Commercial and Industrial

Heating and powering our offices and our industries, as well as manufacturing, can add to the pollution outdoors.

Commercial and institutional buildings are familiar to most people: offices, grocery stores, sports arenas, schools, shopping malls, hotels, and hospitals. Manufacturing, industrial buildings and complexes produce familiar products, ranging from paper to gasoline to consumer products to many others, even if their buildings and complexes may not be that well known.

Heating and powering our offices and our industries can add to the pollution outdoors. In addition, in the manufacturing process itself, industries also produce emissions that can vary widely from industry to industry.

Many sources provide heat, cooling and power for commercial, institutional and industrial buildings

Heating and cooling buildings takes energy, and around the nation, many sources provide that essential energy.  Many commercial and industrial buildings get electricity from the grid, produced by large utilities. However, much comes from other sources directly owned and managed by the institutions or industries. 

  • Electricity heats and cools both commercial and industrial buildings as well as providing power for the industrial processes. The outdoor air pollution impacts of producing the electricity that comes from large utilities are discussed in Electric Utilities.
  • Industrial/Commercial/Institutional Boilers usually drive mechanical equipment or produce heat.  Some boilers produce electrical power for on-site use, sometimes also producing steam.  Industrial boilers are similar to those used to power the electrical grid, but usually are much smaller. They also use coal, natural gas and biomass to provide power. More details on how these boilers work can be found at the Heat Report.
  • Natural gas and oil are used in commercial and industrial buildings in the U.S. and are transported through a large pipeline supply system.  More information about outdoor air pollution from natural gas and oil can be found in Electric Utilities and Transportation
  • Biomass includes burning wood and waste products, including agricultural waste, and wood and paper residues.  Biomass is primarily used in industrial settings, but it is also used in electricity.  More information on the use of biomass and the emissions biomass produces is in the Heat Report and in Electric Utilities.
  • Solar power ranges from passive solar, which means designing a building to capture and hold sunlight, to active solar, which uses technology, such as photovoltaics, to convert sunlight into energy.

How these affect the air we breathe

Emissions from sources providing commercial, institutional and industrial heat and power directly impact lung health and contribute to air pollution. In addition, the emissions from the manufacturing processes can produce many other pollutants.

  • Direct impacts.  Emissions directly released include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide as well as hazardous pollutants that can cause cancer and other health problems. Even biomass plants can produce very harmful emissions.  
  • Particle Pollution. Particle pollution forms directly, seen as ash and soot, or indirectly, as the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide convert into particles once they reach the outside air. The latter are so tiny they can blow hundreds of miles from the source. 
  • Ozone Pollution. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide from these sources react in the air with other gases to form ozone pollution, the nation's most widespread air pollutant. Ozone can also spread across thousands of miles. 
  • Climate change pollution.  Boilers that burn coal, oil and natural gas contribute to carbon pollution, the biggest driver of climate change.  Boilers that burn oil and natural gas also emit methane, another potent greenhouse gas.  These contribute to warmer temperatures that drive changes that threaten health.
  • Hazardous air pollutants.  Industrial facilities in the U.S. must report emissions of more than 650 toxic air pollutants to the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which makes the information publically available. The pollutants include those that primarily cause cancer or other significant harm to human health, or cause significant harm to the environment. However, the TRI does not include all harmful air pollutants, and also includes emissions to water and to land.

Industry emissions affect some communities more than others

  • Poor and disadvantaged communities often bear a disproportionate burden of industry emissions. Historically, industrial facilities have located in and near their neighborhoods. 

Page last updated: November 17, 2022

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