The environment is an important part of life that must be safeguarded and preserved in the best way possible, because without it there would be no life. People have always used the environment to advance their own goals, but this can lead to environmental pollution, which in turn affects the world’s population. In other words, human beings must be consciously concerned with the environment—whether air, water, or soil—because it affects them as much as they affect it. To assess the health of the environment and the effects of environmental pollution, we must look at the environment’s different facets individually and how they interact. Discussing environmental pollution is only one part of the whole. The other component is assessing the extent of its negative effects on people.
Environmental Pollution Trends
Today, environmental pollution is occurring on a vast and unprecedented scale worldwide, impacting virtually everyone and everything. We can best understand the dramatic changes or increase in pollution in the 20th and 21st centuries in terms of four long-term trends.
First, the world’s population increased more than threefold in the 20th century, along with a twentyfold increase in the gross world product. These increases caused a demand on the use of fossil fuels, thereby increasing the release of both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere. These emissions are the principal components of smog and give rise to acid rain.
The second long-term pollution trend recognized in the 20th century is the shift from gross environmental results to micro toxicity. Before World War II, the major public health issues centered on smoke and sewer-related issues. One incident, the killer fog over Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948, sickened thousands and killed 20 people. An even more ominous micro-level threat has existed since the advent of nuclear technology. The ushering in of the nuclear age, chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare, and the peacetime applications of these technologies—such as agribusiness fertilization and power generation—has led to the development and widespread use of chemical, biological, and radioactive material, thus creating waste storage issues for generations to come.
The third environmental pollution trend is its global spread. Once thought to be a problem of the rich or more developed nations, pollution is now a serious problem for less-developed countries as well. For example, with the explosion of industrialization in both China and India, these countries are experiencing environmental pollution problems on a national scale that threaten the quality of life for both rural and urban residents. Moreover, data from the UN Global Environmental Monitoring System indicate that, by and large, cities in eastern Europe are more polluted with sulfur dioxide and other particles than most cities in Western developed countries. In essence, developing world citizens rank high in their exposure to pollutants, particularly toxic chemicals. Many of these impacted people reside in Mexico, India, and China.
The fourth trend in global environmental pollution is how localized environmental contamination becomes a larger, more global environmental assault, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the burning of oil wells during the Gulf Wars, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Such incidents, despite their having occurred in confined geographical regions, have had wider global environmental impacts.
Attention to global environmental issues approached critical mass with the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. The major crises of focus were the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, climate change, rapid shrinkage of tropical rain forests, the loss of biodiversity, the spread of deserts, and the decline of global fisheries. During the early 1990s scientists adopted the wider concept of global change to signify the level of impact humans have on global environmental conditions and their potential to alter permanently the functioning of the ecosystem on earth. To combat the aforementioned issues, the 116 heads of state attending the 1992 summit adopted a revised set of principles and action statements called “Agenda 21” and a host of environmental treaties on climate change and biodiversity as well as a statement on forest principles. To strengthen Agenda 21, the UN General Assembly created the Commission on Sustainable Development. Although its progress is questionable, the Commission on Sustainable Development works to improve environmental quality worldwide, as do other organizations, international nongovernmental organizations, government think tanks, scientific and professional societies, and the European Union (as a collective).
Air pollution is almost impossible to contain because of its ability to spread rapidly over a large area. There are many different pollutants in the air, and their effects range from environmental damage to health issues. The effect of pollution on the ozone layer is one example of environmental damage. The ozone layer is a part of the atmosphere that helps absorb radiation from the sun and a portion of ultraviolet light that is responsible for causing, among other things, various types of skin cancer and cataracts. Because substances such as carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and sulfur dioxide (the chief cause of air pollution) are being released into the air, the ozone layer is being reduced and could possibly be destroyed. These pollutants are by-products of industrialization, such as the combustion of fossil fuels and exhaust from automobiles and factories.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken steps to prevent and reduce several sources of air pollution, such as supporting the passage of legislation to ban the use of lead in gasoline in the United States. Furthermore, the Clean Air Amendment of 1990 mandated a 50 percent reduction in pollutants such as sulfur dioxide by the year 2000 in an attempt to reduce future occurrences of acid rain. Despite action taken, a common problem that the EPA encounters is that many strategies used to reduce one type of pollution can lead to the introduction of a different pollutant into the environment.
The danger of air pollution is not only how rapidly it spreads but also how it affects other parts of the planet, such as the ozone layer. The atmosphere is such a critical part of the environment that experts now view it as a resource in the same way as land, forests, and water.
Like air pollution, water pollution spreads quickly over a large area. Surface water and groundwater both serve as sources of drinking water, and both are uniquely affected by pollution. As a general rule of thumb, surface waters are more polluted than groundwaters due to disinfection by-products and the heavy industrialization of river and lake basins. However, the contamination of groundwater generally involves higher concentrations of chemicals because of the low amount of underground dispersion, mixing, and dilution.
Because surface water is readily available to companies, lakes and rivers tend to be more polluted; however, because water constantly moves, the foreign materials are dispersed over a larger area, making the concentration of pollution smaller. Groundwater moves more slowly than surface water, so contamination tends to be more concentrated and recorded in higher levels than in surface water. Groundwater is not moved by wind and it does not normally encounter air, making the underground water reservoirs (aquifers) stagnant. Therefore, when toxic chemicals or foreign materials enter that water supply, they are not diluted or dispersed over larger areas as they are in surface water. Although all groundwater sources eventually run into rivers and lakes, the water used for drinking is most often acquired while it is still underground and the pollution is at its most concentrated, causing the most harm to the people who drink water from such underground sources.
Because of its availability and the low cost of extraction, groundwater is a popular choice of industries to extract and turn into drinkable water. However, the downside to this is that although groundwater may have a higher availability rate, it is not a quickly renewing source such as surface water. This causes companies to tread with caution when extracting groundwater because if too much is taken, the entire source could be depleted indefinitely. Precipitation and runoffs make surface water a renewable source of drinking water. However, before it is usable as potable water, surface water usually requires extensive treatment (purification) to remove all pollutants. Although pollution is increasing the cost of extracting surface water and purifying it, surface water’s ability to renew itself through precipitation makes it a preferred source of drinking water.
The main source of water pollution is poor disposal of industrial waste, which often leads to the contamination of both groundwater and surface water sources. Industrial waste accounts for more than 18 billion gallons of wastewater daily and 800 million pounds of pollutants yearly. The inadequate construction of disposal sites, such as landfills and injection wells, also contributes to water pollution. Injection wells are pipes lined with concrete that are dug deep into the ground, past the layer of earth where groundwater reservoirs reside that many industries use to dump waste. Contamination occurs when these pipes are constructed or operated incorrectly, thus leaking waste into the groundwater system. Without better care, the available drinking water resources also become contaminated from pathogens that enter the water from sources such as untreated sewage, storm drains, and boats that dump sewage into the water.
Ground pollution is closely tied with water pollution because of its close proximity to sources of water. Many sources of water contamination come from pollution originally introduced into the ground. The chief source of ground pollution comes from the inadequate operation and construction of waste disposal facilities, such as landfills and injection wells. This inadequate disposal of wastes leads to ground pollution, which leads to the contamination of rivers, lakes, and ground-water reservoirs. Improper discharge of pollutants in the air (which can become acid rain) can also lead to contamination of water supplies. Incineration, a waste disposal method meant as an alternative to land-based disposal facilities, further contributes to air pollution, as it creates airborne particle contaminants and leaves heavy metal residues for waste disposal, which can result in the contamination of the surrounding environment. However, poor waste management is only a part of the overall pollution affecting the environment.
Some of the pollution contaminating the soil and damaging vegetation is caused by humanmade pesticides and herbicides. Although used primarily for agricultural purposes, these pesticides and herbicides are dangerous if people are exposed to a high enough concentration of the product. During the Vietnam War, the United States developed a strong herbicide, code named Agent Orange, to destroy the jungle canopies and vegetation the Vietcong used as cover. Agent Orange was successful in its destruction of the vegetation, but the region had difficulty recovering from its effects. So toxic was the chemical that few new plants grew for several years after the spraying, and restoring the forests will apparently take several decades. The use of Agent Orange not only had long-term effects on the environment but also affected the people exposed to it; these people subsequently developed higher rates of liver problems, cancer, and immune system disorders than those not exposed.
The lessons to be learned are the realities of an interrelationship among different forms of environmental pollution and of the interdependence of humans and their environment. The combustion of fossil fuels and factory emissions contribute to air pollution. Herbicides damage vegetation in ways from which it could take years to recover. Water pollution is influenced by ground pollution, which in turn is created by poor waste disposal. People cause all this pollution that harms not only the environment but also themselves. Few, if any, can escape the far-reaching effects of pollution. People in all countries are dependent on the Earth’s ecosystem and its resources. Although all people are harmed by damage to these resources and ecological systems, the harm is much greater for individuals who are poor, those who live in developing countries, women and children, and racial/ethnic minorities.
Society needs to develop a proactive attitude in dealing with environmental pollution, instead of merely reacting to an environmental crisis. This will be difficult when the wealthiest countries (the United States, Canada, Western European countries, Japan, and Australia), who contain only about 22 percent of the world’s population, disproportionately consume the largest portion of the world’s resources (nearly 88 percent of the natural resources each year, including 73 percent of the world’s energy resources). The best way to treat pollution is to eliminate its source. If people act first and eliminate the sources of pollution, rather than reacting to crises and scrambling to contain the already widespread pollution, the environment will have a better chance of survival.
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