19 types of pollution you might encounter every day that could hurt your health, from radioactive toxins to cancer-causing chemicals
- Humans pollute the air, land, and sea by burning fossil fuels, overusing chemicals and pesticides, and creating sewage run-off.
- The health consequences of that pollution are clear: Air pollution causes some 8.8 million deaths annually worldwide.
- Marine animals that ingest microplastics and methylmercury also pass along these toxic pollutants to the people who consume them.
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When we think of pollution, oil spills, litter, and smog often come to mind. But there are other, less obvious pollutants that people spread all the time. Here are 17 different types of pollution that impact the environment - and human health - every day.
When we think of pollution, images of cars, factories, and power plants spewing dark plumes typically come to mind. That's air pollution, essentially, and it's mostly made up of carbon dioxide and methane.
Factories and gas-powered vehicles also produce other air pollutants like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrocarbons. These chemicals can react with sunlight to create smog.
Sometimes those nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide chemicals can react with the moisture in the atmosphere and change into acids. That water-chemical mixture then returns to Earth as acid rain.
Another air pollutant is called chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), a type of chemical used in foam products, aerosol cans, and refrigerator coolants.
But not all ozone is "good." While atmospheric ozone protects the Earth from radiation, ozone that forms at ground level is harmful to human health.
Exposure to polluted air in general can trigger asthma, change the way children's brains develop, and make older adults more likely to succumb to cognitive decline.
Researchers recently calculated that air pollution contributes to an estimated 8.8 million extra deaths globally every year — nearly double previous estimates.
In addition to greenhouse gases, human activity also creates light pollution.
Global light pollution is so bad that more than one-third of humanity can't see the Milky Way — ever.
Another subtle form of pollution that you might not think much about is noise pollution.
A 2011 report found that at least 1 million healthy years of life are lost each year in Europe due to noise pollution.
And then there's the solid waste that humans create.
Landfills leak harmful pollutants like methane into the air and leachate into nearby soil and groundwater.
Humans have been dumping an unprecedented amount of plastic into the ocean, too. On average, 8.8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year.
These plastics accumulate in polluted patches of the ocean like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Some plastics take hundreds of years to break down. Even then, they just splinter into very small pieces called microplastics, which will likely never biodegrade.
Oil spills from tankers and off-shore drilling also pollute the ocean.
While oil spills are unintended forms of pollution, humans have intentionally dumped toxic chemicals like methylmercury into the water, too.
Other toxic pollutants come in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides that are used for ranching or farming and can accumulate in soil.
Sometimes, those chemicals can move from the soil to a major water source via run-off.
When humans log an area, the absence of trees leads to even more run-off.
Pollutants from farms, septic systems, and industrial sites can also leach into the ground water we drink.
Industrial manufacturing and mining operations are a primary source of groundwater pollution. Often, industrial waste contaminates the water with arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium 6 — all known carcinogens.
Radioactive waste is yet another form of pollution that has devastating health effects on humans and wildlife.
The Chernobyl disaster, for example, contaminated vast areas of Europe and Eurasia, and the wildlife living in the area.
Exposure to high amounts of radioactive material like cesium is detrimental to humans. Cesium can cause radiation sickness, which includes nausea and vomiting in the short-term and sometimes death in the following days or weeks.
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