Types of Pollution and How to Reduce Them
Talk of pollution and climate change is everywhere. Here's the rundown on different types of pollution and possible solutions to counter them.
Pollution is a public health concern, and is considered to be any harmful material introduced to the environment. Many materials can cause such harm and are referred to as pollutants.
Pollutants are pervasive, as much of what it takes for humans to live their daily lives contributes harmful materials to the environment. Some pollutants are natural but still cause harm to the world's air, land, and water.
Pollutants can be things like:
- Volcanic ash
- Trash and sewage
- Factory runoffs
- Car exhaust
- Burning coal for electricity
Environmental pollution is a problem all over the world. While it's much more prevalent in urban areas, traces of pollutants can be found in the most natural of places due to air and water currents that can spread harmful materials across the globe.
The frightening fact is that there is more than one type of pollution. The comforting part is that there are steps to slow and prevent pollution. Keep reading to find out more.
What types of pollution are there?
Air pollution is any hazardous substance, natural or manufactured, that exists in the air. Air pollution can be invisible, but it can often be seen.
If you've ever been to Los Angeles and driven the 405, gone on a hike, or sat on the beach and seen a hazy brown layer hovering above the city or the ocean, that is visible air pollution.
This haze, often called smog, is not just a problem in Los Angeles; it's a worldwide issue.
Natural air pollution can come from:
- Wildfire smoke
- Volcanic eruption ash and gas
- Methane gas from soil decomposition
Manufactured air pollution can come from:
- Vehicle emissions
- Homes heated by fuel oils and natural gas
- Manufacturing and power generation byproducts, especially coal-fueled
- Chemical production fumes
The chemicals that are most concerning as sources of air pollution are:
- Particulate matter
- Carbon monoxide
- Nitrogen dioxide
- Sulfur dioxide
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 99 percent of the world's population breathes air above the recommended contamination limits. People in metropolitan areas are at higher risk; however, everyone is affected.
One of the most problematic parts of air pollution is that the particles, themselves, are too small to be seen and can cause serious health problems upon inhalation.
Health studies have found that air pollution is directly linked to the following:
- Breast cancer
- Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
- Lung cancer
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Pregnancy risks
- Respiratory diseases
Data suggests that air pollution is responsible for one in six deaths worldwide. That number continues to rise, and most deaths are considered premature.
Related: Is Air Pollution Making You Dumb?
Polluted water is water that manufactured or natural chemicals have contaminated. Similar to air pollution, some water pollution can be visible, and some cannot.
Some water pollution is easy to see, as the water is murky, contains trash, or gives off a foul odor. Other polluted water might look completely safe.
Natural water pollution happens through natural gas and oil leaks into a water source. For example, Coal Oil Point Seep in California is a petroleum seep that leaks oil into the ocean — so much so that it creates tar balls that wash up onto the beach or decompose in the ocean.
While nature contributes to water pollution, human activities have a much bigger hand in the problem.
Manufactured water pollution includes:
- Factory runoffs that create cyanobacteria
- Mining and drilling that creates sulfuric acid
- Oil spills that kill millions of animals
- Radioactive pollution and solid waste
- Buried chemical waste that causes cancer and birth defects
- Untreated sewage that contaminates water and reduces fishery
- Fertilizer with phosphorus and nitrogen causes cyanobacteria
- Power plants that heat water and cause thermal pollution, which can ruin local river ecosystems
- Plastic pollution, like bags that suffocate aquatic life
- Toxic chemicals that contaminatemarine life, which humans then consume
In addition to anthropogenic water pollution, acid rain can result from air pollution and water pollution. Acid rain is not just a term that sounds like the plot of an end-of-the-world sci-fi movie; it is an actual chemical process.
When nitrogen oxide mixes in the air with sulfur dioxide and those two chemicals come into contact with a body of water, they combine and evolve into a type of acid. This is one of the ways that pollution is spread all over the world.
When the chemicals fall as acid rain, wind can carry the pollutants worldwide. This is why some chemicals can be found in areas that should have no traces of them.
Noise might not be the environmental crisis you think of when considering pollution. And while it might not contaminate the air or water, that does not mean it doesn't negatively affect society.
Noise pollution is considered to be persistent, disturbing, or unwanted noise. It's considered pollution because it is a phenomenon that affects the quality of life of those in the environment.
If you live in a metropolitan area, you are likely more accustomed to noise pollution than those in rural areas. Like other types of pollution, noise pollution is connected to health issues.
Noise pollution sources include:
- Emission products
- Cars, trucks, motorcycles, trains, transport equipment
- Airplanes and helicopters
- Construction and construction equipment
Studies show that issues related to noise pollution include:
- Stress-related illnesses
- High blood pressure
- Speech interference
- Hearing loss
- Disruption of sleep
- Loss of productivity
Related: How AI Is Poised to Help Humanity
Light pollution, also referred to as photo pollution, is an excessive amount of light that creates a glow in the night sky. Light pollution is another type of pollution that people might not consider because it is less widely spoken about.
However, it can affect humans and animals. Like noise pollution, light pollution is much more common in city environments.
Light pollution is caused by:
- Car lights
- Offices, buildings, and factories
- Outdoor advertising, like billboards
While some light is necessary for safety, it can negatively affect the circadian rhythm of humans and animals. Interrupting the circadian rhythm causes a decrease in melatonin production, which is directly connected to sleep quality.
Light pollution and its adverse effects on sleep are connected to:
- Sleep deprivation
Because circadian rhythm is a characteristic all organisms possess, light pollution affects animals too.
Animals base their migration patterns on seasons and the amount of light that guides them. Animals that live or migrate through areas with excessive light cannot see enough of the starlight or moonlight and can end up confused in their migration patterns.
When animals fall far enough from the migration patterns that they are completely lost, they often die — ultimately affecting the circle of life.
Soil pollution is a type of land pollution involving contaminated soil that can harm those who touch it, ingest it, or breathe in its toxic fumes.
- Chemicals from byproducts of industrial hazardous waste
- Waste from homes, livestock, or municipal areas
- Petroleum-derived products
- Oil spills
- Leaching from landfills
- Fertilizers and pesticides
- Irrigation with untreated wastewater
- Land application of sewage sludge
Soil is an integral part of the ecosystem, making its contamination dangerous from the ground up. Polluted soil can create new species of pests and diseases that can throw the balance of the current ecosystem out of hand. Animals who experience toxicity from contaminated soil are then eaten by other animals higher in the food chain, and the cycle continues.
Polluted soil can affect humans, whether they eat plants or animals, because antimicrobial-resistant bacteria and genes can spread, which affects immune systems and the ability to fight off new pathogens.
In addition to health issues, soil pollution significantly impacts food security. With so many people depending on crops for livelihood, crop depletion due to decreasing quality in soil has affected over 40 percent of the world's population.
How to combat pollution
Some of the facts about pollution seem bleak. However, while much destruction has been caused to this planet, there are steps to take to slow pollution.
Ways to decrease air pollution
There are several different ways, no matter your lifestyle, to do your part in increasing air quality. Look at the comprehensive list below to reduce air pollution through various scenarios.
Day-to-day strategies include:
- Buy products with the Energy Star label
- Utilize carpools, take public transportation, bike, or walk
- Follow gasoline refueling instructions, do not spill fuel, and always make sure your gas cap is tightened
- Keep all vehicle engines properly tuned, and tires inflated
- Use environmentally safe cleaning products, paints, and other products
- Practice composting and mulching
- Light gas logs instead of wood logs
There are days when high ozone levels or high particle levels are expected throughout the year. Many people may feel health effects like itchy eyes, throat, and nose when this happens — somewhat like allergies.
When high ozone days or particle days are predicted, it is essential to reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible.
On high ozone level days, you can:
- Choose a cleaner commute using the Google Maps feature or using rideshare options like public transportation, carpooling, walking, or bike riding
- Conserve electricity by turning off the air conditioning or setting it to above 78 degrees
- Complete any gasoline-powered equipment activities or chores in the evening or on another day
- Avoid lighting a fireplace or using a wood stove
- Avoid burning materials like leaves, grass, or trash
Ways to decrease water pollution
While individuals might not have any control over how factories and plants care for their water, people can do their part to promote clean water in everyday life.
- Install a toilet dam and low-flow toilet in your bathroom
- Regularly check your toilet for silent leaks
- Use a water-efficient showerhead, take shorter showers, draw less bathwater, and try not to run the water while brushing your teeth
- Compost scraps instead of running garbage disposal
- Keep a gallon of drinking water in the refrigerator instead of using cold tap water from the running sink
- Reduce the use of washing machines and dryers by running full loads, using cold water, and hang-drying clothes
- Use drought-resistant plants and grasses for landscaping and minimize the number of times per week for lawn watering
- Use a broom instead of a hose to clean pavement
- Wash your car less and use a car wash that cleans and recycles water instead of washing your car yourself
- Install porous pavement, like gravel, so rainwater can recharge groundwater supplies instead of running off a concrete driveway
Ways to prevent noise and light pollution
Again, noise pollution is something individuals might not have excessive control over, as most noise and light pollution is caused by large vehicles, planes, industrial activity, and commercial buildings.
However, you can do your part to prevent noise pollution by being a kind neighbor (especially during nighttime) and ensuring your car muffler is functioning.
Ways to prevent soil pollution
The World Health Organization, United Nations, and other organizations are working to create prevention strategies for soil pollution to decrease health risks and increase food security.
Soil pollution prevention strategies include:
- Government regulations on soil pollution
- Limiting contamination accumulation
- Promoting sustainable practices of soil management
- Issuing calls to action to restore world ecosystems
What can you do to reduce pollution?
The topic of global warming has been top-of-mind for many people and government organizations for years.
Scientists are learning more about fossil fuels, different forms of pollution, and the effects pollution has on the environment and human health. World governments are working to communicate this information to their citizens.
Pollution and its negative contributions to climate change can be seen in the everyday lives of individuals everywhere, from smog in the air to rainforest depletion to the melting of the polar ice caps.
Global citizens must continue soaking in education and taking small steps to do their part in reducing personal use and activities of materials that can result in harm to the environment.
These small steps might take some time to make into habits, but they can prove worth it in the long run.
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