The 10 Most Insidious & Destructive Pollutants

Pollution is often discussed in a general sense, as if it were an abstraction rather than a real and serious problem. This allows people to brush pollution off as something too remote from their own lives to care about.  So let’s get specific. When politicians and activists agitate to stop “pollution”, what, exactly, are they referring to? Here are 10 of the most insidious and destructive pollutants on earth, captured in action!

Untreated sewage

(Images via Bluepeace, Flickr)

As many know, “sewage” is a catch-all term used to describe all manner of human refuse, from waste (feces), used laundry water, decomposed food and the like. The existence of at least some sewage is an unavoidable fact of life. Unfortunately, a problem arises when sewage goes untreated, as it often does in underdeveloped countries and in some cases, developed ones too! Allowed to continue, this can lead to such a horrid reduction in a water body’s oxygen that it can no longer sustain life!

Groundwater  contamination

(Images via FilterWater, Michigan Tech)

According to the EPA, 40% of the US population relies on groundwater (water located beneath the ground in soil pores) for such basic, taken-for-granted things as drinking, cleaning, bathing, and cooking. Sadly, everything from pesticides to chemical solvents to human waste can seep into this vital source of water, spoiling it as it flows from one region to the next and growing all the more polluted along the way. Since roughly 6% of the earth’s water is drinkable (and most of that consists of groundwater), it’s no wonder groundwater contamination is such a hot button environmental issue!

Indoor air pollution

(Image via Go Natural Baby)

Perhaps this picture overstates the point, but indoor air pollution is quickly becoming a serious concern. An eye-opening (and sinus-triggering) Arizona Star Daily investigation uncovered some horrifying facts about in-home pollutants, such as that Arizona is one of the riskiest states in the country for toxic mold (even though mold comes from water) and that common household chemicals have been linked to cancer.

Metal plants

(Image via SaveProgress, SX Kinetics)

There’s no denying the need for metal processing plants in a modern economy. But there are major dangers associated with them: namely the airborne pollutants they spew out, which all too often contaminate growing crops and find their way into waterways.

Urban air pollution

(Images via IDRC, SolcomHouse)

Urban air pollution (often referred to as “smog”) can be broken down into two main  categories: primary pollutants from such sources as power plants and car engines, and secondary pollutants, which are basically the adverse reactions of primary pollutants with oxygen and other things present in the air.  Needless to say, both kinds take a punishing toll on urban areas where the pollutants are present in high concentrations, creating air that is difficult to breathe and extremely unpleasant.

Industrial mining

(Image via Channel 6)

The main danger with industrial mining (pictured above) lies in how all the blown-up chunks of earth and debris are disposed of. This residue often contains significant traces of the chemicals used in mining, which are toxic and harmful. According to ScienceDaily, a 2008 study uncovered a correlation between coal mining and increased risk of lung and cardiovascular disease in Virginia, which is becoming more and more common in mining areas.

Lead/acid battery pollution

(Images via Scientific American, Stephen Leahy)

Lead acid batteries (more commonly known as “car batteries”) have always posed a threat to the environment. Much research has been done on this, and according to Scientific American, studies have revealed a 4-7 point drop in intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) with every 10 microgram per decimeter rise in lead in a contaminated area.

Gold mining

(Images via OXFAM, Friends of the Earth)

Gold mining often comes at a high price to the surrounding environment, as the article “All That Glitters is Not Gold; It May be Cyanide” explains. The title refers to the cyanide-based extraction process often used to leach gold out of ore – a process which unfortunately allows the cyanide to seep into nearby ground and water supplies.

Radioactive waste

(Images via Green Peace)

Radioactive waste is one of the most delicate threats to the environment, as it cannot be “treated” in the way other pollutants can. Rather, the only way to minimize harm from radioactive waste is to safely contain it until it has reached the end of its decay. Whether the waste is high-level (spent fuel from nuclear reactors) or low-level (medical materials) the importance of containing it cannot be overstated. Failure to do so can result in a whole range of consequences, including genetic modification, mental retardation, impairment of cellular growth and even death!

Contaminated surface water

(Image via ABC7)

As if contaminated ground water was not enough, there is a great deal of concern about contaminated surface water. A recent example is July 2007, when the carcinogen Benzene was found in nearby water at a concentration of 600 parts per billion. Allowed to continue, contaminated surface water has the potential to poison the water we all rely on for drinking, bathing, and cooking.

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