Introduction To Environmental Pollution Global Warming

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Water pollution, global warming, poor air quality, acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, etc. - these are issues that are featured regularly in our newspapers, news reports and TV programmes. Ever since we received the first pictures of the earth from outer space, we have become much more aware of how small our world is in the cosmos and how vulnerable it is to destruction by human activities. Concern about the state of our environment is now one of the main issues in people's minds, even higher up the list than war, unemployment and health.

National governments have responded to these concerns and most of them now have specialist Environment Ministries to ensure that laws are enacted, not only to protect the environment of their countries, but also to contribute to world-wide efforts at reducing the awful damage that the human race is doing to the natural world.

The pressures to do so are enormous because, not only are our numbers increasing at a great rate but we all look for a better standard of living. The figures in Table 1 illustrate the scale of the problem now, and for the future.

Table 1. World population,

1930-2050 (millions)











2050 (projected)


Each of these people is looking for the basic necessities of life - food, a home and clothes to protect them from the elements - but many hope for much more. In the UK for example, each family wants a TV, radio, a range of furniture, cooker, washing machine, 'fridge, car, computer, holi days and so on. Each week, millions of pounds are gambled on the National Lottery in the hope that it will provide a short-cut to get these things (and lots more!). Each of these items though makes some impact on the environment, whether it be in their manufacture or their use, and the more we have, the greater our effect on the natural world. It has been said that an increase in the population of the developing countries (Africa, India, etc.) is a problem for the world but an increase in the number of people in the USA and Western Europe is a disaster because of the greater demands each one of them makes on the earth's resources.

There hasn't always been such concern about environmental pollution.1 At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were serious pollution problems in the air, water and on land. At that time, the black smoke belching out of factory chimneys was seen as a sign of prosperity; likewise with the discharges of waste entering rivers through sewer pipes and rubbish dumped into them. The priority was to produce the goods that people wanted using the new technology of steel manufacture, wool and cotton mills, tanneries, dye works, etc. 'Where there's muck there's money' was a common expression. The poor quality of air, working conditions, and water supplies took its toll on the residents in the towns and cities, and the life expectancy was low.

The condition of the UK's rivers deteriorated rapidly in the period 1800-50 as towns grew quickly with the influx of workers from the country. Sewage treatment for human and industrial waste was minimal; most was piped directly into rivers from newly constructed sewers. One of the most polluted rivers in Britain was the Thames: conditions were so bad in the hot summers of1858 and 1859 that the debates in the Houses of Parliament were suspended because of the awful smell coming from the river outside the building.1 Disease was rampant, particularly cholera and typhoid. Indeed, it was the pioneering work by John Snow and William Farr in London in the 1850s that established that cholera was a water-borne disease. In 1861, Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert died from typhoid after drinking contaminated water. His death, and the terrible state of rivers and water supplies, spurred Parliament to improve the quality of the environment.

A Royal Commission was set up in 1865 to 'enquire into the best means of preventing pollution of rivers'. It produced six reports in all and, in its fourth one in 1872, it recommended various standards of cleanliness that effluents should achieve as well as legislation to enforce them. These eventually were incorporated into the Rivers Pollution Act of 1876. Unfortunately, the legislation was ineffective for two main reasons. Firstly, the enforcers of the standards were the local authorities - who just happened to be the principal polluters! Secondly, there was an 'escape' clause for industry in that, if the installation of pollution control equipment was too costly for the company, then it could be exempt from prosecution. Despite this, the Act remained in force for 75 years - and rivers did not get any cleaner.

The real impetus to improvements came in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of modifying the legislation and setting up independent pollution prevention authorities. In England and Wales these were the River Authorities and in Scotland the River Purification Boards. The new authorities set about enforcing the new laws and prosecuting those who caused severe pollution. Gradually water quality has improved to the extent that fish have started to return the rivers. In 1983, coincidentally, the first salmon for over a hundred years were recorded in both the rivers Clyde and Thames.

Pollution is a term that has been used quite freely for many years without a clear definition. Now though, it is generally accepted that pollution of water can be defined as 'the discharge by man, directly or indirectly, of substances or energy into the aquatic environment, the results of which are such as to cause hazards to human health, harm to living organisms and to aquatic ecosystems, damage to amenities or interference with other legitimate uses of water'. This definition can be modified to apply to other sectors of the environment such as the land or the air.

Recently, the pollution prevention management of the UK's environment has undergone another fundamental change. Since April 1996, the protection of air, water and land against pollution has been carried out by the Environment Agency (EA) in England and Wales, and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, this work is undertaken by the Environment and Heritage Department of the Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland. (The addresses of these agencies are given at the back of the book.)

One important new role for the Agencies is to promote 'sustainable development'. This idea developed from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Usually referred to as the Rio Earth Summit, this conference was attended by representatives of 178 governments. They pledged to reduce the overexploitation of the world's resources, to tackle the issues of global warming and to ensure the safety of the environment for future generations. This last aim is the essence of sustainable development: that any developments that will meet the needs of today will not compromise the needs of future generations.2

The issues associated with sustainable development are now being incorporated into new laws. For example, the Labour Government which was elected in May 1997 pledged to reduce the numbers of cars entering UK cities because of the pollution they cause and the fossil fuels they use up.

If we look back at the history of environmental legislation we see a distinct shift in emphasis:

protecting the protecting the preserving the people from the environment from environment for environment people's activities future generations

We are only just embarking on the last stage; time will tell whether we are successful. The problems are immense, not least because of our selfishness. We may all think that it's a great idea to make the world a better place, but when that has to be translated into making personal sacrifices such as giving up cars, cutting back on flying abroad, paying more for fossil fuels, reducing our use of packaging, including bottles and cans, then it gets more difficult. Individually, however, we can all do something. It is well summarized in the expression: 'think globally, act locally'.

In this book, many of the issues that are threatening our environment are discussed. Additionally the last chapter suggests some projects that can be carried out with simple equipment to measure pollutants and their effects.

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