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Issue description & context
Britannica defines pollution as “addition of any substance (solid, liquid, or gas) or any form of energy (such as heat, sound, or radioactivity) to the environment at a rate faster than it can be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form.” General categorization of pollution recognizes air, water, and land pollution. Specific types of pollution include, for instance, noise, light, or radioactive pollution. More recently, a term ‘plastic pollution’ was introduced to name the unmitigated crisis of “accumulation of plastic objects and particles in the Earth’s environment that adversely affects humans, wildlife, and their habitat.” According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), “plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the natural environment that scientists have even suggested it could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era.” When it comes to pollution, it is established that “contaminants can move relatively freely between environmental compartments, from soils to plants and animals, to the atmosphere, and to water bodies and vice versa.”
Interestingly, the use of the term ‘pollution’ in a sense of ‘contamination of the environment’ did not become common in our society until around 1955. Pollution has nevertheless been a problem ever since humans established permanent settlements. Ever since humans started burning coal (around 1000 CE), considerable levels of pollution have been building up in our environment. In Europe during the Middle Ages, pollution levels periodically triggered epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever. A rapid increase of coal consumption during the Industrial Revolution caused air pollution in places like London to spike to unprecedented levels. At its peak in 1891, the concentration levels of air pollutants in London reached 39 times the concentration of 2016. It is estimated that 1-in-350 people died from air pollution induced bronchitis back then.
Today, pollution is known to affect human health in various ways. Air pollution is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular disease as well as cancer. Water pollution is associated with inflammatory reactions and metabolic disorders, cancer, hormone disruption, altered brain function, damage to immune and reproductive systems, cardiovascular and kidney problems as well as a slew of diseases ranging from diarrhea to hepatitis A. From the environmental perspective, various toxins have been concentrating in ecosystems affecting both, fauna and flora, and by extension also the public health. For instance, dissolving of carbon dioxide emissions is known to cause ocean acidification and together with other greenhouse gases also cause global warming.
Despite the evidence of the overall health impacts of pollution, no progress has been made in curbing global pollution levels. In fact, “projections based on a business-as-usual emission scenario indicate that the contribution of outdoor air pollution to premature mortality could double by 2050.” This is largely because our current economic system which sees pollution as an externality – a consequence of economic activity. As such, the market economy has no capacity to solve the problem it is creating.
In his seminal work, “The Cancer Stage of Capitalism”, John McMurtry stated, “It is estimated that the single greatest source of environmental pollution in the US is the military industrial complex.”
Richard Buckminster Fuller view pollution as ”Nothing but resources we're not harvesting.” Fuller stated, “We allow them [the resources] to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value.”
A systems perspective applied by a system thinker Donella Meadows, in her book Thinking in Systems distinguished between nonrenewable and renewable pollution constraints. A pollution constraint is “nonrenewable if the environment has no capacity to absorb the pollutant or make it harmless. It’s renewable if the environment has a finite, usually variable, capacity for removal. “
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause a variety of adverse health outcomes. It increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. Both short and long term exposure to air pollutants have been associated with health impacts. More severe impacts affect people who are already ill. Children, the elderly and poor people are more susceptible. The most health-harmful pollutants – closely associated with excessive premature mortality – are fine PM2.5 particles that penetrate deep into lung passageways.”
A recent study that analyzed the state of chemical pollution paints a disturbing picture. The Guardian writes, “The study concludes that chemical pollution [plastics along with some 350,000 synthetic chemicals] has crossed a “planetary boundary”, the point at which human-made changes to the Earth push it outside the stable environment of the last 10,000 years.”
Deteriorating water quality poses a considerable issue for people as well as ecosystems around the world. A study published in 2019 in Nature lists a lack of sanitation and wastewater treatment, industry and municipal discharge, and agricultural use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals as the main sources of water pollution. The study goes on by stating that “90% of sewage in developing countries is discharged into the water untreated”, while “industry discharges 300 to 400 megatons of waste into the water every year.” Globally, more than 2 million tons of chemicals are used for agricultural purposes. Oil spills and leaks together with fossil fuels mining practices, such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) further degrade the quality of our water bodies. Water pollution leads to low-oxygen dead zones and nutrient pollution which often results in algal blooms. Polluted water also taints food production and causes degradation of fresh-water ecosystems.
It is estimated that “more than 30% of the global biodiversity has been lost because of the degradation of fresh-water ecosystems due to the pollution of water resources and aquatic ecosystems.”
According to the previously mentioned study on chemical pollution “… increases in production and releases of novel entities are not consistent with keeping humanity within the safe operating space, in the light of the global capacity for management.”
Pollution is further associated with a number of environmental effects, such as acid rain, eutrophication, ozone depletion, climate destabilization, and crop and forest damage (reduced growth, susceptibility to disease, pests and other stressors).
According to the World Health Organization, “at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces,” and “contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 485 000 diarrheal deaths each year.”
The WHO estimates that 7 million deaths per year stem from all sources of air pollution. Another study suggests that 8.7 million deaths globally in 2018 were due to the air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health reports that “pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths.”
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