We've Missed Dozens of Dangerous Sources of Air Pollution, Scientists Say

We've Missed Dozens of Dangerous Sources of Air Pollution, Scientists Say
Source: NASA
Source: NASA

If you thought pollution was bad, you don't even know the half of it. 

Scientists just discovered 39 previously unreported sources of human-made sulfur dioxide pollution.

Sulfur dioxide is bad news. It's one of the key components of acid rain which can hurt wildlife and even turn bodies of water acidic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency closely regulates it. 

So how did 39 sources of pollution escape notice? NASA scientists and a team of university researchers used satellites and an advanced computer processing system capable of detecting smaller concentrations of sulfur dioxide than before.

NASA's new satellite spacecraft
Source: NASA

"We now have an independent measurement of these emission sources that does not rely on what was known or thought known," Chris McLinden, lead author of the study published this week in Nature Geosciences, said in a statement. "When you look at a satellite picture of sulfur dioxide, you end up with it appearing as hotspots — bull's-eyes, in effect — which makes the estimates of emissions easier."

The previously unreported sources are coming from coal plants, smelters and oil and gas operations in the Middle East, Mexico and parts of Russia. Some of the reported emissions sources in those areas were two or three times lower than the new satellite estimates.

Together, the new sources and under-reported sources make up 12% of sulfur dioxide pollution. That's a huge number to miss, and it could have a big impact on air quality in those areas, according to the scientists.

The team also found 75 new sources of natural sulfur dioxide, like volcanoes, in remote areas that are slowly leaking the toxic gas.