Humans live in a natural world where natural things have lived perfecting their balance for millions of years. As humans seek to optimize their environments and lifestyles these natural orders can be disrupted to any extent. But, with the global population reaching an all-time high and our demands for comfort and convenience increasing too, the impact on our environment has become critical.
What Is Pollution?
Pollution is the most significant and negative impact human beings have on their immediate surroundings. Pollution can come in many forms and is generally categorized by the type of environment it affects and the type of pollutant being introduced.
Pollution can be defined as the introduction of an element, material or even a form of energy into an environment at an unhealthy rate. There are always transfers of compounds and energies both natural and artificial, but when they are being introduced at a rate higher than they can be safely dispersed or otherwise sequestered they become pollutants.1
Pollutants can be artificial or natural, such as the ash and carbons that are emitted from a volcano and dispersed to the air across the countryside causing all sorts of damage. Being aware of the types of pollution created artificially, that is by human activity, is an important step in learning to be aware of this negative exchange and taking steps to improve levels of pollution in your world.
Types of Environmental Pollution
Arguably our most valuable resource and certainly our most contaminated, the air we breathe is filled with substances and compounds that have a detrimental effect on human health, wildlife, and climate patterns.
Most air pollution is caused by industrial facilities and energy production followed by vehicle emissions. Wildfires, volcanoes and the illicit burning of garbage and forest slash add to the over 40 billion tons of CO2 emitted into the air each year. In addition to carbon, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), sulfur oxides, dust, and other particulate matter make up the bulk of air pollution.2
Water pollution affects not just our rivers, lakes and oceans but our aquifers and groundwater. Because the water cycles are connected, all harmful materials and compounds can easily be washed by the rain and taken deep into the earth or anywhere else water may go.3
Water pollution can be described as “point source”, which means that the contaminants are from a single easily identifiable location. They can also be categorized as “non-point source”, which means the contaminants are a result of cumulative sources.
Much of the water humans use in areas not located next to a freshwater source comes from aquifers and wells that reach deep into the groundwater shelf. As contaminants and toxins are washed by the rain these toxins leach into these important sources of water and could potentially poison the population.
The most notable sources of water pollution include agricultural industries who apply chemicals in large quantities to their land, these are washed into the rivers and seas where the damage comes to a head and begin disrupting ocean ecosystems. Oil spills come in a close second.
Land pollution is the contamination of land surfaces with all manner of refuse and almost always results in a degradation of the land’s capacity to support life. Land pollution is the cause of many direct and indirect causes of abuse of the land to support human needs.
For example, a lack of proper infrastructure can lead to a large portion of a region’s waste materials to be disposed of improperly. Landfills are detailed scientific endeavors and without properly trained waste management technicians these can cause as much damage as good.
Then there are the agricultural and industrial sectors that add considerable contributions to land pollution. Mineral exploitation leads to the decline of soil quality in the local area. Deforestation also adds to this problem by allowing vast swathes of forest land to lay exposed to the sun and rain and be washed away.
If you live in a big city you may be very familiar with noise pollution which consists of loud and undesirable sounds that can harm the ears and cause mental distress. Unlike other types of pollution, this one is relatively easily done away with. But, its effects can be extreme and noise pollution can seriously harm and even kill many marine ecosystems.6
Noise pollution can be measured in decibels (dB) and the standard limit according to WHO standards are 75 dB for industrial areas. Even though it would take sounds in excess of 100dB to actually begin to harm the hearing noise pollution is becoming an increasing problem in modern society, where many people live near airports, bus stations, train stations, industrial yards and more. In addition to the highly unhealthy capacity to rob you of sleep, noise pollution has been linked to poor mental health.7,8
Thermal pollution can result when the temperature of a body of water becomes elevated for a number of reasons. Energy production and industrial efforts that require cooling machinery and such with water often cause this problem in nearby lakes and rivers or the local coastline. Rain runoff from parking lots, roads and urban areas can enter streams and rivers at elevated temperatures. Thermal pollution has detrimental effects on aquatic life.9
The use of artificial light can also be a source of pollution and can affect human beings and animals in a number of ways. Lights from the city, security beacons, billboards and all manner of other lighting displays accumulates to create a dazzling display that can quite literally be seen from space.
One of the most notable effects of light pollution is that it clouds out a magnificent stellar display that urbanites always marvel at on a trip to the country. But, the lights of a city can also confuse animals that are guided by the light of the moon, sea turtles for example. Besides, what would you do if your neighbor’s security light was shining directly into your bedroom window? 10
These were only the most significant types of pollution affecting our environment today. There are also more pleasant varieties of pollution such as visual pollution, like the billboards that block the landscape along a highway. Radioactive pollution is another issue and an extremely dangerous subject. All in all, it is probably a good time to begin looking for ways to reverse these megatrends and pressure lawmakers to do the same.
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