Flip on the news today and what do you see? You might see stories about terrorism, race relations in the United States, or international rhetoric regarding North Korea. In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, you might also see increased talk about the dangers of environmental change and global warming. At this point, there is no doubt that human activity has contributed to the instability of the climate. Yet, people tend to forget that these changes are very much a human story. Pollution, one of the most measurable factors of human impact on the planet, kills millions of people every year.
Types of Pollution
Human beings in countries around the global face pollution in three major forms: air, water, and soil.
Air pollution serves as the most universal and damaging form of pollution. It affects absolutely everyone. When harmful biological molecules and particulates make it into Earth’s atmosphere, they cause disease, allergies, or even death. Given the sheer amount of contributors to air pollution, avoiding it can seem overwhelming.
There are hundreds of sources of air pollution. Some are man-made (anthropogenic) while others occur naturally. Notable causes of pollution worldwide include:
- Waste incinerators, factories, and smoke stacks of power plants
- Fossils fuels burned by automobiles and aircraft
- Controlled burning
- Fumes from aerosol sprays, paint, varnish, and other solvents
- Dust from natural sources
- Methane emitted by digestion of food, notably cattle
- Volcanic activity producing chlorine, sulfur, and ash
All of these factors, and more, contribute to the severity of air pollution seen around the world.
Look at pictures of urban centers in China and there is clear evidence for air pollution. Beijing has a blanket of smog so bad that it has prevented planes from landing. The source of all this pollution: coal. Power from coal accounts for the majority of energy consumption in China. Over time, this has had a disastrous effect on people living in the country. In a recent study, researchers discovered that people living in northern China died three years earlier on average than their neighbors in the south.
As for the all too real dangers of water pollution, one need only look to the crisis in Flint, Michigan. Some 100,000 residents of the city came into contact with dangerous levels of lead in the water supply. How did this happen? Factories in the area had spent decades dumping pollutants. For more than a century, residents and businesses alike dumped chemicals, road salts, and sewage into the Flint River. However, the effects were not immediately apparent until early 2014 when the city switched from the Detroit water supply system to its own. The ensuing crisis affected more than 40% of households in Flint and the surrounding area. It stands as one of the worst public health crises in the United States in recent history.
Both air and water pollution ultimately affect soil contamination. A great deal of pollutants come from the use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture. As farming has become more industrialized and the need for food has increased, so has the need for these chemicals to decrease waste and improve crop yields.
The United States, Canada, and Western European countries all have tight regulations on soil contamination as a matter of public health. Other countries, including China and India, have had historically fewer regulations and thus have a higher degree of contamination.
Soil contamination does not just affect humans. The effects ripple throughout ecosystems worldwide. Animals ingesting high concentrations of chemicals such as DDT have higher mortality rates and some species even face extinction.
As noted, China has been greatly affected by increases in pollution. The superpower is not alone in facing the consequences of climate change, though. Many developing nations have issues with carbon emissions, poor air quality, and unsafe drinking water. India’s rampant industrialization has seen a boom in resource consumption without having the regulations to go along with it. Delhi’s level of air pollution rivals that of China’s major cities.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa face a great deal of environmental challenges. These developing economies rely heavily on the exploitation of natural resources. Livelihoods in these countries hinge upon revenues from coal, gas, oil, precious metals, and agricultural production. Like in many other countries, production and business have outpaced the institution of environmental regulations.
What Can Be Done?
A staggering 9 million deaths occur annually as a result of pollution. One in six. That is more than obesity, smoking, malnutrition, and wars. How can governments hope to combat the continued health problems associated with climate change?
Some governments have started going to great lengths to reduce the effects of air pollution on their citizens. China has started to scale back its steel and coal production to focus on investing in alternative energy sources. The country’s plans for wind and solar power are the largest in the world.
Los Angeles, infamous for its air pollution, has also taken measures to improve air quality. City officials have introduced a number of initiatives to help clean up the city. Among the most notable are those that enforce stricter restrictions on businesses developing in areas with the worst pollution. A special council also recently voted to establish a plan to get all of the cities energy from renewable sources like wind and solar.
What is your stance on the effects of environmental pollution? Do you think that world governments have done enough to combat climate change? Are they taking the necessary steps to reduce the number of deaths from pollution? Share your thoughts about this issue with us.