- Table of Contents
- 1. Pollution (definition)
- 2. Water Pollution
- 3. Thermal Pollution
- 4. Land Pollution
- 5. Pestiside Pollution
- 6. Radiation Pollution
- 7. Noise Pollution
- 8. Air Pollution
Pollution - Environmental pollution is any discharge of material or energy into water, land, or air that causes or may cause acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) detriment to the Earth's ecological balance or that lowers the quality of life. Pollutants may cause primary damage, with direct identifiable impact on the environment, or secondary damage in the form of minor perturbations in the delicate balance of the biological food web that are detectable only over long time periods.
Until relatively recently in humanity's history, where pollution has existed, it has been primarily a local problem. The industrialization of society, the introduction of motorized vehicles, and the explosion of the human population, however, have caused an exponential growth in the production of goods and services. Coupled with this growth has been a tremendous increase in waste by-products. The indiscriminate discharge of untreated industrial and domestic wastes into waterways, the spewing of thousands of tons of particulates and airborne gases into the atmosphere, the "throwaway" attitude toward solid wastes, and the use of newly developed chemicals without considering potential consequences have resulted in major environmental disasters, including the formation of smog in the Los Angeles area since the late 1940s and the pollution of large areas of the Mediterranean Sea. Technology has begun to solve some pollution problems (see pollution control), and public awareness of the extent of pollution will eventually force governments to undertake more effective environmental planning and adopt more effective antipollution measures.
Different Types of Pollution
Water pollution is the introduction into fresh or ocean waters of chemical, physical, or biological material that degrades the quality of the water and affects the organisms living in it. This process ranges from simple addition of dissolved or suspended solids to discharge of the most insidious and persistent toxic pollutants (such as pesticides, heavy metals, and nondegradable, bioaccumulative, chemical compounds).
Conventional or classical pollutants are generally associated with the direct input of (mainly human) waste products. Rapid urbanization and rapid population increase have produced sewage problems because treatment facilities have not kept pace with need. Untreated and partially treated sewage from municipal wastewater systems and septic tanks in unsewered areas contribute significant quantities of nutrients, suspended solids, dissolved solids, oil, metals (arsenic, mercury, chromium, lead, iron, and manganese), and biodegradable organic carbon to the water environment.
- Conventional pollutants may cause a myriad of water pollution problems. Excess suspended solids block out energy from the Sun and thus affect the carbon dioxide-oxygen conversion process, which is vital to the maintenance of the biological food chain. Also, high concentrations of suspended solids silt up rivers and navigational channels, necessitating frequent dredging. Excess dissolved solids make the water undesirable for drinking and for crop irrigation.
- Although essential to the aquatic habitat, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus may also cause overfertilization and accelerate the natural aging process (eutrophication) of lakes. This acceleration in turn produces an overgrowth of aquatic vegetation, massive algal blooms, and an overall shift in the biologic community--from low productivity with many diverse species to high productivity with large numbers of a few species of a less desirable nature. Bacterial action oxidizes biodegradable organic carbon and consumes dissolved oxygen in the water. In extreme cases where the organic-carbon loading is high, oxygen consumption may lead to an oxygen depression: (less than 2 mg/l compared with 5 to 7 mg/l for a healthy stream) is sufficient to cause a fish kill and seriously to disrupt the growth of associated organisms that require oxygen to survive.
- The nonconventional pollutants include dissolved and particulate forms of metals, both toxic and nontoxic, and degradable and persistent organic carbon compounds discharged into water as a by-product of industry or as an integral part of marketable products. More than 13,000 oil spills of varying magnitude occur in the United States each year. Thousands of environmentally untested chemicals are routinely discharged into waterways; an estimated 400 to 500 new compounds are marketed each year. In addition, coal strip mining releases acid wastes that despoil the surrounding waterways. Nonconventional pollutants vary from biologically inert materials such as clay and iron residues to the most toxic and insidious materials such as halogenated hydrocarbons (DDT, kepone, mirex, and polychlorinated biphenyls--PCB). The latter group may produce damage ranging from acute biological effects (complete sterilization of stretches of waterways) to chronic sublethal effects that may go undetected for years. The chronic low-level pollutants are proving to be the most difficult to correct and abate because of their ubiquitous nature and chemical stability.
Thermal pollution is the discharge of waste heat via energy dissipation into cooling water and subsequently into nearby waterways. The major sources of thermal pollution are fossil-fuel and nuclear electric-power generating facilities and, to a lesser degree, cooling operations associated with industrial manufacturing, such as steel foundries, other primary-metal manufacturers, and chemical and petrochemical producers.
The discharge temperatures from electric-power plants generally range from 5 to 11 C degrees (9 to 20 F degrees) above ambient water temperatures. An estimated 90% of all water consumption, excluding agricultural uses, is for cooling or energy dissipation.
The discharge of heated water into a waterway often causes ecologic imbalance, sometimes resulting in major fish kills near the discharge source. The increased temperature accelerates chemical-biological processes and decreases the ability of the water to hold dissolved oxygen. Thermal changes affect the aquatic system by limiting or changing the type of fish and aquatic biota able to grow or reproduce in the waters. Thus rapid and dramatic changes in biologic communities often occur in the vicinity of heated discharges.
Land pollution is the degradation of the Earth's land surface through misuse of the soil by poor agricultural practices, mineral exploitation, industrial waste dumping, and indiscriminate disposal of urban wastes.
Soil erosion--a result of poor agricultural practices--removes rich humus topsoil developed over many years through vegetative decay and microbial degradation and thus strips the land of valuable nutrients for crop growth. Strip mining for minerals and coal lays waste thousands of acres of land each year, denuding the Earth and subjecting the mined area to widespread erosion problems. The increases in urbanization due to population pressure presents additional soil-erosion problems; sediment loads in nearby streams may increase as much as 500 to 1,000 times over that recorded in nearby undeveloped stretches of stream. Soil erosion not only despoils the Earth for farming and other uses, but also increases the suspended-solids load of the waterway. This increase interferes with the ecological habitat and poses silting problems in navigation channels, inhibiting the commercial use of these waters.
- Solid Waste
- In the United States in 1988 municipal wastes alone--that is, the solid wastes sent by households, business, and municipalities to local landfills and other waste-disposal facilities--equaled 163 million metric tons (1980 million U.S. tons), or 18 k (40lb) per person, according to figures released by the Environmental Protection Agency. Additional solid wastes accumulate from mining, industrial production, and agriculture. Although municipal wastes are the most obvious, the accumulations of other types of wastes are the most obvious, the accumulations of other types of waste are far greater, in many instances are more difficult to dispose of, and present greater environmental hazards.
- The most common and convenient method of disposing of municipal solid wastes is in the sanitary landfill. The open dump, once a common eyesore in towns across the United States, attracted populations of rodents and other pests and often emitted hideous odors; it is now illegal. Sanitary landfills provide better aesthetic control and should be odor-free. Often, however, industrial wastes of unknown content are commingled with domestic wastes. Groundwater infiltration and contamination of water supplies with toxic chemicals have recently led to more active control of landfills and industrial waste disposal. Careful management of sanitary landfills, such as providing for leachate and runoff treatment as well as daily coverage with topsoil, has alleviated most of the problems of open dumping. In many areas, however, space for landfills is running out and alternatives must be found.
- Recycling of materials is practical to some extent for much municipal and some industrial wastes, and a small but growing proportion of solid wastes is being recycled. When wastes are commingled, however, recovery becomes difficult and expensive. New processes of sorting ferrous and nonferrous metals, paper, glass, and plastics have been developed, and many communities with recycling programs now require refuse separation. Crucial issues in recycling are devising better processing methods, inventing new products for the recycled materials, and finding new markets for them.
- Incineration is another method for disposing of solid wastes. Advanced incinerators use solid wastes as fuel, burning quantities of refuse and utilizing the resultant heat to make steam for electricity generation. Wastes must be burned at very high temperatures, and incinerator exhausts must be equipped with sophisticated scrubbers and other devices for removing dioxins and other toxic pollutants. Problems remain, however: incinerator ash contains high ratios of heavy metals, becoming a hazardous waste in itself, and high-efficiency incinerators may discourage the use of recycling and other waste-reduction methods.
- Composting is increasingly used to treat some agricultural wastes, as well as such municipal wastes as leaves and brush. Composting systems can produce usable soil conditioners, or humus, within a few months (see compost).
Pesticides are organic and inorganic chemicals originally invented and first used effectively to better the human environment by controlling undesirable life forms such as bacteria, pests, and foraging insects. Their effectiveness, however, has caused considerable pollution. The persistent, or hard, pesticides, which are relatively inert and nondegradable by chemical or biologic activity, are also bioaccumulative; that is, they are retained within the body of the consuming organism and are concentrated with each ensuing level of the biologic food chain. For example, DDT provides an excellent example of cumulative pesticide effects. (Although DDT use has been banned in the United States since 1972, it is still a popular pesticide in much of the rest of the world.) DDT may be applied to an area so that the levels in the surrounding environment are less than one part per billion. As bacteria or other microscopic organisms ingest and retain the pesticide, the concentration may increase several hundred- to a thousandfold. Concentration continues as these organisms are ingested by higher forms of life--algae, fish, shellfish, birds, or humans. The resultant concentration in the higher life forms may reach levels of thousands to millions of parts per billion.
Many pesticides are nondiscriminatory; that is, they are not specific for a particular plant or organism. A dramatic example of this effect is DDE (a product of the breakdown of DDT), which effectively inhibits the ability of birds to provide sufficient calcium deposits for their eggs, producing fragile shells and a high percentage of nested eggs that break prematurely. Another reported side effect of pesticides is their effect on the nervous system of animals and fish; they can cause instability, disorientation, and, in some cases, death. These examples are generally a result of relatively high body residuals producing acute (short-term) readily recordable results.
The long-term (chronic) effects of persistent pesticides are virtually unknown, but many scientists believe they are as much an environmental hazard as are the acute effects. Nonpersistent (readily degradable) pesticides or substitutes, insect sterilization techniques, hormone homologues that check or interfere with maturation stages, and introduction of animals that prey on the pests present a potentially brighter picture for pest control with significantly reduced environmental consequences.
Radiation pollution is any form of ionizing or nonionizing radiation that results from human activities. The most well-known radiation results from the detonation of nuclear devices and the controlled release of energy by nuclear-power generating plants (see nuclear energy). Other sources of radiation include spent-fuel reprocessing plants, by-products of mining operations, and experimental research laboratories. Increased exposure to medical X rays and to radiation emissions from microwave ovens and other household appliances, although of considerably less magnitude, all constitute sources of environmental radiation.
Public concern over the release of radiation into the environment greatly increased following the disclosure of possible harmful effects to the public from nuclear weapons testing, the accident (1979) at the Three Mile Island nuclear-power generating plant near Harrisburg, Pa., and the catastrophic 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, a Soviet nuclear power plant. In the late 1980s, revelations of major pollution problems at U.S. nuclear weapons reactors raised apprehensions even higher.
The environmental effects of exposure to high-level ionizing radiation have been extensively documented through postwar studies on individuals who were exposed to nuclear radiation in Japan. Some forms of cancer show up immediately, but latent maladies of radiation poisoning have been recorded from 10 to 30 years after exposure. The effects of exposure to low-level radiation are not yet known. A major concern about this type of exposure is the potential for genetic damage.
Radioactive nuclear wastes cannot be treated by conventional chemical methods and must be stored in heavily shielded containers in areas remote from biological habitats. The safest of storage sites currently used are impervious deep caves or abandoned salt mines. Most radioactive wastes, however, have half-lives of hundreds to thousands of years, and to date no storage method has been found that is absolutely infallible.
Noise pollution has a relatively recent origin. It is a composite of sounds generated by human activities ranging from blasting stereo systems to the roar of supersonic transport jets. Although the frequency (pitch) of noise may be of major importance, most noise sources are measured in terms of intensity, or strength of the sound field. The standard unit, one decibel (dB), is the amount of sound that is just audible to the average human. The decibel scale is somewhat misleading because it is logarithmic rather than linear; for example, a noise source measuring 70 dB is 10 times as loud as a source measuring 60 dB and 100 times as loud as a source reading 50 dB. Noise may be generally associated with industrial society, where heavy machinery, motor vehicles, and aircraft have become everyday items. Noise pollution is more intense in the work environment than in the general environment, although ambient noise increased an average of one dB per year during the 1980s. The average background noise in a typical home today is between 40 and 50 decibels. Some examples of high-level sources in the environment are heavy trucks (90 dB at 15 m/50 ft), freight trains (75 dB at 15 m/50 ft), and air conditioning (60 dB at 6 m/20 ft).
The most readily measurable physiological effect of noise pollution is damage to hearing, which may be either temporary or permanent and may cause disruption of normal activities or just general annoyance. The effect is variable, depending upon individual susceptibility, duration of exposure, nature of noise (loudness), and time distribution of exposure (such as steady or intermittent). On the average an individual will experience a threshold shift (a shift in an individual's upper limit of sound detectability) when exposed to noise levels of 75 to 80 dB for several hours. This shift will last only several hours once the source of noise pollution is removed. A second physiologically important level is the threshold of pain, at which even short-term exposure will cause physical pain (130 to 140 dB). Any noise sustained at this level will cause a permanent threshold shift or permanent partial hearing loss. At the uppermost level of noise (greater than 150 dB), even a single short-term blast may cause traumatic hearing loss and physical damage inside the ear.
Although little hard information is available on the psychological side effects of increased noise levels, many researchers attribute increased irritability, lower productivity, decreased tolerance levels, increased incidence of ulcers, migraine headaches, fatigue, and allergic responses to continued exposures to high-level noises in the workplace and the general environment.
Air pollution is the accumulation in the atmosphere of substances that, in sufficient concentrations, endanger human health or produce other measured effects on living matter and other materials. Among the major sources of pollution are power and heat generation, the burning of solid wastes, industrial processes, and, especially, transportation. The six major types of pollutants are carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, particulates, sulfur dioxide, and photochemical oxidants.
Local and Regional
Smog has seriously affected more persons than any other type of air pollution. It can be loosely defined as a multisource, widespread air pollution that occurs in the air of cities. Smog, a contraction of the words smoke and fog, has been caused throughout recorded history by water condensing on smoke particles, usually from burning coal. The infamous London fogs--about 4,000 deaths were attributed to the severe fog of 1952--were smog of this type. Another type, ice fog, occurs only at high latitudes and extremely low temperatures and is a combination of smoke particles and ice crystals.
- As a coal economy has gradually been replaced by a petroleum economy, photochemical smog has become predominant in many cities. Its unpleasant properties result from the irradiation by sunlight of hydrocarbons (primarily unburned gasoline emitted by automobiles and other combustion sources) and other pollutants in the air. Irradiation produces a long series of photochemical reactions (see photochemistry). The products of the reactions include organic particles, ozone, aldehydes, ketones, peroxyacetyl nitrate, and organic acids and other oxidants. Sulfur dioxide, which is always present to some extent, oxidizes and hydrates to form sulfuric acid and becomes part of the particulate matter. Furthermore, automobiles are polluters even in the absence of photochemical reactions. They are responsible for much of the particulate material in the air; they also emit carbon monoxide, one of the most toxic constituents of smog.
- All types of smog decrease visibility and, with the possible exception of ice fog, are irritating to the respiratory system. Statistical studies indicate that smog is a contributor to malignancies of many types. Photochemical smog produces eye irritation and lacrimation and causes severe damage to many types of vegetation, including important crops. Acute effects include an increased mortality rate, especially among persons suffering from respiratory and coronary ailments. Air pollution also has a deleterious effect on works of art (see art conservation and restoration).
- Air pollution on a regional scale is in part the result of local air pollution--including that produced by individual sources, such as automobiles--that has spread out to encompass areas of many thousands of square kilometers. Meteorological conditions and landforms can greatly influence air-pollution concentrations at any given place, especially locally and regionally. For example, cities located in bowls or valleys over which atmospheric inversions form and act as imperfect lids are especially likely to suffer from incidences of severe smog. Oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, carried long distances by the atmosphere and then precipitated in solution as acid rain, can cause serious damage to vegetation, waterways, and buildings.
- Humans also pollute the atmosphere on a global scale, although until the early 1970s little attention was paid to the possible deleterious effects of such pollution. Measurements in Hawaii suggest that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing at a rate of about 0.2% every year. The effect of this increase may be to alter the Earth's climate by increasing the average global temperature. Certain pollutants decrease the concentration of ozone occurring naturally in the stratosphere, which in turn increases the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth's surface. Such radiation may damage vegetation and increase the incidence of skin cancer. Examples of stratospheric contaminants include nitrogen oxides emitted by supersonic aircraft and chlorofluorocarbons used as refrigerants and aerosol-can propellants. The chlorofluorocarbons reach the stratosphere by upward mixing from the lower parts of the atmosphere (see ozone layer). It is believed that these chemicals are responsible for the noticeable loss of ozone over the polar regions that has occurred in the 1980s.
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