Environmental Pollution

Environmental pollution is one of the biggest threats to life as we know it. Pollution affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ecosystems we depend on. If pollution severity continues to increase; human, animal, and plant populations will break down as they will not be able to cope with a drastically changing environment. There are factors that affect the rates of dispersal and degradation of pollutants. We need to understand the effects of these factors so we know the locations in which pollution will cause the most damage. Today we shall be covering the types of environmental pollution, their effects, and the factors affecting pollutants.

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Contents
Table of contents

    Environmental Pollution Definition

    Environmental pollution is any addition of erroneous substances or energies to the environment, that causes a change to the composition of the environment. These variables can be air, water, soil, noise, and light and changes to their natural values can have profound consequences for ecosystems and human life.

    Pollution occurs when harmful materials (called pollutants) are introduced into the environment.

    Types of Environmental Pollution

    Pollutants can occur in any phase (solid, liquid, and gas) and can even be in the form of energy transfer such as heat, light, or noise. Let's have a look at some examples of environmental pollution:

    Air pollution

    Air pollution is caused by the release of gaseous particles, molecules, and particulates into the atmosphere. Small particulates are released as by-products from industrial reactions at high temperatures and pressures and from the exhaust pipes of vehicles. Dangerous gaseous molecules such as greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide), sulphur dioxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are released via the combustion of fossil fuels, industrial processes, agriculture, and deforestation.

    Particulates are molecules or compounds that are separated into minute, separate particles. Examples include dust, soot, and metal particulates.

    Water pollution

    Water pollution involves the addition of polluting gaseous, liquid, and solid particles, molecules, or particulates that alter the composition of a water source. There are many causes of water pollution from human activity: the overapplication of pesticides and fertilisers in agriculture may cause them to runoff into nearby waters, industrial discharge contains dangerous chemicals like metal compounds, solvents, acids, and alkalis, while improperly treated sewage contains millions of disease-carrying pathogens and unwanted nutrients. The addition of heat energy can pollute the water too, this can gradual as a result of global warming or instant from power plant cooling water.

    Cooling water in the industry is the water that factories and power plants use to regulate the temperature of their machinery. This water may sound cold, but it is much warmer than oceans, lakes, and rivers so when it is released it will cause a sudden influx of heat.

    The plethora of decomposing bacteria and organic material in sewage is a dangerous combination! These bacteria will break down highly organic dead and faecal matter and release huge amounts of nutrients into water sources. Sudden increases in nutrient availability can cause algal populations to increase rapidly and form algal blooms on the surface. These blooms will block sunlight and suffocate the ecosystem's oxygen when broken down by aerobic decomposers.

    Soil Pollution

    Soil pollution involves the influx of unwanted chemicals to soils, causing them to become contaminated and less fertile. The overuse of fertilisers can cause soils to contain too many nutrients, while the overuse of pesticides can poison soils and reduce biodiversity. Industrial discharge from landfills can introduce a host of unwanted chemicals (hydrocarbons, metal compounds, radioactive elements) to soils. Intensive agriculture such as ploughing and tillage can physically disturb soils and make them more vulnerable.

    Light Pollution

    Light pollution concerns any change to the normal level of light (ultraviolet or infrared radiation) to a location. Highly developed cities are the biggest driver of light pollution because of the widespread use of neon and fluorescent lights (they emit ultraviolet radiation). Abnormally bright skies can confuse wildlife and cause eye defects. Ultraviolet radiation can cause genetic mutations and cancer.

    Light pollution in Europe

    Figure 1: hotspots of light pollution in Europe.

    Noise pollution

    Noise pollution is an increase in the amount of noise heard in a certain area. Causes of noise pollution include heavy industrial machinery and vehicles (e.g. on a construction site), or loudspeakers and megaphones at events with lots of people. Noise pollution can put stress on ecosystems and people that live near the source of the noise.

    Heat pollution is the influx of heat to the atmosphere or hydrosphere that causes a rise in temperature. In the hydrosphere, these increases in temperature can cause marine species to become stressed and force them to migrate to cooler regions, disturbing food webs. In the atmosphere, an increasing temperature can have consequences such as rising sea levels, melting ice sheets, increased precipitation, and droughts.

    Radioactive pollution is the addition of radioactive chemicals to the atmosphere, lithosphere, or hydrosphere. radioactive chemicals include plutonium, uranium, and radium and cause mutations and cancer in animals and humans.

    Effects of Environmental Pollution

    Now that we have looked at the types of environmental pollution and what causes them, let's have a look at the effects:

    Climate Change

    Anthropogenic air pollution is the major driver behind modern climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) contribute to the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere and warm the Earth's surface. Environmental implications of a warming planet are melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, increased precipitation, and more frequent severe weather.

    The release of aerosols actually cools the planet. These particulates are efficient in absorbing and scattering infrared radiation from the sun. However, aerosols are harmful to humans and can cause lung damage and also alter precipitation patterns and atmospheric wind circulation.

    Melting ice sheets from global warming

    Figure 2: melting ice sheets from global warming.

    Human Health

    Dangerous particulates released from industry and vehicles (soot, dust, metals) can damage human respiratory systems and cause cancer. The release of CFCs into the atmosphere depletes the ozone layer meaning that more ultraviolet radiation reaches the Earth. UV radiation increases the chance of genetic mutation and eye defects. Drinking polluted water can cause cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis A in humans, whereas using polluted water for washing can cause skin irritation and fluorosis when brushing teeth with it. Polluted soils can result in disease spreading in agricultural produce. If this disease is not noticed, it can spread between human populations.

    Fluorosis is a condition that causes the yellowing of the teeth.

    Aquatic Ecosystems

    25% of carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed into the oceans causing ocean acidification, which impairs the growth of organisms requiring carbonates for their shells and exoskeletons. UV radiation from ozone layer depletion can affect the developmental stages of larvae and producer populations too. Water pollution is a massive concern for aquatic ecosystems. The release of toxic, radioactive, and carcinogenic chemicals can kill wildlife species. Sedimentation fluxes from industrial and agricultural discharge can smother producers and cause alternative bottom-dwelling populations to rise in high-nutrient conditions. Algal blooms from nutrient overload can result in anoxic dead zones where no life can survive.

    Anoxic means the absence of oxygen.

    Terrestrial Ecosystems

    Here are a few examples of how environmental pollution is destroying terrestrial ecosystems.

    • Melting ice sheets and rising sea levels are destroying habitats in polar regions.
    • Droughts and more frequent severe weather are causing habitat fragmentation in warmer regions.
    • Dangerous particulates from industry and vehicles can clog respiratory systems and cause cancer in animals too.
    • Contaminated drinking water can poison wildlife and spread disease in ecosystems.
    • Acid rain will damage habitats and acidify soils.
    • Contaminated soils from industrial and agricultural runoff do not support as many producer populations and can affect the food chains of entire ecosystems.
    • Noise and light pollution will confuse and stress animals and may force them to migrate to unsuitable habitats.

    Acid rain is rain with a pH of less than 5.2 and is formed by nitrous oxide or sulphur dioxide reacting with rainwater to form nitric acid and sulfuric acid. Acid rain can damage soil and corrode materials.

    Gaseous acid deposition is when soils and waters are contaminated by nitrous oxides and sulphur dioxide without them forming acid rain.

    Desertification is the process by which fertile soils become completely deserted and unable to support life. Resource exploitation like mining and deforestation, intensive agriculture, and droughts can cause desertification.

    Agriculture

    Overuse of fertilisers can break down agroecosystems. Some wild plants will be unable to survive in a high-nutrient environment and local aquatic ecosystems may be affected. Therefore, the agroecosystem will function less effectively causing crops to be more susceptible to disease, while irrigation of nearby waters will be negatively impacted. The use of unnatural pesticides will contaminate soils and disrupt interspecies dynamics within the ecosystem. Overgrazing of pastures can restrict the ecological succession of soils.

    Ecological succession is the process by which the wildlife demographic of a habitat develops over time.

    Environmental Pollution Impact Factors

    The rate at which pollution disperse and pollutants degrade to release dangerous chemicals is important in assessing how dangerous a point source of pollution will be.

    Point source pollution can be pinpointed to a specific area and is easily quantified and measured (and hopefully restricted).

    Dispersal

    Here are the factors that affect the dispersal of the different types of environmental pollution:

    • Air pollution: the speed and direction of wind currents can tell us which locations are likely to receive the most air pollution (locations downwind of highly industrial areas are susceptible to air pollution). If air is more humid, the particles are more likely to become denser and be deposited into soils and waters.
    • Water pollution: the speed and direction of water currents determine which parts of the ocean may receive the most water pollution. The rate of runoff of contaminated soils will happen more quickly when there is more precipitation and the slope is steeper (greater gravitational force pulling the water downwards). Water pollutants will stick to adsorbent materials and be concentrated in areas with a high concentration of them.
    • Soil pollution: aerated soils will allow contaminants to pass through them more quickly. Increased runoff from rainfall can result in soil pollution on a wider scale as well.

    Degradation

    The rate at which pollutants degrade is important because they will often release poisonous chemicals and toxins as they are broken down. Here are some factors that affect the rate of degradation:

    • Temperature: decomposing microorganisms will break down matter much quicker in warmer conditions. They will release vast amounts of nutrients and poisonous toxins.
    • Moisture: microorganisms thrive in moist conditions too so decomposition rates will be high.
    • pH: the presence of alkaline substances in the soil can help to neutralise acidic soils caused by acid deposition. Microorganisms work faster at specific pH's as well.
    • Oxygen availability: aerobic decomposers are much more efficient at breaking down matter than anaerobic ones, and require a consistent supply of oxygen to survive.

    Environment and Pollution Severity - Key takeaways

    • Environmental pollution is the addition of unwanted chemicals that cause a change to the environment.
    • Examples of environmental pollution are air, water, soil, noise, and light pollution.
    • Air pollution can directly cause respiratory problems and cancer in humans and animals. It can indirectly cause climate change by the release of greenhouse gases and ozone depletion by the release of CFCs.
    • Water pollution can contaminate drinking water for humans and animals and cause disease. Nutrient overload can cause algal blooms and resulting anoxic dead zones.
    • Soil pollution can reduce producer populations and has negative consequences for the food webs of entire ecosystems.
    • Temperature, moisture, pH, and oxygen availability all affect the rate at which pollutants degrade.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Pollution

    How is pollution affecting the environment?

    Pollution affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ecosystems we depend on. If pollution severity continues to increase; human, animal, and plant populations will break down as they will not be able to cope with a drastically changing environment.  

    What is environment and pollution severity?

    The severity of a pollutant is determined by its persistence, chemical nature and concentration. 

    What are the major causes of environment pollution?

    Anything that includes the addition of unwanted chemicals that cause a change to the environment is environmental pollution. Examples of environmental pollution are air, water, soil, noise, and light pollution.

    What is the severity of environmental pollution?

    Environmental pollution is one of the biggest threats to life as we know it. 

    What are some types of environmental pollution?

    Air, water, soil, noise, and light pollution. 

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