Updated: Dec 1, 2020
The Industrial Revolution introduced many new inventions to the world, most devastatingly, pollution. National Geographic defines pollution as “the introduction of harmful materials into the environment.” These harmful materials are called pollutants and come in all different shapes and forms. Some forms of pollution are created through human activity such as trash and fossil fuels, while others occur naturally like volcanic ash.
Pollutants impair the quality of our air, water, and land, and can lead to fatal diseases such as lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Pollutants are also incredibly harmful towards the environment, causing our planet to heat up. Yet, almost everything we use and deem essential in our everyday lives released or still emits toxic pollution.
Coal is burned to produce electricity, but pollutes the air. Cars are used everyday as an essential form of transportation, yet they release pollutants into the atmosphere through their exhaust pipes. Everyday, people and companies produce waste that gets thrown away and ends up polluting the land, and water. Pollution is a global problem, even though urban cities tend to produce more pollutants and live in a more polluted environment; rural areas are still heavily impacted. For example, in the middle of the pacific ocean, far from any major human cities, we find the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an island made up entirely of trash, and microplastics.
All living things from tiny bacteria cells to blue whales are dependent on Earth’s constant supply of clean air, water, and land for survival. Pollution puts all this at risk. Smoke from factories drift across the borders of countries. Ocean currents carry microplastics to the deepest depths of the sea. Wind can pick up radioactive materials and disperse them around the world. The three main categories of pollution are air, water, and land pollution.
Although air pollution can be visible, take the orange skies California is facing due to the recent fires, in most cases, air pollution is invisible to the naked human eye. The fact that we can’t always see it doesn't make air pollution any less dangerous. From making your eyes burn and increasing breathing difficulties, to increased risks of developing fatal diseases such as lung cancer, air pollution is incredibly harmful. There are two types of air pollution, naturally occurring pollution, and pollution produced from human activity.
Natural disasters are the leading cause of naturally occurring air pollution. When a volcano erupts, volcanic ash and gases are spread throughout the atmosphere, leading to discolored skies for months. In 1883, a volcano called Krakatoa erupted in Indonesia. Its ashes dimmed the sky for weeks, leading to a decrease in the amount of crops harvested that year, worldwide. Meteorologists found that a jet stream of smoke was created by the eruption, causing dimmed skies around the world. This is yet another example of pollution's global impacts.
However, most air pollution is not produced by naturally occurring phenomena such as volcanic eruptions. Fossil fuels account for almost seventy eight percent of the United States annual air pollution. Most cars and trucks are powered by gasoline, which, when burned produces carbon monoxide, a colorless, and odorless gas, incredibly harmful to humans when consumed in high amounts. Factories produce other pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrocarbons, these pollutants make up smog, - a thick fog or haze of air pollution. When exposed to high, frequent amounts of smog from a young age, medical conditions such as asthma will frequently develop.
Just like air pollution, not all polluted water always looks, or smells contaminated. In many cases, crystal clear water may contain harmful chemicals and toxins, that you can’t see or smell. However, some polluted water does look muddy, smells bad, and has microplastics, and trash floating in it.
Polluted water poses all types of potential health, and safety risks. Drinking polluted water exposes you to harmful chemicals, and hazardous bacteria that can make you sick years later. The UN estimates that approximately 4,000 children die each year from drinking contaminated water each year.
Water pollution occurs naturally most commonly through the form of oil leaks. Oil can leak into the ocean or other bodies of water from underground sources, called petroleum seeps. Nevertheless, human activity is the most significant contributor to water pollution. Chemicals and oil from factories easily spill into waterways, causing toxic environments for aquatic life. Mining and drilling can release chemical sulfur into rivers, and lakes, posing life threatening risks to aquatic life. Oil spills prevent aquatic plants from performing photosynthesis, in turn killing them, and depriving many marine animals of their food supply.
However, the most infamous form of water pollution is garbage. Our oceans, lakes, and rivers are filled with floating trash, waiting to get mistaken as food by fish. Aquatic animals can easily get stuck in packaging material, oftentimes leading to death. Trash gets thrown overboard from boats, wind carries trash out to sea, ocean currents carry microplastics to certain places forming huge trash epicenters, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located in a remote part of the pacific ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the size of Texas, and is a colossal threat to marine life who mistaken its contents for food.
Many of the same pollutants that harm water are also problems on land. Pesticides and fertilizers are commonly used in the agricultural industry, but they can harm plants, animals, and humans. Pesticides are sometimes used to help plants grow, but produce can absorb pesticides. Once the contaminated produce is consumed, it enters the human body, potentially causing diseases such as cancer.
Trash is also another instrumental form of land pollution. Everything we throw away doesn't just disappear, it ends up in a landfill or somewhere else in nature, harming wildlife. Garbage often contains pollutants such as oil, chemicals, and ink which can be harmful if they are accidentally eaten by wildlife. When in a landfill, some pollutants can even seep into the ground harming nearby soil, plants, and even people.
When communities produce a lot of trash, their landfills end up filling up, meaning they are running out of a place to put their trash. Not all communities even have adequate garbage collection systems. Some cities choose to incinerate their trash, as it effectively gets rid of it, but at the same time releases dangerous toxins contributing to air pollution. We simply produce too much trash and are running out of space to store it.
Around the world, people and governments are taking steps towards addressing the growing problem of pollution, but we still have lots of work to do. Pollution is the root cause of global warming, and inaction is simply unacceptable if we want to secure the future of life on our planet. Although progress has been made throughout the years, we are still miles away from a future with a healthy global climate, and serendipitous living conditions. Action against pollution and climate change won’t be easy, but it's necessary. By working together, we may be able to save our planet, but until then, pollutants will continue to rot our Earth.