Chemical Pollution

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In 1984, 30 tons of lethal methyl isocyanate gas were released into the air in Bhopal, India, from a Union Carbide plant. Thousands of people (estimates range from 2,500 to well over 8,000) died immediately. Deaths and disabilities continued to plague the populace for years following what was termed, at the time, "the worst industrial accident in history." A year later, in Institute, West Virginia, another Union Carbide plant released toxic gas into the atmosphere, resulting in illnesses among town residents. Deeply concerned about the possibility of a Bhopal-like disaster in the United States, Congress acted swiftly to enact the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The law requires companies that handle hazardous waste to furnish complete disclosure of their annual polluting activities, storage and handling facilities, any accidental release of hazardous material into the environment in a quantity above an established safe limit, and all material necessary for local authorities to respond to an accident involving the hazardous material(s) on site. Since the law was enacted, a substantial reduction in toxic releases was reported by companies who are required to participate in EPCRA disclosures.

Oil pollutes land and water sources, the most tragic example of which is the Exxon Valdez. While not one of the largest spills in the world, it is considered the worst in terms of the damage to the environment. On the night of March 24, 1989, the oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef, Alaska, spilling eleven million gallons of oil into the fragile environment of Prince William Sound. A lack of containment and cleanup equipment compounded the problem, and even fifteen years after the spill the Prince William Sound environment was still struggling to recover from the massive damage.

One response to the Valdez disaster was the passage of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which, among other things, required oil tankers to be double-hulled, and gave states more say in their spill-prevention standards. The spill-response equipment and safeguards procedures at Prince William

Residents of Bhopal, India, standing outside the gate of the Union Carbide factory where a chemical leak killed thousands and blinded many others. (©Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

Sound, loading terminal for the major tanker route on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, have been brought up to date.

Nuclear power is one of the most controversial issues of our time. For many people, the benefits it brings are dwarfed by the immense dangers inherent in the nature of its fuel. Release of radioactivity into the air and the atmosphere occurred over the years, but accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island terrify people, and with good reason.

On March 28, 1979, a partial meltdown of the reactor in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, released radioactivity into the atmosphere. The release itself was small, according to authorities. But inside the containment building a hydrogen bubble was growing, threatening to blow the building and spew radioactivity into an area inhabited by some 300,000 people. The effects such an explosion would have had on the population were only theorized until 1986, when the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, did explode. Though the immediate loss of life was small according to official figures, within several months the death toll was growing. Cancer rates, especially in children, have soared in the Ukraine and Belarus. And while the blown reactor is buried in concrete, evidence show the cover is deteriorating.

Residents of Bhopal, India, standing outside the gate of the Union Carbide factory where a chemical leak killed thousands and blinded many others. (©Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

The Three Mile Island accident led to the establishment of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). INPO is tasked with promoting safety in commercial nuclear plants in the United States, and cooperates with similar international organizations.

While safety regulations and oversight bodies were upgraded and tightened as a result of the two accidents above, nuclear waste, both civilian and military, presents a huge problem of disposal. The decay of some nuclear waste can take thousands of years. Disposal of the short-lived waste is easy compared to finding a place that can safely store highly radioactive materials for thousands of years. Moreover, many communities oppose the transportation and/or burial of such waste in their area.

Environmental pollution is not new, but its scope, type, and complexity have worsened since World War II. The good news is that nations across the globe now have an awareness of the consequences of pollution, and the dangers they pose to our very existence. Both governments and nongovernmental organizations are working on the many facets of pollution. Among the answers they seek are alternative, nonpolluting energy sources, a way to control harmful emissions and toxic discharges into the air and water, and methods for cleaning up damaged ecosystems and bringing species back from the brink of extinction. Coincident with this work is the growing understanding that a safe and protected environment must begin with social healing, that both poverty and affluence perpetuate environmental degradation. Poor societies must concentrate on immediate survival before they can spare the time or energy to worry about environmental health. Rich societies must understand that their comfortable lifestyle comes at the high price of increased pollution—from sources such as factories, car engines, and power plants. The challenges that face the global community as it tries to combat an ecological crisis involve creating social conditions that allow all members of the community to be equally committed to, and equally capable of, healing the place we all call home. see also Carson, Rachel; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; Disasters: Chemical Accidents and Spills; Disasters: Nuclear Accidents; Disasters: Oil Spills; Donora, Pennsylvania; Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know; Environmental Movement; Laws and Regulations, International; Laws and Regulations, United States; Mass Media; Superfund.


Asimov, Isaac, and Pohl, Fredrick. (1991). Our Angry Earth. New York: Tor.

Leinwand, Gerald. (1990). The Environment: American Issues. New York: Facts on File.

Markham, Adam. (1994). A Brief History of Pollution. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Nebel, Bernard J., and Wright, Richard T. (2000). Environmental Science: The Way the World Works. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Ponting, Clive. (1992). A Green History of the World. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Internet Resources

"The Environmental History Timeline." Available from ~wkovarik.

Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science at Case Western Reserve University. "Rachel Carson: A Scientist Alerts the Public to the Hazards of Pesticides." Available from

Adi R. Ferrara

Hospital Waste See Medical Waste

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Emergency Preparedness

Remember to prepare for everyone in the home. When you are putting together a plan to prepare in the case of an emergency, it is very important to remember to plan for not only yourself and your children, but also for your family pets and any guests who could potentially be with you at the time of the emergency.

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