Pollution Review

pollution picture showing smoke from a smokestack

Air and water quality issues often organize the types of pollution problems people around the United States deal with on a daily basis. From a practical, problem solving perspective, most pollution discussions focus on two separate but interrelated questions:

  • What is the source of the pollution?
  • What types of pollution comes from those sources?

Types of Pollution

Identifying the types of pollution posing harm to people and communities can be as easy as testing samples of air, soil and water for chemicals such as carbon dioxide or mercury. Identifying the source of the pollution can be more difficult, depending on the pollutant in question because air and water, along with the pollutants they carry, naturally move across boundaries.

The following review divides between air pollution and water pollution issues.

Air Pollution

When people think air pollution, often indoor air pollution immediately comes to mind. Keeping dust and other particles out of the air provides a sure fire way to keep down common colds and other ailments.

Air pollution issues around the community often deal with the presence of basic smokestack industries, the amount of traffic in the area and other similar factors. This brief review focuses on the subject of ozone, the combination of three oxygen molecules ( O3), and how its presence influences fifty years of air pollution conversation across the United States.

What is Smog?

Most people rightly associate ozone with smog, a term first used by H.A. Des Voex in 1905, described the foggy conditions in urban areas resulting from the sulfur dioxide emissions coming from the newly created smokestacks of the industrial revolution.

Today's urban smog problems, primarily photochemical smog, result when sunlight breaks down chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) into their constituent parts. Once broken down, the now free oxygen molecules can link up with the oxygen in the air (O2) and create ozone O3, a variation of oxygen, with one additional oxygen molecule attached to it. While VOCs and NOx occur naturally, anthropogenic (human initiated) sources remain the focal point of policy analysis.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), a group of chemical compounds, share some common characteristics. First, the organic designation means that the compound is almost always composed of carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) molecules. Volatility refers to the evaporative quality of the compound. Anyone pumping their own gasoline and immediately notices the smell of gas experiences a quick lesson regarding gasoline's high degree of volatility.

Motor vehicle emissions represent the primary source of VOC emissions. However, evaporation of gasoline, solvents, oil-based paints, and hydrocarbons from the petrochemical industry are also significant sources. NOx result from the combustion of fossil fuels such as oil and gas, with motor vehicles the primary primary source, followed by fuel burning in homes, businesses, factories and power plants.

Ozone Hole and Ozone Depletion

The ozone hole, another familiar phrase, refers to ozone depletion (the chemically induced breakup of O3 in the stratosphere, the area of the atmosphere about six miles above the earth. Ozone holes refers to specific geographical areas on earth that have a thin or thinning layer of ozone above them in the stratosphere.

Scientists began investigating the effects of man-made chemicals such as Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer. They hypothesized that CFC interaction with O3 resulted in the loss of an oxygen molecule, changing O3 to O2. Reducing the amount of stratospheric O3 allowed more of the sun's ultraviolet radiation (UV-B) to reach earth, consequently increasing the possibility of skin cancer and other dangers to human health.

By the middle of the 1980s states around the world agreed to regulate the use of ozone depleting chemicals and codified that agreement in the form of multilateral treaties. The Ozone Secretariat is the formal body for coordinating state activity and implementing the treaties.

Outdoor Recreation and Travel

Many of our National Parks, including the Grand Canyon, suffer from severe visibility problems, due in great part to pollution in the form of smog and haze. Little disagreement exists about park popularity causing park visibility problems. People drive to parks and emissions contribute to smog. Outdoor recreation enthusiasts, working with transportation policy makers continue to address these issues one step at a time. For example, once automobiles were free to roam all the park roads. Currently visitors are permitted to drive private automobiles through the East Rim (SR 64). However, the average visitor, the South Rim tourist, must use one of the natural gas powered or regular buses to visit the vistas.

Future park transportation policy may shift to requiring all natural gas powered busses and/or a total ban on private automobile use. In fact, the idea of exchanging private for public transportation systems within U.S. National Parks is gaining more acceptance. For example, in May of 2000, Zion National Park, in Utah, introduced its own bus system that includes transportation of visitors to and from nearby towns.

Water Pollution

Health issues often ranks as the most important factor in individual attitudes about water quality issues.

Often the health issues associated with water pollution problems are localized, as the three examples of the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico show. A quick read through the examples also shows the importance individuals place on water quality and outdoor recreation and travel activities.

Great Lakes

Recent examples of water pollution start with reports of lead in the Flint, MI drinking water. Scan more recent headlines and discover reports of a harmful blue-green algal bloom in Lake Erie closing down Toledo's water system. In fact, communities around the Great Lakes consistently deal with algal blooms.

Cyanobacteria, a photosynthetic bacteria, cause concern because they can pollute the local drinking water systems .Communities along Lake Erie and Lake Ontario sometimes experience high numbers of bloom incidents. They also show up around Lake Sinclair, Saginaw and Green Bay, among other areas.

Area residents experienced a similar situation in the early 1970s, and they instituted a series of measures to deal with the problem such as removing phosphates from laundry detergents and reducing phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment facilities. Agriculture run off continues to contribute to the problem.

Gulf of Mexico

Further south, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, the largest in the United States, also results from agriculture run off from the farm belt around the Mississippi River. First discovered 1972, it remains because the natural causes that trigger its arrival remain in place. The economics of dead zones remain uncertain. Coastal communities dependent on their offshore waters for outdoor recreation face some stress because of the loss of ocean animals associated with dead zone areas. Some loss might be mitigated as animal communities migrate away from dead zone areas.

Chesapeake Bay

picture of a sea shell

Photo: Sea Shell on Beach Credit: Gratography - Sea Shells

Along the East coast, water quality along the Chesapeake Bay receives similar attention. Since 1983, The Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders has worked on bay restoration issues. They focus on three broad areas that commonly define ecosystem health.

  • Water Quality
  • Underwater Habitat
  • Fish and Shellfish

Water quality refers to many factors such as toxins and/or sediment that reach the bay from its tributaries and the bay's oxygen levels. The underwater habitat category refers to the lower level animal and plant life that provide a foundation for most of the bay's fish and wildlife. Bay grasses, for example, provide food and shelter for many of the bay's aquatic and terrestrial residents and visitors such as crabs and shorebirds. Populations of fish and shellfish get monitored.

Point source water pollution problems close to the Chesapeake Bay can sometimes be easy to identify and fix. The case of the James River Ghost Fleet supports the claim. It was part of the the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) and in the post-WWII era, the number of ships anchored in the James River, just north of Newport News and Norfolk numbered in hundreds. Environmental concerns about the possibility of lead, asbestos and PCBs leaking into the water began to receive attention in 2001. Legislation followed, with funding to support ship disposal.

Oil Spills

The visible harm caused by oil spills makes for compelling media coverage during the initial spill and clean-up phase. In the United States, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the more recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill remained headline news for months.

Today, reports of their long term environmental impacts receive occasional attention. Research covering the environmental effects of two additional oil spills, the Amoco Cadiz oil spill and the Prestige oil spill provide, provides a good comparative foundation for thinking about the topic.

On March 16, 1978, the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz got caught in a storm off the coast of Brittany, France, at the southern end of the English Channel. It ran aground and in a week's time, the tanker split in two. The entire cargo of 1,619,048 barrels of oil (220,000 tons) spilled into the sea.

Approximately one-third of the spilled oil evaporated, one-third washed up along the coast and one-third was either recovered or sank to the bottom of the sea.

Amoco Cadiz oil spill research highlights both short and long term ecological problems. Large oils spills can cause considerable damage, depending on the time of the spill and the area affected. An article in BirdLife suggested that bird mortality was in the 20,000 range, ranking it among the highest rates recorded along European coast. In context, the numbers are relatively small compared to the estimated 375,000 and 435,000 birds killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

High mortality levels among inter-tidal animals such as limpets, sea urchins and clams were also reported. Along with the harm caused by the oil, clean-up activity affected the salt marsh areas of the Brittany coast, with recovery time estimated to be in the five year range. Benthic organisms in the spill area were reported affected some ten years after the spill.

On November 13, 2002, the oil tanker tanker Prestige sunk off the coast of Northwest Spain, spilling 64,000 tons of oil that affected French and Spanish coastal regions. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published a study on the spill's short term ecological consequences, noting a decrease in the population of inter-tidal animals and fishery production for the region. Additional research showed high concentrations of heavy metals in the affected coastal wetlands.

High seabird mortality rates, common with major oil spills, were also documented. Approximately 20,000 birds died as a result of the spill, and pathological studies conducted after the fact showed dehydration and exhaustion as the primary mortality factors.

© 2011-2017 Patricia A. Michaels