Why Is Pollution a Problem?
Pollution is a problem because man, in an increasingly populated and industrialized world, is upsetting the environment in which he lives. Many scientists maintain that one of man’s greatest errors has been to equate growth with advancement. Now “growth” industries are being looked on with suspicion in case their side effects damage the environment and disrupt the relationship of different forms of life.
The growing population makes increasing demands on the world’s fixed supply of air, water and land. This rise in population is accompanied by the desire of more and more people for a better standard of living. Thus still greater demands for electricity, water and goods result in an ever increasing amount of waste material to be disposed of. The problem has been causing increasing concern to living things and their environment.
Many believe that man is not solving these problems quickly enough and that his selfish pursuit of possessions takes him past the point of no return before he fully appreciates the damage. It would then be too late to reverse the process.
Ecologists say we are so determined to possess a new car or washing machine, or to obtain a greater yield from our crops by the use of fertilizers, that we ignore the fact that life depends on a lot of micro-organisms working efficiently. For example, if new chemicals were released into the environment, a combination of them might well poison one or more of the different types of bacteria in soil and water, which are essential to keep nitrogen being circulated from the air into organic material, and being cycled back into the air again. If this should happen on a world wide scale, the air would become unbreathable.
The earliest precursor of pollution generated by life forms would have been a natural function of their existence. The attendant consequences on viability and population levels fell within the sphere of natural selection. These would have included the demise of a population locally or ultimately, species extinction. Processes that were untenable would have resulted in a new balance brought about by changes and adaptations. At the extremes, for any form of life, consideration of pollution is superseded by that of survival.
For humankind, the factor of technology is a distinguishing and critical consideration, both as an enabler and an additional source of byproducts. Short of survival, human concerns include the range from quality of life to health hazards. Since science holds experimental demonstration to be definitive, modern treatment of toxicity or environmental harm involves defining a level at which an effect is observable. Common examples of fields where practical measurement is crucial include automobile emissions control, industrial exposure (e.g. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) PELs), toxicology (e.g. LD50), and medicine (e.g. medication and radiation doses).
“The solution to pollution is dilution”, is a dictum which summarizes a traditional approach to pollution management whereby sufficiently diluted pollution is not harmful. It is well-suited to some other modern, locally scoped applications such as laboratory safety procedure and hazardous material release emergency management. But it assumes that the dilutant is in virtually unlimited supply for the application or that resulting dilutions are acceptable in all cases.
Such simple treatment for environmental pollution on a wider scale might have had greater merit in earlier centuries when physical survival was often the highest imperative, human population and densities were lower, technologies were simpler and their byproducts more benign. But these are often no longer the case. Furthermore, advances have enabled measurement of concentrations not possible before. The use of statistical methods in evaluating outcomes has given currency to the principle of probable harm in cases where assessment is warranted but resorting to deterministic models is impractical or infeasible. In addition, consideration of the environment beyond direct impact on human beings has gained prominence.
Yet in the absence of a superseding principle, this older approach pre-dominates practices throughout the world. It is the basis by which to gauge concentrations of effluent for legal release, exceeding which penalties are assessed or restrictions applied. One such superseding principle is contained in modern hazardous waste laws in developed countries, as the process of diluting hazardous waste to make it non-hazardous is usually a regulated treatment process. Migration from pollution dilution to elimination in many cases can be confronted by challenging economical and technological barriers.