Imagine that you’re sitting in your elementary school classroom. The bell rings for recess and your teacher takes your class out to the playground. You and your friends spend thirty minutes running around, swinging, sliding, and having carefree fun. Now, imagine that your playground is actually a landfill. Instead of slides there are old tires, old soda bottles replace swings, and there is a funny smelling stream of water running through your play area.
This sounds a lot less fun right? Well the unfortunate reality is that because of increasing pollution, many children live much closer to landfills than playgrounds or fields. As a result, these children are exposed to toxic chemicals which can cause negative health effects.
Simply put, pollution is the introduction of something that causes harm to the natural environment. This can include gases in the air, chemicals in water supplies, and excess trash in the landscape. The major forms of pollution that affect human health are air, land, and water pollution.
How it works
Living in a polluted environment can cause devastating effects on a person’s health. When humans are exposed to pollution in any form, their bodies absorb toxic chemicals which damage the body’s major organ systems. According to the World Bank, 16% of global deaths can be linked to air, land, and water pollution. That’s 9 million premature deaths annually! This is no surprise given that 91% of people worldwide live in areas where air pollution exceeds healthy limits. The estimated cost of health damage due to air pollution alone is 5.7 trillion dollars, or 4.8% of the world’s GDP.
Air pollution can be inside the home or outdoors. 40% of the world’s population relies on burning wood inside their homes for energy, which causes indoor pollution. Outdoor air pollution, on the other hand, is primarily caused by industry, agriculture, and energy production. Both types of air pollution release harmful chemicals into the air such as volatile organic compounds, methane, and carbon monoxide. These chemicals enter the bloodstream when a person breathes, and can cause damage to the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems if exposed for a long period of time.
Similarly, being exposed to the chemicals in waste sites and landfills has devastating health effects. Proximity to a waste site has been linked to cancer, heart defects, respiratory damage, and premature birth. Those who live near a waste site are 34% more likely to die of lung cancer, 30% more likely to die of respiratory disease, and 12% more likely to have developmental defects than those who live far from landfills.
Water pollution, likewise, has major effects on health. 2.2 billion people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water. As a result, around 300,000 children under the age of five die from diseases linked to poorly sanitized water each year. Even in countries with access to clean water, pollution from industry and agriculture still pose a threat to human health. Common pollutants include lead, arsenic, and pesticides. Lead can cause developmental defects in children, arsenic can cause cancer, and pesticides have been linked to neurodevelopmental defects and Parkinson’s disease.
Despite negative health, environmental, and economic effects, pollution is still on the rise. Many middle and low income countries are in the process of industrialization, which means that they are manufacturing more goods that produce pollution. Even in countries that have already industrialized like the U.S., pollution continues to increase to meet the demands of the population.
The negative impacts of pollution disproportionately affect historically oppressed groups. In the United States, communities of color are exposed to 28% more pollution than white communities. Predominantly Black communities, in particular, are exposed to 54% more pollution than predominantly white communities. This is an issue not just within, but across nations. Corporations in the US and Europe have outsourced production to low and middle income countries that have fewer environmental regulations to attract lucrative industries. As a result, these smaller, poorer countries become more polluted, while richer countries profit. These countries often have worse health care infrastructure, which only exacerbates the health threat posed by pollution.
It is imperative that we do everything that we can to reduce the amount we pollute. On an individual level, you can try to limit your use of single use plastics which will reduce the amount of pollution you produce over time. You can also organize with other students at your school to encourage the administration to adopt waste-reduction strategies. The most important changes, however, must happen through government action. Contacting your representatives and stressing the importance of strong anti-pollution legislation that targets large corporations is something that you can do to help make the changes needed to reduce pollution.