Everyone is aware that pollution is a virtually inevitable consequence of human interaction with the natural world. While most people probably imagine coal-powered plants belching out black smoke or other forms of exhaust when they hear the word "pollution," the word actually refers to the introduction of any rogue element to the natural environment resulting from people's activities. If you walk through an otherwise placid forest screaming the lyrics to the heavy-metal song that's coursing into your head through your earbuds, that is a form of noise pollution, and it might be detrimental to communities of animals you don't even know are nearby.
Much public discourse centers on how to stop or lessen the amount of pollution reaching Earth's air, water and soils, making cleaning up after humanity less burdensome. This is a major part of bettering the planet, of course, but what about ways to lower the amount of harm done by pollutants that are inevitable to some extent, or that already exist in the ecosystem and can't be easily cleaned up in a single energetic effort? How might you go about personally avoiding the damaging health effects of toxins in the atmosphere and water supply?
How to Reduce Air Pollution
In the early part of the 21st century, air pollution claimed the majority of the public's attention in terms of hazards to the environment owing to the roiling debate over what to do about global warming, more broadly called climate change. Nowadays, virtually no honest and informed person disputes the validity of scientific research connecting human activities since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s to warmer average temperatures the world over since that time, with most of the rise occurring more recently. The real debate is not "Is human-caused climate change real?" but "Can anything be done to slow or stop it, and if so, what will this take?"
Not all of the damaging effects of air pollution, however, center on the greenhouse gases (mostly carbon dioxide, or CO2) that are in part responsible for climate change. Particulate matter can cause or exacerbate respiratory ailments such as asthma. These pollutants can also damage plant life.
You can take a number of everyday steps to reduce the effects of air pollution, such as these:
- Conserve energy – at home, at work and everywhere you do.
- Look for the ENERGY STAR label when buying home or office equipment.
- Carpool, use public transportation (electric and hybrid buses are increasingly common in U.S. cities) and commute to work on foot or using a bicycle.
- Closely follow gasoline refueling instructions for efficient vapor recovery, being careful not to spill fuel and always tightening your gas cap securely.
- Purchase portable, spill-proof gasoline containers.
- Keep car, boat and other vehicle engines tuned.
- Always be sure your tires are inflated to the right pressure, boosting gas mileage.
- Use environmentally safe paints and cleaning products, which are easy to find nowadays.
- Mulch or compost plant waste and raked leaves.
- Use gas logs instead of wood, cutting down on creosote emissions.
How to Limit the Effects of Water Pollution
In 2008, the U.S. State Department undertook a 10-year plan in cooperation with China aimed at achieving cleaner water around the world. The three major areas of focus were water-quality management, the provision of safe drinking water and the prevention and control of pollution from agriculture and rural areas through run-off containing known contaminants. China and the U.S. are the world's two largest sources of pollution among individual nations.
The first five years were devoted to the development of core water-management programs, such as water-permitting systems, the implementation of water-quality standards, and quality-monitoring recommendations. The next two years featured supplementary water-management programs, such as total maximum daily loads and water-quality trading. The successful implementation of permitting programs, monitoring programs and water-quality standards were prerequisites for the implementation of these management programs. The final three years were dedicated to the continued implementation of additional monitoring and evaluation systems and pollution control through the use of emerging as well as existing technologies.
On an individual and family scale, it is possible to make use of some of the same principles. Home water-testing kits are available to assess your drinking water, whether it comes from a public reservoir or a well. Be sure to report anomalies in the area of metals and ions such as chlorine. Be careful to not waste water through frivolous means, such as leaving sprinklers running when rain is anticipated or has very recently fallen. A smaller burden on municipal treatment and sewage-disposal systems is vital for ensuring the availability of clean water – an indispensable element of good health – for everyone.
How Can Soil, Water and Air Pollution Be Prevented?
Soil, air and water might be considered the three fundamental environmental needs upon which modern life, or any life, relies most prominently. Clean air is required for optimal respiratory and cardiovascular health, and for a generally pleasant everyday outdoor experience. Clean drinking water is perhaps even more vital as toxins in the water can be deadly in various ways, either building up in the system over time (as with lead or other chemical agents) or causing disease and even death in the short term (as with microbial ailments such as dysentery and cholera). Soil pollution, and the related problem of soil erosion, gets less attention than the other forms of environmental degradation, but soil arguably plays just as critical a role as air and water. It is a vital source of carbon and needed to feed the world's people, a major consideration given that the world's population is expected to grow from 7 billion almost two decades into the 21st century to 9 billion by the year 2050.
Soil pollution is an example of how pollution in one form leads to issues in another. The climate change engendered in part by air pollution contributes to increased levels of soil erosion owing to drier conditions. Topsoil losses as a result of erosion cost farmers billions of dollars a year worldwide.
The three greatest threats to soil in developed countries are erosion by wind and rain, leading to a loss of water quality and aquatic ecosystems; the compaction of soil, which reduces agricultural productivity and water infiltration; and organic matter decline, which reduces soil quality and affects the supply of nutrients, making it harder for plants to grow.
How to Reduce Particulates
Particle pollution, often called particulate matter (PM) in environmental-science parlance, consists of tiny pieces of solids or liquids floating in the air. These particles include dust, dirt, soot, smoke and droplets of liquid. Primary sources of PM cause particle pollution on their own, whereas secondary sources emit gases that then form particles. Wood stoves and forest fires are examples of primary sources, while power plants and coal fires are examples of secondary sources.
PM can cause eye, lung and throat irritation, trouble breathing, lung cancer and low birth weight. To lessen damage from particulates, spend more time indoors when air quality is bad, especially if you are older, have a chronic respiratory ailment or both. Also, avoid busy roads and highways, where PM density is higher.
How Does Ground-Level Ozone Form?
Ground-level ("bad") ozone is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. Emissions from industrial plants and electricity providers, vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of ground-level ozone's constituents. This ozone can cause health problems in people who already have lung diseases, such as asthma, and can harm vegetation as well.
Regulations established by the government aim to reduce pollutants that generate "bad" ozone. These include vehicle and transportation standards as well as rules concerning regional haze and visibility.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Actions You Can Take to Reduce Air Pollution
- U.S. Department of State: Clean Water Action Plan
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Safeguarding Our Soils: A Strategy for England
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Particle Pollution
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Ozone Pollution
About the Author
Kevin Beck holds a bachelor's degree in physics with minors in math and chemistry from the University of Vermont. Formerly with ScienceBlogs.com and the editor of "Run Strong," he has written for Runner's World, Men's Fitness, Competitor, and a variety of other publications. More about Kevin and links to his professional work can be found at www.kemibe.com.