Contaminating the Earth

Contaminating the Earth

On the 5th of June each year the world celebrates International Environmental day. This year’s theme  is plastic pollution.  I  covered plastics  for Earth day and so I chose to  cover air and water pollution as I feel it is as relevant.

Air Pollution

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution millions and millions of tons of toxic smoke and waste have entered into the atmosphere and water systems. The discharge of metals is thought to be a very important environmental problem, due to the fact that metals are known to have a significant effect on ecosystems and human health. Compared to other types of environmental pollutants, metals are particularly dangerous because of their pervasiveness and tenacity. One of the most important pollutant carriers in the atmosphere is particulate matter (PM). Particulate matter stems mainly from human sources, such as coal-based power generation and industrial processes (e.g., heat generation, iron industry, coal coking, smelting), transport and re-suspension processes from urban surfaces. Three types of PM sources can be defined: i) long-distance sources (e.g., particles transported by wind); ii) short-distance sources (e.g., re-suspension of road deposited sediments); and iii) traffic related sources and other general sources with low effects. Although efforts have been made to lower industrial emissions, this issue continues with small combustion utilities, e.g., domestic sources. These sources are important, particularly during winter, due to a variety of fuels being used and are hard to control. These air pollutants have caused many health issues such as:

  • Aggravated respiratory disease like emphysema, bronchitis and asthma.
  • Lung damage, even after symptoms like coughing or a sore throat have disappeared
  • Wheezing, chest pain, dry throat, headache or nausea.
  • Reduced resistance to infections.
  • Increased tiredness.
  • Weak athletic strength.


Air pollution is an issue for most of the developing world and is believed to kill more people globally than AIDS, malaria, breast cancer, or tuberculosis. Airborne (PM) is especially harmful to health and has previously been estimated to cause between 3 and 7 million deaths per annum, primarily by generating or worsening cardio respiratory disease. The main sources once again are electric power plants, industrial facilities, automobiles, biomass burning, and fossil fuels used in homes and factories for heating. In China, air pollution was previously estimated to contribute to 1.2 to 2 million deaths annually.


Petrol refinery located near a wetland in the area that I live operates 24 hours a day pumping out toxic smoke pollution



Water Pollution

Industrialization has harmed the environment by putting more and more concentrations of a number of metals into our water ecosystems. The heavy metals like Lead (Pb) and Mercury (Hg) cause severe toxicity. At present, the pollution has escalated into a serious threat, and has brought hazards to the growing human population as well as the earth and environment. The rapid increase of urbanization and industrialization has led to increased discharge of pollutants like heavy metals, radio nuclides, and various types of organic and inorganic substances into the earth’s ecosystems. Death in aquatic animals may occur due to nutrient pollutions (e.g., nitrogen, phosphates, etc.) present in the toxic algae. The frog biodiversity and tadpole mass worldwide has been declined by chemical pollution. The oil pollution (as chemical pollution) can negatively affect the development of marine organisms.


It enhances the susceptibility to diseases and also affects the reproduction systems. This was documented recently in Blue Planet II, where the female dolphins and whales milk is being contaminated by the chemicals leaching out of the plastic which is finding its way to the ocean. It can also cause gastro-intestinal irritation, and damage to liver, kidney and nervous system. The mortality rates of aquatic animals can also be due to the high level of sodium chloride (NaCl) in waters. The manufacturing, agriculture, city septic systems, construction, automotive garages, laboratories, hospitals and other industries by products are incredibly toxic. These by-products may be in different forms like liquid, solid or sludge which can contain chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, pathogens or other toxic materials. The items like batteries, used computer equipment and leftover paints or pesticides can also produce toxins. If these wastes are buried in the ground, or present in the stream runoff, in groundwater for drinking water, or in floodwaters, they are harmful to humans, animals as well as plants. The toxic metals like mercury (Hg) accumulate in the aquatic system, and can be toxic to humans or animals when they eat fish.


Most water entering the ocean from rivers or storm drains is contaminated

Freshwater ecosystems are hotspots for biodiversity and, along with this, may well be the most impacted and endangered ecosystems globally. They are thought to go through higher species extinction rates than marine or terrestrial systems. Since human activities and settlements have always been centred around freshwater: we acquire water to drink, clean, use it for gardens and agriculture, fishing and recreation, but also for navigation, hydroelectric power generation and waste disposal. The pressures causing ecological deterioration in general are well known and include the channelization of rivers, damming, dredging for shipping, climate change, introduction of alien species, fishing, clearing of natural vegetation in the riparian zone, nutrient input leading to eutrophication (which is a build-up of nutrients in a water body), heavy metals, pesticides, industrial chemicals and emerging contaminants. Micro pollutants, normally occur at very low concentrations, which gives them their name, and enter surface waters through atmospheric deposition, polluted rainwater from roofs and sealed areas, untreated and treated wastewater as well as other spread sources such as field run-off carrying pesticides. In Europe, wastewater is typically only released after mechanical and biological treatment in conventional Waste Water Treatment Plants (WWTPs). However, conventional WWTPs were primarily designed to remove pathogens, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. Although they also biodegrade many micro pollutants, persistent polar organic compounds, including pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, hormones, and other industrial chemicals are often not completely removed. Subsequently these are discharged to surface waters with the effluent. The release of micro pollutants can be aggravate when untreated wastewater is discharged after heavy rain leading to overflow of WWTPs with mixed sewage, i.e. collecting household wastewater and surface run-off. Thus, WWTPs are considered a extensive input path for micro pollutants into streams and rivers.

Storm drain with contaminated water spilling out





Fecal contamination of coastal waters is a serious environmental issue, especially for recreational beaches where human health may be in jeopardy. As increased fecal indicator bacteria levels have been linked with an increased human risk of illness. E. coli and enterococci are also likely to persist and regrow in sediment after being released into the environment. Enterococci have been designated as fecal indicator bacteria in both marine and fresh recreational waters as they are directly linked with gastrointestinal sickness rates in swimmers who come into contact with contaminated waters. Fecal pollution is the leading reason behind  beach closures in coastal regions of the United States of America

Bioaccumulation and Biomarkers


Bioaccumulation refers to the build-up of the concentration of chemicals like pesticides in animals which live in environments that are contaminated by a variety of organic compounds. These compounds may not break down or biodegrade, which means the rate of absorption and storage is greater than their rate of excretion. The chemicals are mainly stored in the fatty tissue of the animal. The amount of chemicals and their volume increase as they rise in the food chain. Some animals are more sensitive to disturbances in their ecosystem than others, frogs for instance will be the first to leave an ecosystem if and when it is contaminated by a foreign chemical. There are also special tests which can be done to find out how much chemical storage an animal has in its body.

What can you do to lessen your Footprint?

We can see in the news from time to time that governments are trying to find new ways to cut down on pollution by passing bills and signing international agreements to reduce emissions. These processes may help in the long term but more needs to be done  at ground level by you and me to lessen our impact on the natural environment. Let’s look at some ways this can be achieved.

If and when possible rather use public transport. Even better is if you can walk or ride a bicycle to your destination, its less carbon monoxide being released and you’re getting some exercise, leave the car in the garage!

Use earth friendly soaps and washing detergents.

Keep track of the amount of fossil fuels that you use and limit it to small amounts.

Use organic earth friendly pesticides for around your home. This includes fertilizers and herbicides.

If or when you are getting rid of old medicine/ tablets, don’t just throw them down the toilet or drain. Rather take them to your nearest pharmacy and they will dispose of it in the right way.

When going to the shops take bags with you. This helps in two ways:

  •   less plastic bag will be made which means less air pollution from factories.
  •   there will be less plastic bags entering the ocean. In the same breathe try avoid single use plastics altogether for the  above reasons.

Plant a tree in your garden if you don’t have one or two already.  This absorbs carbon dioxide.

Recycle the plastic you do use, recycle  old clothing, appliances and other items you don’t use anymore, by donating them to a needy person.

Do litter clean ups around your neighborhood.  Cape Town has their own Beach clean up organisation.

Take home message

It may take years or even decades for water and air pollution to disappear, and that’s not even considering the plastic pollution which is chocking our oceans. A number of people may think that one person’s contribution whether positive or negative will not change anything but it does make a difference. If one person can make a difference then think of what 7 BILLION people can do.  If each and every one of us starts having a more sustainable lifestyle, the air we breathe and the water we drink may become a little cleaner and a little purer.



Air Quality Information for the Sacramento Region Sacramento Metropolitan, El Dorado,Feather River, Placer and Yolo-Solano Air Districts (2018) 25 May

Berger, E., Haase, P., Kuemmerlen, M., Leps, M., Bernhard, R. & Sundermann, A. 2017. Water quality variables and pollution sources shaping stream macroinvertebrate communities. Science of the Total Environment,(587 – 588): 1 – 10

Francova, A., Chrastný, V., Sillerov, H., Vítkov, M., Kom, M. & Kocourkov, J. 2016. Evaluating the suitability of different environmental samples for tracing atmospheric pollution in industrial areas. Environmental Pollution (220): 286 – 297

Govind, P. & Madhuri, S. 2014. Heavy Metals Causing Toxicity in Animals and Fishes. , 2(2): 17–23.

Oxford dictionary of Biology. 2008. Oxford Press Great Clarendon Street, Oxford.

Rohde, R.A. & Muller, R.A. 2015. Air Pollution in China : Mapping of Concentrations and Sources. Research Journal of Animal, Veterinary and Fishery Sciences, (2): 17–23.

Walker, C.H., Hopkin, S. P., Sibly, R.M., Peakall, D,B.2006. Principles of Ecotoxicology. Florida: CRC Press, Taylor & Francois Group.

Xue, J., Feng, Y., Wijesinghe, R.U. & Wood, C.W. 2018. Using Bacteroidales genetic markers to assess fecal pollution sources in coastal waters. Water and Environment Journal, (32): 84–93.

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