutant 5 – 10 minutes for their presentation and interview. After each session, be sure to applaud the presenters and briefly highlight the important points relating to the source of the pollutant, its effects on living things, and what can be done about it.
  12. Congratulate the entire class on an exciting press conference and their ability to make invisible things that are hard to grasp much more visible and understandable.

Activity Two: Air Quality Tic-Tac-Toe

  1. Tell students they are now going to play a game to go further in-depth into the Six Infamous Air Pollutants better. This Tic-Tac-Toe game is similar to the "Hollywood Squares" game on T.V.
  2. Ask students to rearrange their desks so nine students are set up like a Tic-Tac-Toe board in the middle of the classroom with three rows of three. Assign each of these students one of the six Infamous Pollutant personalities listed above. One student is Ms. / Mr. Earth, one is Ms. / Mr. Dir. T. Air, and another is Dr. Haze. The remainder of the students should be divided into two teams, one Team X and the other Team O. A student or the teacher may serve as the Game Show Host who will ask the questions.
  3. To start this game, a player from Team X chooses one of the “celebrities” to answer a question. The host reads a question from an X card (please see Teacher Preparation Step) and the celebrity answers, giving either a correct or an incorrect answer. The Team X player must decide if the answer given by the celebrity is correct or incorrect. If it is a correct answer, the Team X player wins the square and the host gives an X card to the celebrity to hold. This is repeated with the O team and continued until one team makes a Tic Tac Toe or the board is filled. OR If the class works better in smaller groups, divide the class into multiple teams of two students each. Give each team of two a copy of Reproducible #8 – Tic-Tac-Toe Board, Reproducible #6 – “O” Game Pieces and “O” Questions, Reproducible #7 – “X” Game Pieces and “X” Questions andGame Pieces. Have students cut out the questions and game pieces.
  4. Tell students that the game is played like Tic-Tac-Toe except they must answer a question correctly before they can claim a space. The "X" player asks questions from the "X" Question cards. Similarly, the "O" player asks the "X" player questions off the "O" Question cards. A player can only place their piece on the Game Board card when a question is answered correctly.

Activity Three: Alerting the Public

  1. Tell students that many people don’t know much about these Infamous Pollutants and yet they are in contact with them often. Now that the students know the pollutants well, it’s time they share this important knowledge with others. Assign students to choose three of the six major air pollutants and write an article for the “Air Quality Journal” using notes from Reproducible #3 – Infamous Pollutant BiographyandReproducible #5 – Meet the Pollutants Press Conference – Reporter's Notes The article must be at least three paragraphs long, describing to the general public where the pollutants come from, how they are caused, their effects on living things, and what can be done about them. In addition to the information about each pollutant, the article must compare the three pollutants, pointing out similarities and differences, and must make a main point (such as which pollutant is the worst, which affects the most students in your community, or which presents a problem students have the power to help solve). The article will differ in point of view from the press conference presentations, which were conducted "in character." For purposes of this article, students should write as junior scientists. Please refer students to their copies of Reproducible #2 – Assessment Rubric for additional information on criteria for this assignment. The articles may be started in class and continued as a homework assignment.
  2. After articles are submitted, bind the articles into a “magazine” and entitle it “Air Quality Journal.” You may wish to add newspaper clippings and other pertinent information to the Journal as the class proceeds through the Air Quality unit. Please remind students that their Pollution Biography Worksheets and Reporter's Notepads should also be turned in, along with Reproducible #2 – Six Infamous Pollutants Assessment Rubric.

Wrap Up: Discussion

  1. Begin a discussion with students.
    1. What did you learn during these activities? Answers will vary.
    2. Why is it important to be aware of air pollution? Answers will vary.
    3. How can you make other people more aware of conditions of the air they breathe? Answer will vary.
    4. What did you find were the best ways to improve air quality in your own community? Answers will vary but make sure to mention the importance of education to students and making people aware of what causes air pollution.

Extension: Takin’ it to the School!

  1. Students can work in teams to make posters, PSA’s, songs, raps or skits about the importance of healthy air. Have students display their artwork or performance for other classes to raise awareness around the school.

Extension: No Idling!

  1. Start a no idling campaign at your school or check out other No Idling resources from the Earth Day Network archive.[6]



In this lesson students discovered the six most infamous air pollutants. They built their research and communications skills in order to present information to fellow students about one of the pollutants, listen to other students presentations and write an article intended for the general public and included in the Air Quality Journal. As a result of this lesson students can identify the most dangerous air pollutants and explain the problems they cause, as well as effectively convey their own opinions in several different forms of communication. Students also discussed tangible ideas for reducing the amount of air pollution in their own community.    



The Clean Air Campaign, Inc. – Author

Maggie Ollove – Contributor, Editor

            Education Associate, Earth Day Network



[2]“What is Air Pollution.” Environmental Protection Agency, Victoria, Retrieved June 2, 2011 from <>.

[3]“Air Quality” Entry., LLC. Retrieved April 5, 2011 from

[4]“Environmental Protection Agency Entry.”  Webster’s Online Dictionary.  Retrieved 2 June 2011 from

[5]“Clean Air Act.” U.S.Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved June 7, 2011 from