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Air Pollution Awareness Demonstration

This demonstration is dedicated to raising your students' awareness of the air pollution created by their everyday activities. It costs almost nothing, yet really gets the point across in a dramatic way and prepares elementary through high school students for further studies in air pollution.


Each of your students begins the demonstration with a cup of clean water representing unpolluted air. During the demonstration, you'll read them 6 everyday activities from the Air Pollution Awareness Sheet. Each of the activities generates one or more of the pollutants listed below. When your students recognize an activity that they have participated in, they add a drop of food coloring to their cups to represent the pollutant or pollutants created by that activity. At the end of the demonstration, their cups of colored water provide a striking visual reminder of each student's contribution to air pollution.

Familiarize yourself with the pollutants in the list below so that you can explain them to your students during the demonstration.

Particulate matter (PM10)—Particulate matter consists of airborne solids less than 10 micrometers in diameter. These tiny particles are easily inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause damage to lung tissue. Diesel fumes from busses and trucks are a source of airborne particulate matter. Learn more about particulate matter.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)— Sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas with a pungent odor. Electric power plants fueled by coal or oil are the primary source of sulfur dioxide pollution. Sulfur dioxide emissions can cause respiratory diseases and are a key factor in acid rain formation. Learn more about sulfur dioxide.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)— Nitrogen dioxide is a toxic, reddish brown gas byproduct of the combustion of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, diesel fuel, and gasoline). Nitrogen dioxide can irritate airways and increase susceptibility to respiratory diseases. It is also a factor in the formation of acid rain. Learn more about nitrogen dioxide.

Carbon monoxide (CO)— Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless toxic gas. Motor vehicles are the primary source of carbon monoxide pollution. CO is highly toxic. At low concentrations it causes drowsiness and headache; it is carbon monoxide.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)— Volatile organic compounds are toxic gases made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and other atoms that form gases easily. They are found in nature as well as in glue, paint, gasoline, tobacco smoke, and clothes that have been dry-cleaned. VOCs form ground level ozone, a main component of smog.


  • Clear, plastic, 7-oz cups (one per student)
  • Red, green, yellow, and blue food coloring (one set of colors per work group)
  • Water

Procedure (Teacher)

  • Divide your class into work groups of 3–4 students each.
  • Give each student a clear plastic cup that is ¾ full of clean water.
  • Give each work group a set of red, green, yellow, and blue food coloring.
  • Discuss the list of air pollutants with your students, including as much technical detail as is appropriate to their grade level. Write the names and abbreviations of the pollutants on the board so that your students can refer to them during the demonstration, or distribute photocopies of the list to each work group.
  • Read the Air Awareness Sheet to your students. They will complete the demonstration as you read from the sheet.
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