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Pollution Effects and Counter Measures sample essay

The impact of human activity on our environment cannot be denied. Many aspects of today’s environmental problems are only now coming to light as scientists explore the causes and effects of human impact on the world around us. Today’s generation has seen both unwarranted skepticism and exaggeration on both sides of the debate on how close we are to an environmental catastrophe. Although, as Frederick Buell wrote, as of today our world “has not ended; eco-apocalypse hasn’t happened. Yet people today also accept the fact that they live in the shadow of environmental problems so severe that they constitute a crisis” (xii).

While it is easier to understand the problems we face today by classifying human activity and its consequences into neatly defined, cause-and-effect relationships, it is important to realize that all of these causes and effects interact in a complex web to bring about an environmental crisis. That said, pollution is one of the most widespread results of human activity, encompassing a broad range of substances with pervasive effects.

The effect of pollutants on our environment is one of the most widely publicized factors contributing to its degradation. And deservedly so; pollutants are diverse, and pollution takes many forms, but the effect of unchecked pollution is rapid, extensive, and often dramatic in its visual manifestations. Finally, in many cases pollution defies geographical and political boundaries, making it an international concern, and controlling it will require the involvement of citizens and organizations from all levels of society.

Pollution involves the introduction of pollutants into the environment, and it is commonly organized into major categories – air, soil, and water – based on which component of the environment is affected. Other forms of pollution are classified based on the nature of the pollutant, and these include radiation pollution, biological pollution, and noise pollution. Scientists have developed many ways of gauging the level of pollution, or of a specific pollutant within the environment, but when one considers the direct impact of pollution on human health, it is exposure that matters more than the concentration of pollutants.

In the environmental pathway, exposure to a certain concentration of a pollutant is what determines the actual dose of the pollutant in the exposed individual, and this is what leads to possible health consequences (Akbar et al., 62). In many cases, pollution is an occupational hazard, posing the greatest danger to people who suffer the most exposure as part of their daily lives.

With some pollutants, however, the effects are indirect, not affecting an individual’s health, but impacting a society’s resources and economy in subtle ways. Even with the increased environmental awareness in modern society, it is surprising how many people still see nothing wrong simply because they are not directly affected by pollution. The purpose of this research is to give an overview of the different classes of pollution, how they affect society on different levels, and some of the measures that can help to prevent or reduce its spread.

When one thinks of air pollution, perhaps the first image that comes to mind is that of a smog-filled skyline of a major city, through which a hazy sun barely shines. However, exposure to the outdoor smog in a polluted city is not the main source of pollutant dosage. Most of the actual human exposure to air pollution occurs indoors, simply because that is where most people spend most of their time (Akbar et al., 61). Just as the health risks of polluted water can be minimized by treatment, the risks posed by polluted air (namely, cardiovascular and respiratory disease) can be lessened by using proper filters within homes and offices.

While it is possible to keep the indoor air quality under control, improving atmospheric air quality will require a collective effort on a much larger scale. Major sources of worldwide pollutant emissions are industrial operations, power plants, road vehicles, forest fires, and the incineration of refuse. Vehicular emissions are not only limited to exhaust, but also include emissions from the wear of tires and brakes and the road surface itself, which makes it difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of total vehicular emissions.

Many of these sources of emissions are similarly difficult to quantify, but the overall statistics show that air pollution trends are higher in developing countries, and above the national average in megacities (Akbar et al., 36). This reflects a general trend of better environmental awareness, and environment protection programs that have been implemented for a longer time in well-developed, industrialized countries. For some pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide – a product of the combustion of fossil fuels – the global trend shows a decrease, but for other emissions there is no such evidence (Akbar et al., 49).

Clearly, although industrialized countries like America have been consciously reducing some emissions for a longer time than other countries in the developing world, there is much that still needs to be done on an international level. Former United States Vice President Al Gore sums up the nature of the problem regarding the public attitude:

…Our continued dependence of imported oil…is connected to the same pattern that leads us to put 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the earth’s atmosphere every 24 hours around the world, as if it was an open sewer. And pretending that that doesn’t have consequence, when there’s signs to tell us it definitely does…that’s really the essence of this problem. But because it’s so pervasive, in order to change it, we really have to have a sea change in public opinion in this country and around the world before the politicians and the government leaders in every nation will have the courage to do what really is necessary. (Interview with Al Gore, 2007)

The second major category of pollution is soil pollution. The composition of soil is an important factor in an ecosystem, affecting what types of vegetation are able to take root and survive, and by extension, what species of animals will thrive in the area. Soil also retains water, and pollution of the soil often spreads to ground water tables. When soil is contaminated by pollutants – usually in the form of heavy metals that disrupt the balance and composition of the soil – it is often harder to detect, and difficult to determine the extent of the pollution. Such contamination typically results from direct deposition of pollutants into the soil.

Landfills and waste heaps contain pollutants which gradually leach into the soil, and some of the particles in polluted air fall to the ground, where water runoff and seepage can spread the pollutants and lodge them into the soil. Operations in the mining industry, when improperly managed, can cause long-term damage to the soil, and to the environment as a whole. Jared Diamond cites Montana as a case study of the damage that the mining industry can do to the environment, saying it has “about 20,000 abandoned mines, some of them recent but many of them a century or more old, that will be leaking acid and…toxic metals essentially forever” (36). In most cases, these mines have no surviving owners, or the owners are financially unable to reclaim their property and manage its wastes.

The relationship between the soil and the rest of the environment is complex, and much remains to be understood before a standard set of indicators and benchmarks can be used to monitor the quality of all soils. While these subtle relationships and interactions are being actively studied by scientists, land management can be improved and better implemented to lessen the impact of activities such as agriculture and mining, by regulating waste disposal and promoting sustainable agricultural practices. As an example, many farmers practice plowing their fields close to the edge of rivers or streams, and letting their livestock graze at the edge.

This practice actually contributes to the erosion of riverbanks and diffusion of agricultural wastes into water. Careful management of land and soil resources can prevent soil erosion, which in turn will lessen the deposition of silt in freshwater areas that may be important habitats or breeding sites for species like salmon. (Environment Agency). Public pressure is necessary for the government to pass laws that will enforce mining companies to take charge of cleaning up their mines; the main responsibility lies with the American public, to be more active and vocal in protecting the environment (Diamond, 38).

Water’s properties as a solvent are familiar to everyone, thus it should not be surprising that water is particularly vulnerable to contamination. The flow of bodies of water, as well as water runoff from precipitation, can disperse a high volume of pollutants over the course of a year. Water’s cycle in the environment has unique implications for the spread of pollution, and the various pollutants and contaminants of water comprise the third major category of pollution. Bodies of water can be polluted by point sources, such as sewage treatment plants, or they may be polluted through diffusion.

Diffuse pollution can come from misconnected drains in households, leaching of surface wastes into groundwater, or runoff of toxic substances that have been deposited on land. Inland precipitation (in the form of rain) creates water runoff, which drains into larger bodies of water, carrying with it some deposited pollutants from the atmosphere and many untreated wastes that have been improperly disposed of.

Oil from roadways and motor vehicles, excess agricultural fertilizer, and assorted litter from the land, can be washed into rivers and out to sea, where the scale of dispersal makes it very difficult to treat the pollution. In fact, the volume of pollution deposited by water from runoff can exceed that of an oil spill. In Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, for example, each year from 2000 to 2006 roughly 22,580 metric tons of oil and petroleum products are deposited by runoff, compared to less than 1,000 metric tons from direct oil spills (Dodge).

The deterioration of water quality leads to obvious consequences for human consumption. Freshwater with excessive levels of certain pollutants becomes unsafe to drink, and seawater can lose its ability to sustain biodiversity, negatively impacting the fishing industry. Agricultural runoff contains nitrates and phosphates, which are important nutrients for many organisms, but in excessive concentrations in bodies of water they lead to explosions in the population of certain microorganisms (a phenomenon sometimes known as “algal blooms”). This leads to an overall decrease in dissolved oxygen content in the water, which harms other species, mainly fish, by disrupting spawning and breeding patterns, and can lead to massive deaths in certain species when oxygen levels are depleted (Environment Agency).

Thermal pollution of water can occur when a large volume of water is used for cooling purposes in processes that release large amounts of heat. Electrical stations use water for this purpose, and subsequently release it into the environment. This water is considerably warmer than the rest of the water in the environment, and brings a corresponding rise in temperature to the entire body of water where it is released. This again reduces the capacity of water to hold dissolved oxygen, with the same effects described above (Lourenco and Neves).

With most point sources of water pollution under regulation, the biggest source of water pollution is diffusion. If the source of pollution cannot be pinpointed, the processes that create or contribute to diffuse pollution have to be more strictly managed. Since 2003, European legislation has created a Water Framework Directive (WFD) to actively assess the standards of water usage with chemical, biological, and physical tests. The WFD monitors all bodies of water (including ground water reserves and artificial reservoirs) with the ultimate goal of reducing water pollution in the United Kingdom and all EU member states by 2015. The United Kingdom’s Environment Agency summarizes some of its recommendations:

Key policy issues, such as the control of diffuse water pollution, land-use planning, the designation of heavily modified water bodies and the role of wetlands…must be addressed by relevant authorities. Particular emphasis should be placed on the diverse sources of diffuse pollution…These include discharges from agriculture and also from other land-uses such as urban developments, transport infrastructure and abandoned mineral workings. Those who manage the land may have to do things in a different way to ensure that they do not cause water pollution. (1)

Some forms of pollution are not classified by the sphere of the environment that they contaminate, but by their nature and properties. Our planet is constantly bathed in radiation originating from outer space, and there are trace amounts of radioactivity scattered throughout the earth’s crust. These do not constitute radioactive pollution; typically, this form of pollution originates from nuclear power processing, or from equipment used in nuclear medicine and radiography, although nuclear fallout from bombs and disasters, such as the 1986 Chernobyl incident, is perhaps the most striking example of nuclear pollution.

In the case of Chernobyl, flawed design of the nuclear reactor, combined with personnel errors, led to an explosion which released around 5% of the reactor’s core of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The wind carried fallout composed mainly of the radioisotopes iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium 137, from the reactor across the former Soviet Union. Among the most heavily affected countries were Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

The radioactive pollution’s immediate effect resulted in the death of 30 people, injury to over a hundred other individuals, and the immediate evacuation and relocation of over 200,000 affected citizens. One of the most studied long term effects of the disaster is a significant increase in the number of cases of thyroid cancer among generations of exposed individuals, due to the accumulation of radioactive iodine-131 in the thyroid gland (International Atomic Energy Agency).

It should be noted that Chernobyl was a rare nuclear disaster that is not representative of the more common forms of radiation pollution; rather, it serves as an example of the potential scale and duration of pollution’s ill effects. Much more commonly encountered are the radiation-related risks in the medical field, where exposure to X-rays and radiotherapy practices can lead to an increased risk of developing certain cancers among some groups of patients.

However, for the most part, properly observed medical standards will ensure that the risk of developing cancer from medical radiation is low – an estimated 0.05% per rem of radiation. The amount of exposure depends on the medical procedures involved, and although the increase in the risk of cancer induction is small (from zero to one percent), there is no threshold of radiation exposure below which it is absolutely risk-free. Thus, all procedures involving radiation exposure should be decided on the basis of risk versus benefit to the patient (Classic).

Homo sapiens is the only species that has succeeded in domesticating other species, and with the spread of human civilization, we have carried our pets (and pests) to new lands. Introduced species constitute a form of biological pollution – when a non-native species establishes itself in an ecosystem, displacing certain native species that play a vital role in that ecosystem, and possibly causing economic damage, they are considered invasive. In ecology, the “rule of tens” states that one in every ten introduced species becomes invasive (Boudouresque and Verlaque, 1).

The most significant direct consequence of biological invasion is the extinction of native species that are not adapted to compete with invaders. Such is the case with the Nile perch (Lates niloticus), a popular commercial fish species that was introduced to Lake Victoria in East Africa around the year 1962. The Nile perch disrupted the lake’s ecosystem by predatory activity, feeding on many native fish species, and spreading parasites which it carries in its gills. An estimated 300 fish species native to Lake Victoria were driven to extinction by the 1980s (Blake).

While the Nile perch and some other invasive species have at least had some marginal economic benefit (a boost to the commercial fishing industry and local employment), in many cases the effect of biological invasion has been a complete economic disaster. Australia’s plague of introduced European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) has not only threatened native animals as the rabbits outcompete them for food and shelter; the rabbits have threatened the ecosystem itself by decimating vegetation, causing the soil (arid and fragile over much of Australia) to erode.

This in turn has greatly reduced the available land for sheep and cattle grazing – two of Australia’s major industries. Efforts to reduce rabbit populations have only increased the economic cost of the rabbit invasion, as Australians have tried to use poison, traps, dynamite, and expensive biological control agents in the form of diseases such as myxomatosis and the calicivirus (Diamond, 392).

Managing an invasion is very difficult once the invasive species has become established. As noted by Oregon State University biologist John Chapman, “Unlike other contaminants in the world, introduced species don’t have a half-life, they can spread from a single point source, and they have a potentially infinite life span” (qtd. in Reiber). An introduced species becomes established when conditions in the new environment are favorable, and it has little to no competition, and natural predators are lacking.

Too often, strategies devised to control populations of invasive species backfire – the myxomatosis disease used to exterminate rabbits in Australia did succeed in bringing down the rabbit population by 90%, but the survivors then developed a resistance to the disease (Diamond, 392). Biological or chemical control agents used to eradicate invasive species often are detrimental to native species as well. In most cases, the safest way to remove invasive species from the environment is manually, which can be highly labor intensive and needs to be organized at the local or community level.

Increased sound levels in our surroundings can constitute a form of noise pollution. While some people would classify certain genres or styles of music as noise, the most common form of noise pollution comes from transportation and industrial activity. Extreme levels of noise pollution can lead to a deterioration and eventual impairment of the auditory function in humans and other organisms.

Noise pollution also affects individuals in other ways that may be less easy to measure or quantify; increasing levels of stress and annoyance, for example, or disruption of normal sleeping routines. States such as Maryland have implemented some form noise control; in Maryland, the Noise Control Program was passed into legislation in 1970, to provide technical assistance and enforcement regarding noise related issues across the state. It has been de-funded since July 2005, as the duty of regulating noise-related issues has been passed down to local government.

There are many other forms of pollution that do not fit neatly into this broad classification, and to fully understand the effect of every pollutant would often require time-consuming research into various case studies. The interaction between different types of pollution often contributes to a complex effect acting on a larger scale, such as global warming, which is a phenomenon created by the interaction between the increased levels of various gases (known collectively as greenhouse gases). Pollution affects us on a global scale, but it can be reduced or remediated by efforts at the local and personal level.

The easiest way to start contributing to the effort to reduce pollution is to minimize one’s own pollution of the environment. It is this diffuse type of pollution which is much more difficult to catch and trace. Individual citizens not disposing of their wastes properly, or households with misconnected drains, all have a small effect on pollution levels, and collectively this adds up to a large increase in pollution if unchecked or unreported. This is the pollution whose source is often unnoticed, and it is up to each individual to eliminate himself or herself as a source of this anonymous, unaccountable pollution.

Many nonprofit organizations and agencies concerned with the welfare of our environment are engaged in activities to counter pollution and its effects. Participating in local community clean-up events can help to not only reduce the level of pollution in a community, but also heightens the awareness of people regarding pollution issues, especially if the organizers have invited an environmental expert to deliver a talk about problems relevant to the community. Recycling gadgets instead of throwing them away is a solution that helps both the consumers and the manufacturing industries.

Sony Electronics, Inc. has a recycling program that accepts old or non-working Sony branded products free of charge, and even products of other companies for a small fee (On a higher level, government environmental agencies monitor the major point sources of pollution such as wastes disposed by large factories and industrial companies. With pollution’s far-reaching consequences, nations must help each other to remediate the worst polluted areas. An estimated 1 billion people are affected by pollution issues, and a majority of those people are in the developing world, where a general lack of awareness and local regulation of pollution has reduced the overall life expectancy and quality of life (Hanrahan et al., 2).

With minimal financial investment, a number of remediation measures can be carried out in some of the worst polluted areas in the developing world. These measures will help save lives, particularly of children, at an estimated cost of only one to fifty US dollars per person each year. However, implementing such measures often takes a back seat to the basic needs of education and primary health services that local governments often must prioritize (Hanrahan et al., 2-4). This is why it is important to have international intervention and cooperation, not apathy and the selfish attitude summed up by ‘it’s someone else’s problem, let them take care of it’.

In dealing with pollution it is important to keep in mind that many of the sources contributing to pollution are industries upon which modern society is dependent. Mining and agriculture are two examples of ancient activities that have helped men to develop their civilizations. Mining enabled us to build better shelters and construct the tools and implements that we use in everyday tasks.

Agriculture and the potential to store surplus food has taken us from the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers and brought humans together in the first settlements, which eventually grew into cities and states. Pollution is a byproduct of these activities, and the effort to reduce or prevent pollution is not trying to destroy major industries or cease the production and development of new technology. It is an effort to make the producers and consumers responsible for the regulation of wastes created by these activities, and their proper management and disposal.

We live in an age of awareness, and thanks to our awakening and gradual realization of how we affect the world around us, today’s environmental crisis has increasingly become a fact of life in the modern world. Modern governments should no longer be intent on debating the validity of environmental concerns, but focused on finding and implementing solutions. The root of these problems – human degradation of the environment and exploitation of its resources – has been at work ever since the dawn of the civilized age.

The environmental crisis of the present, on both the global and local levels, is not a burden that we have borne for only a few generations; it is a result of centuries, even millennia, of human exploitation of available resources without the guidance of modern environmental science, accelerated by the industrialization brought about by developing technology, and abetted by attitudes and sensibilities that have developed in ignorance of how we impact our surroundings.

The inertia of these outdated attitudes and accelerating industrial processes is huge and cannot be so easily stopped; it may take decades to realize the full extent of the damage we have done to the environment in every aspect, and perhaps longer to reverse the trend. But for many of us, the fundamental error in thinking has, at least, been corrected. Environmental problems elsewhere in the world are no longer just someone else’s concern. With modern globalization, what we do in our part of the world affects everyone else, and if we continue to act and think with that in mind, the environmental problems facing all of society will be managed by society as a whole.

Works Cited

“A slow-moving oil spill.” Ed. John Dodge. 01 December 2007. The Olympian. 04 December 2007

Akbar, S. et al. World Health Organization. Air Quality Guidelines Global Update 2005. Germany: Druckpartner Moser, 2005.

Boudouresque CF, Verlaque M. Biological pollution in the Mediterranean Sea: invasive versus introduced macrophytes. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2002 January; 44(1):32-8.

Buell, Frederick. From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Four Decades of Environmental Crisis in the U.S. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Environment Agency, 2003. The Water Framework Directive – not only a question of quality. Bristol: Environment Agency.

Environment Agency, 2004. Soil, the hidden resource. Bristol: Environment Agency.

Environment Agency, 2007. The unseen threat to water quality. Bristol: Environment Agency.

Hanrahan, D. et al. Blacksmith Institute. Cost Effectiveness and Health Impact of Remediation of Highly Polluted Sites in the Developing World. 2007.

International Atomic Energy Agency. Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Austria: IAEA, 2006.

“Interview of Al Gore.” Larry King Live. CNN. 05 July 2007.

“Invasion Biology Introduced Species Summary Project.” Ed. Jennifer Blake. 10 January 2005. Columbia University. 02 December 2007 http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/Lates_niloticus.htm>

John, E. M. et al. Medical radiation exposure and breast cancer risk: findings from the Breast Cancer Family Registry. International Journal of Cancer: 2007 July; 121(2):386-94.

“Link Between Climate Change and Biological Pollution could Harm Northwest.” Ed. Derek Reiber. 02 July 2001. Sightline Institute. 02 December 2007

“Noise Pollution Control.” 2007. Maryland Department of the Environment. 05 December 2007 Path: Programs; Multimedia Programs; Noise Pollution Control.

“Pollution and its effect to the environment: Interview with Ricky Clancy of Sony Electronics Blog.” 27 September 2007. 05 December 2007.

“Risk/Benefit of Medical Radiation Exposures.” Ed. Kelly Classic. 04 December 2007. Health Physics Society. 04 December 2007 Path: HPS Publications; Articles.

“Thermal Pollution.” Ed. Silvia Lourenco and Rute Neves. 05 December 1996. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 04 December 2007

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Noise: A Health Problem. Washington, 1978

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