The World Today
Earth has three main components: the air we breathe, the land we live on, and the water that nourishes us. All of them have been affected by pollution, but there are ways to minimize future damage.
It's in the Air
Although the complex mechanics of air quality were not understood until recently, air quality has been an issue dating back to medieval times, when coal-burning furnaces choked peoples' lungs. In recent decades, the quality of the outside air arose as a concern, but now indoor air pollution is becoming more of a problem as well.
The world's largest stationary air polluters are power plants, followed by factories, dry cleaners, and degreasing operations used to clean metal equipment and machine parts. Add to that mobile sources of air pollution such as cars, buses, planes, and trains. Some air pollutants impact local conditions, and others travel upward and then float on air currents until they settle elsewhere. Individually, people can alter their driving habits and become involved politically to maintain or improve the air quality in their town, city, or state.
The U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, followed by amendments and complementary legislation in the following years and decades. The goal was to lower air pollution by reducing emissions of many common pollutants. Industries and corporations had to meet set standards for their own operations and products. Individual states have their own regulations aimed at curtailing pollution within their borders.
The Foundation for Clean Air Progress estimates that it would take 20 modern cars to produce the same amount of pollution as one car from the 1960s. This improvement, along with reduced air emissions from factories and power plants, is reflected by the decrease in the number of poor-air-quality days in many metropolitan areas.
Indoor air pollution is a concern in many households. From formaldehyde in furniture to dangerous chemicals in fragrances and even hazardous radon in building materials, indoor air quality can't be taken for granted anymore. Some commercial cleaners and pesticides have harmful chemicals that contribute to indoor air pollution as well.
Armed with information, people can choose to make changes in the way they live, the way they furnish their houses, and in other activities that potentially impact the air quality they breathe in every day. To help lower indoor air pollution levels, consider the products you use before you buy them and make sure your home is well ventilated.
It's easy to take soil for granted, but dirt is definitely more than a reason to run the vacuum. It sustains life both on the surface and below ground. Soil controls the flow of water over land, filters chemicals, and stores nutrients. It supports the structures that people live and work in. When the soil is neglected, the life that depends on it is damaged as well.
Soil is the outermost layer of the planet. In a way, it functions as the planet's skin, a protective layer. It's made from rocks, plants, and animals that have decayed over hundreds of years — just one inch of topsoil takes up to 500 years to form. Beneath the surface, a complex ecosystem comprised of minerals, water, air, fungi, bacteria, and plant material works together.
Earthworms are essential to soil health. Living at different depths underground, these animals digest organic matter like plant litter, leaving behind casts that become a vital part of the soil.
Contamination from human activities weighs heavily on the soil. Industrial impacts include unremediated chemical spills, pesticide contamination from agricultural practices, and runoff from livestock farms with cattle operations. Also devastating are mining activities that alter the surface and subsurface.
Not only are the ecosystems living in the soil destroyed, but drainage patterns on the surface are distorted and waste products from mines often degrade the quality of the soil and even nearby water bodies. Even old unlined landfills can leach liquids into the ground, contaminating groundwater as well as soil. Erosion also impacts the soil. When the uppermost layer of soil detaches, it takes with it nutrients and composition needed to sustain plants and structures.
Strides are being made in protecting the soil. As people become more aware of their individual impacts on the planet and more industries are held accountable, improvements in protection are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Industries that work with hazardous chemicals and other materials can take advantage of plant designs and barrier systems that are intended to prevent accidental spills from contaminating nearby soil and water. Agricultural techniques, such as leaving plant materials from previous harvests on the field, help reduce erosion and improve soil quality.
Deep in the Ocean
The world's oceans are home to some of the largest, smallest, and most diverse animal populations on the planet. They are majestic environments that hold unknown mysteries humans are only beginning to discover.
In 1943, French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau partnered with Emile Gagnan to develop the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or SCUBA. This invention allowed divers all over the world to observe underwater beauty and gain an understanding of its complexities. His television show, The Underworld Sea of Jacques Cousteau, ran from 1968 through 1976 and introduced this fragile world to the masses.
Humans impact the oceans through destructive fishing practices, ocean dumping, and industrial discharge to the air and the water. Because so many countries share ocean coastlines, it's not always easy coming to a consensus on the best way to protect them, or even on defining what exactly needs protecting. One country may see harvesting sea life as a necessity while others watch on in disgust. Marine mammals may beach themselves in one area as a result of activity in another.
The sea is a complex environment, but there are stewards and backers who work endlessly to protect it. Environmental groups lobby governments and international organizations such as the United Nations for policy changes to protect the oceans.
It's in the Water
Protecting resources like drinking water is paramount for society, but it often comes only after shortages are permanent. In areas all over the United States, especially in the Southwest and now the Southeast, water wars are frequent as rising populations strain limited supplies.
Water flushed from household toilets and drained from residential washing machines can be converted to graywater with minimal treatment and reused for irrigation. Individual graywater systems are being approved for residents, with states like Arizona leading the way. Not only does graywater offset the demand for treating water to the highest potable standard, it may actually be beneficial to plants as it's likely to contain nitrogen and phosphorus.
Water sources like rivers, streams, and aquifers have been tapped for irrigation. The demand has forced water management districts and environmental protection agencies to deny new well construction permits. In certain cases, however, the impact has not been all bad. As the price for water has increased, the use of treated wastewater effluent has become more acceptable.
Where perfectly good drinking water was pumped miles away to fields of crops, pipelines are now placed so effluent, or graywater, can be used for irrigation. Not only does this alleviate an added strain on the water table, it provides an outlet for effluent rather than discharging it into estuaries and bays.
The quality of some water supplies has been negatively impacted as a result of poorly run industries, old landfills, septic tanks, pesticides and fertilizers used on crops, and other common causes. Regulators and watchdog groups alike try to monitor water quality, ensuring that no one is in harm's way.