Environmental pollution occurs when there is an introduction of substances, usually in large quantities, into the environment that they end up creating an imbalance in the environment. These substances or contaminants cause instability in the natural ecosystem and this is reflected by the effect they have on living organisms Pollution can take various forms, from the usual dumping of industrial chemicals to noise pollution by your neighbors or by nearby industry. What makes them be classified as pollutants is the fact that they exceed the naturally allowed levels in the environment.
Pollution in the environment can be classified into two main categories; naturally occurring and artificially induced. Looking at natural pollution has been occurring for several years like the emission of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions or the formation of nitrogen oxides due to photochemically triggered oxidation reactions in the atmosphere. These gases are poisonous not only to animal life but also to plant life. What is interesting is that this has been occurring for millions of years but somehow the eco-system has managed to adapt and accommodate this form of pollution. There hasn’t been a disappearance of widespread plant or animal species reported due to pollutions triggered within the ecosystem itself.
Looking at the second type of pollution, artificial, these are caused by man-made activities and they are the ones having the most detrimental effect on the environment. Archeological and pre-historic evidence has shown that the environment is self-sustaining and has the ability to regenerate if the damage caused isn’t too expansive. This can be seen in the national parks and game reserves of Africa where wild animals and the natural vegetation have lived in harmony for centuries; surviving disease and famine. What has interfered with this natural order is human activity which breaks the cycle of regeneration through encroachment into plant and animal habitats mostly through expansion of urban centers. (Clark et al. 80)
Effects of Environmental Pollution
An increase in the number of diseases affecting the throat and lungs has been reported in urban areas where air pollution is quite common. Emissions from exhaust fumes and industrial complexes are the major culprits and this is seen by the dark cloud in the evenings that hangs over huge metropolitan cities like Beijing. These emissions contain oxides of nitrogen, sulfur, and some halide compounds like Bromine which irritate the lungs when they are ingested. Other emissions contain carcinogenic substances like Radon which causes lung cancer later in life. Another form of air pollution, photochemical smog which was common in huge cities like London during the Industrial Revolution was the first major form of air pollution. It induced a persistent cough amongst its citizens and that also included eye irritation. This thick cloud also reduced visibility for drivers. Smog pollution is more common nowadays in the urban cities of the developed countries like Paris and Tokyo. (Van Deveer et al.47)
In third world countries, the levels of air pollution are not as extreme as in the developed world. The common diseases are water-borne diseases that arise due to poor construction of water and sewer lines. The rapid expansion of urban areas has brought with it problems of slums and poorly constructed housing structures that have put a lot of strain on the drainage system; (Engel et al.: 37) most of which was constructed in the colonial days. Outbreaks of Cholera and Typhoid though controllable, are quite common and residents are thus advised to boil their drinking water. More extreme cases like dumping of industrial effluents into rivers and lakes are also more common in 3rd world countries due to the poor enforcement of legislation by the local authorities. Reduction in the number of fish being harvested has been reported in some lakes in Africa and Asia, although the problem can also be blamed on overfishing.
Another form of air pollution more common in developed countries is the formation of acid rain. Molecules released from human activities on the ground rise up the atmosphere and act as nuclei for the condensation of water which eventually falls back to the ground as acid rain. This has the effect of corroding the tiles and walls of buildings. Furthermore, the carcinogenic substances that may be contained in the acid rain end up polluting the soil whereby the contaminants will be taken up by the plants as they are drawing minerals from the soil. These contaminants eventually end up entering the food chain through ingestion by plants and animals.. (Weiner et al. 2)
The most common effect of human pollution that has been widely debated by everyone is global warming. Global warming occurs when various greenhouse gases like methane, chlorofluorocarbons, sulfur dioxides, and carbon monoxides are emitted by human activity and they rise up forming a “blanket” over the atmosphere. This so-called blanket reflects some of the sun’s rays back into space and prevents them from reaching the earth’s surface. However it does allow some rays to pass through and when these rays are reflected on the earth’s surface, they are again prevented from escaping into outer space. These trapped rays result in heating up of the earth’s atmosphere which further adds to the heat produced by the industries that produced these gases in the first place. (Fortner: 29)
The end result of this phenomenon is an increase in the earth’s average temperature which has ended up altering the various weather patterns. The increase in temperature has resulted in the melting of ice in the Polar Regions which analysts predict would lead to a rise in sea level and possible submergence of some islands. Also, coastal areas will begin experiencing even more violent storms. For the tropical wetlands, an increase in temperature would result in increased evaporation from the water bodies. This is already being experienced in some countries where wetlands are becoming drier and drier. When it does eventually rain, it leads to flash floods because so much rain is being deposited in such a short span of time and there is no vegetation cover to hold the moisture. Desert land is predicted to continue expanding because of the lack of sufficient rainfall and a rise in average temperature. (Fortner: 33)
Some critics of global warming argue that maybe the increase in global temperatures is a natural phenomenon that occurs on the planet in cycles and more research is required before we jump to conclusions. The problem is collecting hard data takes decades and by then we could have already done irreversible damage to the environment. What everyone agrees are these greenhouse gases do cause damage to the ozone layer and this is seen by their depletion at the poles. This could lead to exposure to dangerous doses of radiation from the sun and an increase in cases of skin cancer. Finding alternative sources of fuel is no longer an alternative but a necessity. (Fortner: 38)
Sources of Environmental Pollution
Combustion of petroleum by automobiles is blamed as one of the major sources of environmental pollution. In addition to the emission of carbon dioxide, other gases like nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide (for countries that haven’t phased out sulfur-based fuels) and the anti knocking agent tetra-ethyl lead 4 leads to the production of oxides of lead which are quite poisonous. Another problem with cars is that once they are written off unless their various parts are recycled, these metallic parts are not bio-degradable and they end up leaving deposits of heavy metals in soil and water. Experimental data has shown car tires are one of the hardest things to biodegrade and unless recycled, they are very toxic. Noise pollution by cars in urban areas has become such a common occurrence that everyone has gotten used to it. (Vesilind et al. 82)
The burning of coal and fossil fuels by factories has been identified as one of the major causes of global warming. Coal has the advantage of being a cheap and easy source of energy for the major economic powerhouses but once combusted, it emits a thick smoke which greatly reduces visibility and the particles dissolved in it have been known to cause acid rain. On top of the usual pollutants oxides of carbon and nitrogen, the heavy metals present in coal deposits have been known to cause lung diseases like emphysema when exposure is prolonged. What we mustn’t forget is that the mining process for the extraction of coal causes a lot of damage to the environment whereby entire mountain tops are almost blown off so as to extract the coal. Occasionally, factories are also lax when it comes to the handling of dangerous chemicals and this was seen in the Bhopal incident in India where hundreds of people died. Discharges into some inland lakes have practically killed any form of aquatic life and their lakes are even rendered useless for recreation or water sports by the local community. (Weaver et al. 23)
Ships and other Vessels
Huge oil tankers ferrying oil along sea routes are a cheap way of moving the commodity. To minimize accidents, the tankers need to be well maintained, but even in the best hands, accidents do happen. Cases of oil spillage in the ocean though far apart, are very difficult to control and they cause detrimental damage to marine life and coastal beaches affecting tourism. Even if clean-up exercises are carried out, it will take years before the damage is reversed. Huge fishing trawlers have earned the wrath of local fishermen because they overfish in some territorial waters and occasionally discard their nets which end up entangling whales. Also, some of them do not wait till they get to the shore to discard their waste; they simply throw it overboard. Of late, there has been an increase in the number of military vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines being propelled by nuclear reactors. It is unimaginable the damage that will be caused if some of these vessels are ever destroyed while they are out at sea.
Most household products especially cleaning products have well-displayed messages on how to dispose of them. Very few people however bother to read them and this has led to accidents like exploding of aerosol cans in the more extreme cases. Substances like detergents and laundry bleaches can make their way into the waterway system by seeping through the soil layers for years or through open water sources. It is difficult to extract these chemicals because most wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to filter out these products.
Farming Chemicals and Other Industrial Sources
Chemicals like DDT though earning a reputation as a very effective pesticide are very toxic if ingested by humans or animals. The same can be said of other farm chemicals which are also very effective, but very toxic when poorly used or improperly disposed of. They can remain inactive in the soil for several years and they enter the food chain through plants that draw them from the soil.
Several solutions have been offered especially by the car industry to try and cut back on emissions and improve the company’s “green image”. There is the concept of the engine running on Hydrogen fuel which is very clean since the product of combustion is only water. It hasn’t quite taken off because very few drivers are keen on driving with a hydrogen bomb strapped to their back. Electric cars have also been in the market for a while where you charge the car like a cell phone at home or at designated ports around the city but this is also a bit cumbersome for your average driver. ( Romm et al:13)
The model which has filled this void is the hybrid car which has both an electric motor and a combustion engine to power the car. It is quite fueled efficiently even at high speeds but the only downside is the price range of these cars like the Toyota Prius is beyond most average consumers who would prefer to go for the 2nd hand model.
Factories are now being encouraged to switch to bio-fuels or liquefied coal which leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels or natural coal. Adapting these new fuels will take a bit of time since they are much more expensive to process and purchase and this does affect the profit margins of these companies. Where progress has been made is in the recycling of waste products before they are released into the environment. Poisonous fumes of sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide are passed through layers of calcium carbonate to reduce their toxicity in a process referred to as brushing. (Anastas et al. 50)
Power companies are also being encouraged to start investing in nuclear power plants since long-term research has shown huge dams have a huge effect on the environment through erosion of the riverbanks from the torrents moving at high speeds from the spillways. Nuclear energy is quite safe and pollution-free if the reactors are properly maintained and necessary safeguards are introduced. The other sources of pollution can be greatly reduced through public awareness and introducing stiff penalties to people who knowingly discard dangerous chemicals to the environment
The emergence of new industrial economies like India and China will create a new challenge in the fight against global warming. Countries like the United States which accounts for a quarter of the world’s emission of carbon dioxide have to make radical changes and find alternative sources of power. Otherwise, the emerging economies will follow the same route of using coal and fossil fuels in an effort to further their economic interests. The recently introduced concept of trading carbon credits amongst countries is a novel idea but the solution still remains in discovering alternative sources of fuel.
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Clark Brian D, Bisset Ronald, Wathern Peter. Environmental impact assessment, Mansell, 1980, Pp 79-82.
Engel, J.R. and Engel, J.G. Ethics of Environment and Development. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.1990, pp 36-38.
Fortner Diane M, Environmental Studies. Scarecrow Press, 1994, pp26-38.
Romm, Joseph J. Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Island Press. 1999. pp 12-15.
Van Deveer, Donald and Christine Pierce. The Environmental Ethics and Policy Book: Philosophy, Ecology, Economics. Wadsworth Publishing. 1997, pp 45-48.
Vesilind, P. Aarne and Alastair S. Gunn. Engineering, Ethics, and the Environment. Cambridge University Press. 1998, pp 69-75.
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Weaver, Paul, et.al. Sustainable Technology Development. Greenleaf Publishing. 2000, pp 23-25.
Weiner Ruth F, Vesilind Aarne. Environmental Pollution and Control. Elsevier, 1997, pp 1-6.