As our global population continues to grow, the world must manage an ever-growing amount of pollution, particularly as more and more people decide to live in energy-dependent urban areas. Reducing and managing fossil fuel emissions, chemical runoff, and solid waste on land, air, and water is necessary for the health of humans and the ecosystem.
Pollution in the Air, Water, and Land
- Air pollution: Burning fossil fuels result in different types of pollutants that cloud our air including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Pollutants are emitted from vehicles, factories, power plants, indoor cookstoves, and wherever fossil fuels are burned. Air pollution endangers human health and the health of ecosystems. Only 1% of the world’s population is living in areas that meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for air quality.
- Water pollution: One of the chief culprits of water pollution is the runoff of harmful chemicals from farms and industries. These chemicals wash into waterways, making the water unfit for human consumption and toxic to marine ecosystems. In less developed countries, waterways are also contaminated with billions of liters of untreated wastewater each day. Solid waste also pollutes marine ecosystems. Annually, about 100 million marine animals and 1 million birds die from ingesting and choking on plastic.
- Land pollution: Activities such as overuse of fertilizers in farming and mining using hazardous chemicals degrade and acidify surrounding soils, creating an inhospitable environment for agriculture and wildlife habitat. Almost all topsoil, 90% is at risk for degradation by 2050. The solid waste generated from human consumption, especially one-time-use plastics, accumulates on both land and in the oceans, spreading harmful chemicals throughout. Half of the plastic we produce each year comes from items that are used once and then thrown away.
Greenhouse gas pollution is the main driver of global climate change, a force that is disturbing the balance of the natural world. The burning of fossil fuels to meet energy demands and support other human activities releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases trap heat, leading to warmer temperatures, sea level rise, more extreme weather events, and ocean acidification. Droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves are forcing people from their homes and livelihoods. Land and water habitats are changing rapidly, making them inhospitable for some native species and giving way to invasive species.
Humans and Wildlife Health
Pollution directly affects the health of both humans and wildlife. Often as a result of sewage and industrial waste, 2.2 billion people globally do not have access to safely-managed drinking water services, and 4.2 billion do not have safely-managed sanitation services, putting them at risk for a host of diseases. Harmful particles released into the air from industrial and transportation emissions can damage the respiratory, immune, endocrine, reproductive, and nervous systems. Prolonged exposure to some toxic chemicals can harm an organism’s DNA or lead to cancer. Pesticide misuse has decimated the populations of bees and other pollinators by contaminating their food sources and destroying their habitats. Human activities produce light and noise pollution, which affects animal communication, and navigation, and even prevents some species from feeding and breeding normally.
Pollution affects entire ecosystems around the world. Agricultural pesticides and other nutrients run off into marine ecosystems, resulting in unfettered algae growth that depletes oxygen levels in the surrounding waters and may kill aquatic life in the area. Acidification from pollution and climate change can heat up ocean waters, destroying coral reefs and threatening the entire marine ecosystems they support. Soil acidification, caused by acid rain and chemicals from agriculture and waste, destroys the microbes that are crucial for soil health, which in turn affects plants and trees that form the base of working ecosystems. Noise pollution is weakening and killing off species like whales that shuttle nutrients and perform vital ecosystem services where they live, resulting in cascading effects that can destroy whole ecological networks.