Look at any ecosystem and there could be multiple forms of contamination—streams full of toxic chemicals from industrial processes, rivers overloaded with nutrients from farms, trash blowing away from landfills, city skies covered in smog. Even landscapes that appear pristine can experience the effects of pollution sources located hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Pollution may muddy landscapes, poison soils and waterways, or kill plants and animals. Humans are also regularly harmed by pollution. Long-term exposure to air pollution, for example, can lead to chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer and other diseases. Toxic chemicals that accumulate in top predators can make some species unsafe to eat. More than one billion people lack access to clean water and 2.4 billion don’t have adequate sanitation, putting them at risk of contracting deadly diseases.
For decades, the Great Barrier Reef has enjoyed World Heritage Status and been synonymous with diving, tourism and with Australia. But in June of this year, UNESCO threatened to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef to the World Heritage ‘In Danger’ list; a category populated predominantly by war-torn and developing nations. The final decision should be made in 2015.
Many of the activities and products that make modern human life possible are polluting the world. Even places that are relatively untouched by 21st-century developments experience the effects of pollution.
By 2000, the world’s chemical production had increased 400 fold since 1930. Chemicals have made much of modern life possible, but they’ve also contaminated landscapes around the world. They can travel great distances by air or accumulate in the bodies of animals and humans who absorb chemicals through the skin or ingest them in food or water. While some chemicals may be harmless, others can cause damage. Increasingly, there is particular concern lately about three types of chemicals: chemicals that persist in the environment and accumulate in the bodies of wildlife and people, endocrine disruptors that can interfere with hormones, and chemicals that cause cancer or damage DNA.
Litter in the world’s oceans comes from many sources, including containers that fall off ships during storms, trash that washes off city streets into rivers that lead into the sea, and waste from landfills that blows into streams or directly into the ocean. Once in the ocean, this debris may degrade slowly and persist for years, traveling the currents, accumulating in large patches and washing up on beaches.
PESTICIDES AND FERTILIZERS
Use of pesticides and fertilizers on farms has increased by 26-fold over the past 50 years, fueling increases in crop production globally. But there have been serious environmental consequences. Indiscriminate pesticide and fertilizer application may pollute nearby land and water, and chemicals may wash into nearby streams, waterways and groundwater when it rains. Pesticides can kill non-target organisms, including beneficial insects, soil bacteria and fish. Fertilizers are not directly toxic, but their presence can alter the nutrient system in freshwater and marine areas. This alteration can result in an explosive growth of algae due to excess nutrients. As a result, the water is depleted of dissolved oxygen, and fish and other aquatic life may be killed
Air pollution brings to mind visions of smokestacks billowing black clouds into the sky, but this pollution comes in many forms. The burning of fossil fuels, in both energy plants and vehicles, releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing climate change. Industrial processes also emit particulate matter, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. Indoor areas can become polluted by emissions from smoking and cooking. Some of these chemicals, when released into the air, contribute to smog and acid rain. Short term exposure to air pollution can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause upper respiratory infections, headaches, nausea and allergic reactions. Long-term exposures can lead to chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, and heart disease. Long-term exposures also can lead to significant climatic changes that can have far reaching negative impacts on food, water and ecosystems.
NOISE AND LIGHT POLLUTION
Artificial light and noise often drown out natural landscapes. In the Arctic, the sounds of oil and gas explorations are so loud that belugas, bowhead whales and other sea life have had difficulty feeding and breeding. Light pollution disrupts circadian rhythms for both humans and animals alike and may even contribute to the development of cancer. Light pollution also can impact sea turtles. Adult and hatchling sea turtles are drawn toward lights along the beach, thinking they are heading toward the moon. Coastal developments, therefore, are encouraged to turn off their lights or cover them at night
A littered coastline in the Philippines
Human activities contaminate ecosystems around the world—from pole to pole, from the highest mountains to the ocean deep. Toxic chemicals can be found in pristine forests and the blood of Arctic animals. Litter floats beneath the surface of oceans miles away from land. Even excess noise and light are interrupting natural patterns and disrupting the lives of animals and people.
PREDATORS FULL OF POLLUTANTS
When toxic chemicals and metals enter the environment, organisms may absorb them through their skin or ingest them in their food or water. Animals higher in the food chain accumulate these toxins in higher and higher concentrations, a process called biomagnification. Top predators—including fish, birds, and mammals—can have much higher levels of these toxins in their bodies, making them more likely to experience the diseases, birth defects, genetic mutations, and other deleterious effects of these poisons.
Clean freshwater is an essential ingredient for a healthy human life, but 1.1 billion people lack access to water and 2.4 billion don’t have adequate sanitation. Water becomes polluted from toxic substances dumped or washed into streams and waterways and the discharge of sewage and industrial waste. These pollutants come in many forms—organic, inorganic, even radioactive—and can make life difficult, if not impossible, for humans, animals and other organisms alike.
HARMFUL ALGAL BLOOMS AND DEAD ZONES
Human activities, especially agriculture, have led to large increases in the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment. In water, this overabundance of nutrients, a process called eutrophication, can fuel the excessive growth of phytoplankton and algae, which can sometimes have devastating consequences. Harmful algal blooms—blooms of species that produce deadly toxins and sometimes known as “red tides” or “brown tides” for their appearance in the water—can kill fish, marine mammals and seabirds and harm humans. And when the algae and other organisms that had been allowed to bloom because of the nutrient excess eventually die off, bacteria may suck up all the oxygen from the water as the algae decompose. This hypoxia creates a “dead zone” where fish cannot live. More than 400 areas around the world have been identified as experiencing eutrophication and 169 are hypoxic.
When water in the atmosphere mixes with certain chemicals—particularly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted during the burning of fossil fuels—mild acidic compounds are formed. This acid rain can leach toxic aluminum from the soil, which at low levels can stress fish in lakes and streams or, at higher concentrations, kill them outright. Acid rain also weakens trees in forests and contributes to air pollution that can harm humans.
OCEAN GARBAGE PATCHES
Plastics and other marine debris that can float may persist in the oceans for years, traveling the currents. Some of this material accumulates in the centers of ocean gyres, creating great garbage patches. The term “garbage patch” brings to mind floating islands of trash, but little of the debris can be seen on the surface. Garbage patches, instead, are areas where concentrations of flotsam and jetsam, mostly small pieces of plastic, are particularly high. This litter can distribute toxic chemicals throughout the oceans, snag and tear corals, and harm animals if they ingest pieces of plastic or become entangled in the debris.
WWF monitors contamination and pollution levels near an oil installation in Trompeteros, Peru.
One of WWF’s two main approaches for preserving the world’s biodiversity is the 2050 Footprint Goal, an aim that by 2050 humanity’s global footprint will stay within the planet’s capacity to sustain life and that natural resources will be shared equitably.
WWF has identified 100 companies that most directly impact the species and places that the organization is trying to protect. By engaging with these companies, WWF works to reduce the environmental impact of these businesses and champion sustainable solutions.
ADVOCATING TO REDUCE POLLUTION
Pollution is regulated at local, national and international levels. WWF works at all three levels to push for measures that will minimize the impacts of development and reduce pollution.
INSPIRING LOCAL CONSERVATION
WWF works to encourage local conservation and environmental awareness. For example, in June 2012 WWF helped organize the first Coral Triangle Day, to bring to light the importance of the oceans and the need to protect them. The regional celebration will involve beach and river cleanups, selling of handicrafts made from recycled materials, and local campaigns which raise awareness of the need to keep the marine environment clean.
PROMOTING SUSTAINABLE LIVING
WWF, in partnership with Toyota, helps to make the Galápagos a model of sustainable living. Achievements include international environmental certification of the fuel-handling facility on Baltra Island, a four-year renewable-energy teacher education campaign, the creation of the first Municipal Department of the Environment on Santa Cruz Island, and an oil-recycling program. Our vision for the future is to help create a successful waste management and recycling system on all four inhabited islands. We continue to strive for innovative solutions, such as a new type of landfill being constructed on Santa Cruz that will offer environmentally sound disposal of solid waste. We also educate the local communities about the need to reduce waste and recycle, and to create a culture of responsible consumption.