Carbon is found in almost every molecule in nature. This central element is the building block of all living organisms. This means that all insects, plants and mammals, including people, are formed from carbon. Inanimate objects such as rocks, soil and plastics also contain carbon compounds because they are composed of organisms that were once living. Additionally, carbon is found circulating in our bloodstreams, ocean waters and the air we breathe.
The most common carbon gas is carbon dioxide, which we breath out and plants inhale and remove from the air. Water does not naturally contain carbon dioxide, but this gas diffuses into it from the air. Similarly, excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere seeps into ocean waters causing harmful acidification. Natural gases such as methane and ethane are simple hydrocarbon gases. Propane and butane gas, which are used in gas stoves, contain longer carbon chains. Burning carbon fuels can create carbon monoxide, an odourless gas byproduct that is toxic if inhaled.
Carbon in Food
All the food you eat comes from a living source. This means that both animal and plant-based foods and products contain countless atoms of carbon. Living and dead animals and plants contain repeating units of hydrocarbons. These base molecules consist of carbon atoms combined with hydrogen and other elements. Animals provide carbon directly from their own molecular formation, as well as from the plants they feed on. Carbonated beverages contain additional carbon dioxide gas that has been dissolved into them to create fizz.
The Carbon You Wear
Chances are the clothing you are wearing is made from synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester and acrylics. These man-made fibers are derived from petroleum, and hence contain carbon. Natural fibers made from cotton, which is from a plant, and wool, which is sheared from sheep, are organic products and also contain carbon in the form of hydrocarbons. Your jewelry may also be composed of carbon. Diamonds are simply lumps of extremely compressed carbon, while pearls and seashells contain calcium carbonate. Many fragrances and perfumed skin products contain plant essential oils, which are also hydrocarbon based.
Burning Fossil Fuels
Oil, coal and other fossil fuels that power the world are made from carbon-containing plants from prehistoric times. This carbon is released into the atmosphere in vast quantities every time these nonrenewable resources are used in vehicles, homes, factories and power plants. In a single year, the burning of fossil fuels expels almost 6.5 billion tons of carbon into the air. This carbon builds up in the atmosphere, warming the planet, affecting climate, and causing acid rain and other pollution. Plants and ocean waters resorb approximately half of this atmospheric carbon, but this is not enough to prevent accumulating damage to the Earth.
Carbon in Building Materials
Building materials often include wood, which comes from certain types of plants that have transformed carbon dioxide into cellulose, the carbon-containing substance that gives wood its strength. Insulation for your home contains plastic, which is derived from petroleum and is composed of carbon and hydrogen. Additionally, your drywall may contain chalk, which is composed of calcium carbonate. Even bricks and cement used to construct buildings and bridges contain crushed rocks that are formed from carbon and other elements. Natural rubber is from a plant, and hence consists of long chains of hydrocarbons.
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