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The growth of pollution
Environmental Pollution
Types of pollution
Air pollution
Water pollution
Soil pollution
Controlling pollution
Government action
Scientific efforts
Business and industry
Environmental organizations
The growth of pollution
Progress in controlling pollution
Current environmental issues
The Clean Development Mechanism
Global warming
Reducing emissions (REDD)
Swine Influenza
Heart Attack



Human beings have always caused some environmental pollution. Since prehistoric times, people have created waste. Like garbage today, this waste was either burned, tossed into waterways, buried, or dumped aboveground. However, the waste of early peoples was mostly food scraps and other substances that broke down easily by natural decay processes. Prehistoric populations were also much smaller and were spread out over large areas. As a result, pollution was less concentrated and caused few problems.

The growth of pollution started during ancient times when large numbers of people began living together in cities. As cities grew, pollution grew with them. Poor sanitation practices and contaminated water supplies unleashed massive epidemics in early cities. Environmental problems became even more serious and widespread in the 1800's, during a period called the Industrial Revolution. This period was characterized by the development of factories and the overcrowding of cities with factory workers.

During the Industrial Revolution, coal powered most factories. Most city homes also relied on coal as a heating fuel. The burning of coal filled the air of London and other industrial cities with smoke and soot. Poor sanitation facilities also allowed raw sewage to get into water supplies in some cities. The polluted water caused typhoid fever and other illnesses.

In the United States, air pollution problems became particularly serious in the early 1900's. By the 1930's, smoke and soot from steel mills, power plants, railroads, and heating plants filled the air over many Eastern and Midwestern cities. In some industrial cities, such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and St. Louis, Missouri, pollution frequently became so thick that drivers needed streetlights and headlights to see during the day.

Progress in controlling pollution has gained speed since the 1960's. Nearly all the railroads, industries, and homes of western Europe and the United States have switched from coal to cleaner-burning fuels, such as oil and natural gas. In many other places, pollution controls effectively limit the air pollution created by coal burning. Today, cities in many parts of the world also treat their water and process their sewage, thus greatly reducing the problems caused by harmful bacteria.

Important progress has been made in other areas of pollution management. Industrial waste, sewage, fertilizers, and other contaminants have polluted the Great Lakes since the mid-1800's. By the early 1970's, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and shallow regions of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan were so polluted that the waters had turned green and smelled foul, and huge fish kills were common. In 1972, Canada and the United States signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Since then, local governments around the lakes have improved sewage treatment plants, controlled the runoff of chemical fertilizers from farms, and worked to reduce the use of phosphate detergents. They have also forced industries to reduce the pollutants they dump into the lakes. Today, the Great Lakes are much cleaner.

Marian R. Chertow, M.P.P.M., Director, Industrial Environmental Management Program, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Source :
World Book 2005

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