Pollution occurs when the environment is altered by the release of natural or human-produced elements. These elements can be either physical matter or intangible matter. Pollution lowers the quality of the land, water, and air, and can even cause physical harm to humans, animals, and plants.
Pollution can be natural. For example, wildfires release ash and smoke that harm air quality. However, most of the pollution that causes the greatest amounts of harm is manmade, and comes from industrial processes, transportation, agriculture, and energy production.
Although all of the examples of manmade sources of pollution also create services and products that humans need, the damage that the pollution causes could seriously endanger us in the long term. We need to drive cars to travel long distances quickly and safely, but cars are responsible for the pollution that comes from the release of exhaust. We need electricity to power all of the devices we need to work, communicate, and even store food, but coal-powered plants create emissions that pollute the atmosphere. Even living, eating, sleeping, and using the bathroom creates waste and garbage that pollutes waterways and soil.
Every living creature on Earth needs clean air and water to survive and function. If we continually pollute our air and water, we limit these precious resources and we make ourselves vulnerable to illness and early death. It is extremely important that we do everything we can to minimize pollution, but first we must know how pollution occurs.
Pollution in the air can sometimes get so bad that it’s actually visible. When you see a truck on the freeway with smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe, or big factories and industrial plants with huge exhaust chimneys pouring fumes into the air, you’re seeing pollution occur before your eyes. You might have even noticed that you can’t see the mountains or buildings on the horizon through the thick layer of smog on some days. While most of the pollution in the air cannot always be seen, it’s still very dangerous.
Regions where the air is most polluted often have higher rates of respiratory illnesses among the people who live there. These illnesses include asthma, bronchitis, and even lung cancer.
The type of air pollution can sometimes be exceptionally dangerous. Although most people who live in places with high amounts of air pollution can become sick after many years, sometimes the poison in the air is so toxic it causes immediate illness and sometimes death. People in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1948 became extremely sick from a poisonous cloud from the nearby industrial plants. Nearly 40 people died in less than a week from the pollution. In Bhopal, India, toxic gas released from a local pesticide manufacturing plant killed nearly 10,000 people in only a few days. Hundreds of thousands of other people became extremely sick and suffered from permanent medical conditions.
Pollution in the water supply isn’t always easy to spot. Sometimes, polluted water is discolored and cloudy, and sometimes it’s perfectly clear. Sometimes, polluted water tastes bad, and sometimes it tastes fine. This is because the harmful chemicals and particulates can’t necessarily be detected without performing scientific analysis.
When water has been polluted, it’s not safe to drink, but it’s also not safe to swim in or bathe in. According to reports from UNICEF, approximately 6,000 children die from waterborne illnesses every day. Not only are these deaths caused by drinking the water, they are also caused by eating the fish that live in polluted water.
Although sometimes water pollution occurs naturally, many water sources are polluted due to human behaviors. The chemicals used in factories are sometimes dumped into local rivers and streams. Even if they are not deliberately poured into the waterways, sometimes they seep into the groundwater inadvertently. Not only do the chemicals that seep into the waterways pollute them directly, some chemicals can also encourage the growth of harmful algae and bacteria that kills the aquatic fish and plants. When this occurs in a particular waterway, it is sometimes referred to a “dead zone,” because the water is no longer able to support life.
The pollutants that harm the air and water are also harmful to the soil and land. When the soil has become contaminated by harmful chemicals, it causes harm to the local plants and animals, and even the people living in the region. When fruits and vegetables are grown in contaminated soil, they become dangerous for people and animals to eat.
Sometimes, the materials we use to grow our food actually harm the land we use to grow it. When we overuse chemical pesticides and fertilizers, they cause lasting damage to the local ecosystem. These chemicals don’t remain in the fields in which they were applied — they can be carried by the wind into neighboring communities and harm the people, animals, and plants that live there.
One of the most dangerous pesticides was called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT for short. It was widely used to kill the mosquitoes that carried malaria in regions throughout Asia, but it was later found to cause cancer in people. The product also killed many species of birds, rendering them almost extinct. Although DDT was banned in the United States and in many other countries, it is still used to kill malaria-spreading mosquitoes.
Land is also polluted by our landfills. The trash we discard every day is sent to landfills throughout the world, where it deposits chemical pollutants deep into the soil and even groundwater. These pollutants contaminate all of the regional plants. These contaminated plants are then eaten by the local insects, and those insects are then eaten by predators. This causes a phenomenon called bioaccumulation, where chemicals contaminate every part of the food web.
As we stated earlier, pollution can either come in the form of physical matter or intangible matter. Physical matter includes the particles released by natural or human-generated sources. Intangible matter includes noise pollution and light pollution, which do not accumulate in physical form, but still cause harm to living things.
Noise pollution might seem more like an irritation than pollution, but excessive noise can cause significant harm to ecosystems. In humans, noise pollution can cause hearing loss, contribute to stress, and make sleep difficult. These can lead to considerable health issues for the people in communities affected by noise pollution.
Children who live in regions where there is lots of noise — near airports, for example — often suffer from significant developmental issues, including learning difficulties and attention deficit disorders.
Noise pollution also affects wildlife. Because animals and insects rely upon environmental sounds to alert them of danger, locate food, find mates, and do all sorts of things, they find it difficult to survive when noise pollution interferes with these tasks.
People and land animals aren’t the only ones affected by noise pollution. Marine animals also suffer from the noise from shipping, drilling, and sonar technology. Marine mammals like porpoises and whales use a technique called echolocation to communicate with each other, and when human-created marine noise prevents them from using sounds to locate food, mates, and potential danger, it threatens their ability to survive.
Too much unnatural light is also a form of pollution. The light from large cities inhibits our ability to see the stars at night, and while we might only be disappointed not to be able to make out the different constellations, the absence of the night canopy that humans have enjoyed for millennia is a significant loss. Enjoying a beautiful starry sky at night is believed to contribute to enhanced mood in humans, as well as foster a more philosophical and generous disposition.
Constant light from cities and even our personal electronic devices has started to interfere with our natural circadian rhythms. The blue light from LED screens inhibits our brains’ ability to produce melatonin. Normally, the brain begins to release melatonin at dusk, which initiates the sleep cycle. When we are constantly bombarded by light, this process doesn’t occur, making it difficult to fall asleep. The inability to achieve restful sleep can lead to numerous preventable health conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. It can also trigger feelings of depression and cause issues with focus and concentration.
Animals are especially affected by light pollution. Intense lights at night makes birds disoriented, causing them to crash into buildings, often killing them. In the oceans, sea turtles cannot see the moonlight well enough to be guided into the sea after they hatch. The lights from the surrounding houses and cities cause them to wander away from the sea and into the streets and neighborhoods. They become overheated, and vulnerable to local predators.
Reducing your carbon footprint is one way you can help to minimize pollution. The fewer resources you consume, the less you contribute to the industries that pollute our air, water, and land. The most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint are:
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