Impact of Pollutants/Pollution on Human Health

Pollution has negative impact on human health. The impacts represent the aggregate of concerns in all the types of pollution affecting human societies in their environment. These could be air, water, soil or noise. In this unit you will learn the negative effects of pollution on human health.

1. Air Borne Pollution

Pollutants in the air cause health defects ranging from unnoticeable chemical and biological changes to trouble breathing and coughing. The ill effects of air pollution primarily attack the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

The severity of a person’s reaction to pollution depends on a number of factors, including the composition of the pollution, degree and length of exposure and genetics.

Individuals at Risk

While everyone can potentially suffer from air pollution, there are individuals who are more susceptible than others. In general, living in an urban setting where there are lots of cars and buildings releasing pollutants increases a person’s risk of health problems.

Joggers and bikers who exercise on smoggy days expose their bodies to vast amounts of pollution each time they go out. Both the elderly and children seem to be especially sensitive to pollutants in the air.

The respiratory system is responsible for bringing large amounts of air into the body, and then transporting oxygen from that air into the blood system. Eventually the oxygen is carried to the heart, where it then becomes part of the cardiovascular system.

However, polluted air that works its way through the respiratory and cardiovascular systems can cause problems.

Respiratory Effects

The respiratory system is extremely susceptible to pollutants. Ozone, metals, and other pollutants from the air enter the lungs and can cause damage. Ozone has been known to attack the alveoli, an integral piece of the respiratory system responsible for filtering in oxygen and filtering out carbon dioxide.

Pollutants are also able to cause secondary damage to lung tissue by reacting with airway enzymes. Inflammation or infection of the lungs may occur.

Cardiovascular Effects

Once toxic substances reach the cardiovascular system, a number of reactions can occur. These include physical changes, degeneration, and inflammation of the heart and other areas of the cardiovascular system. Pollutants can also cause heart arrhythmias, which if severe enough can prove fatal.

Asthma

Perhaps the most well-known health defect caused by air pollution is asthma, a disease that can be both chronic and incapacitating. Traffic fumes were responsible for at least 500,000 asthma attacks and more than 25,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis each year in the United States.

There is concern that the threat to public health posed by city‘s air pollution is more important than smoking.

Ozone, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter like dust and ash, and nitrogen oxide have all been known to exacerbate or even trigger asthma.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s website, about 30 per cent of asthma cases in children are a direct result of environmental pollution.

2. Water Borne Pollution

It is a well-known fact that clean water is absolutely essential for healthy living. Adequate supply of fresh and clean drinking water is a basic need for all human beings on the earth, yet it has been observed that millions of people worldwide are deprived of this.

Freshwater resources all over the world are threatened not only by over exploitation and poor management but also by ecological degradation. The main source of freshwater pollution can be attributed to discharge of untreated waste, dumping of industrial effluent, and run-off from agricultural fields. Industrial growth, urbanization and the increasing use of synthetic organic substances have serious and adverse impacts on freshwater bodies.

It is a generally accepted fact that the developed countries suffer from problems of chemical discharge into the water sources mainly groundwater, while developing countries face problems of agricultural run-off in water sources.

Polluted water like chemicals in drinking water causes problem to health and leads to water-borne diseases which can be prevented by taking measures. Measures can be taken even at the household level.

Groundwater and its Contamination

Many areas of groundwater and surface water are now contaminated with heavy metals, POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), and nutrients that have an adverse effect on health. Water-borne diseases and water- caused health problems are mostly due to inadequate and incompetent management of water resources.

Safe water for all can only be assured when access, sustainability, and equity can be guaranteed. Access can be defined as the number of people who are guaranteed safe drinking water and sufficient quantities of it. There has to be an effort to sustain it, and there has to be a fair and equal distribution of water to all segments of the society.

Urban areas generally have a higher coverage of safe water than the rural areas. Even within an area there is variation: areas that can pay for the services have access to safe water whereas areas that cannot pay for the services have to make do with water from hand pumps and other sources.

In the urban areas water gets contaminated in many different ways, some of the most common reasons being leaky water pipe joints in areas where the water pipe and sewage line pass close together. Sometimes the water gets polluted at source due to various reasons and mainly due to inflow of sewage into the source.

Ground water can be contaminated through various sources and some of these are mentioned below.

1. Pesticides

Run-off from farms, backyards, and golf courses contain pesticides such as DDT that in turn contaminate the water. Leachate from landfill sites is another major contaminating source.

Read Also: Natural Sources of Pollution

Its effects on the ecosystems and health are endocrine and reproductive damage in wildlife.

Groundwater is susceptible to contamination, as pesticides are mobile in the soil. It is a matter of concern as these chemicals are persistent in the soil and water.

2. Sewage

Untreated or inadequately treated municipal sewage is a major source of groundwater and surface water pollution in the developing countries.

The organic material that is discharged with municipal waste into the watercourses uses substantial oxygen for biological degradation thereby upsetting the ecological balance of rivers and lakes. Sewage also carries microbial pathogens that are the cause of the spread of disease.

Impact of Pollutants/Pollution on Human Health

3. Nutrients

Domestic waste water, agricultural run-off, and industrial effluents contain phosphorus and nitrogen, fertilizer run-off, manure from livestock operations, which increase the level of nutrients in water bodies and can cause eutrophication in the lakes and rivers and continue on to the coastal areas.

The nitrates come mainly from the fertilizer that is added to the fields. Excessive use of fertilizers causes nitrate contamination of groundwater, with the result that nitrate levels in drinking water is far above the safety levels recommended. Good agricultural practices can help in reducing the amount of nitrates in the soil and thereby lower its content in the water.

4. Synthetic organics

Many of the 100 000 synthetic compounds in use today are found in the aquatic environment and accumulate in the food chain. POPs represent the most harmful element for the ecosystem and for human health, for example, industrial chemicals and agricultural pesticides.

These chemicals can accumulate in fish and cause serious damage to human health. Where pesticides are used on a large-scale, groundwater gets contaminated and this leads to the chemical contamination of drinking water.

5. Acidification

Acidification of surface water, mainly lakes and reservoirs, is one of the major environmental impacts of transport over long distance of air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide from power plants, other heavy industry such as steel plants, and motor vehicles. This problem is more severe in the US and in parts of Europe.

Chemicals in Drinking Water

Chemicals in water can be both naturally occurring or introduced by human interference and can have serious health effects.

Read Also: Concept and Definition of Pollution

1. Fluoride

Fluoride in the water is essential for protection against dental caries and weakening of the bones, but higher levels can have an adverse effect on health. In India, high fluoride content is found naturally in the waters in Rajasthan.

2. Arsenic

Arsenic occurs naturally or is possibly aggravated by over powering aquifers and by phosphorus from fertilizers. High concentrations of arsenic in water can have an adverse effect on health. A few years back, high concentrations of this element was found in drinking water in six districts in West Bengal.

A majority of people in the area was found suffering from arsenic skin lesions. It was felt that arsenic contamination in the groundwater was due to natural causes. The government is trying to provide an alternative drinking water source and a method through which the arsenic content from water can be removed.

3. Lead

Pies, fittings, solder, and the service connections of some household plumbing systems contain lead that contaminates the drinking water source.

4. Recreational use of water

Untreated sewage, industrial effluents, and agricultural waste are often discharged into the water bodies such as the lakes, coastal areas and rivers endangering their use for recreational purposes such as swimming and canoeing.

5. Petrochemicals

Petrochemicals contaminate the groundwater from underground petroleum storage tanks.

6. Other heavy metals

These contaminants come from mining waste and tailings, landfills, or hazardous waste dumps.

7. Chlorinated solvents

Metal and plastic effluents, fabric cleaning, electronic and aircraft manufacturing are often discharged and contaminate groundwater.

3. Soil Borne Pollution

Soil fertility: Soil pollution reduces soil fertility. This can be harmful to agriculture and lead to inadequate food-crop production, which can negatively affect human health.

Acidification: Many chemicals and salts can increase soil acidity according to World Health Organization. Acid loving soils tend to be toxic to human health.

Ground water: Soil pollution can leach into the ground water and end up in drinking supplies, according to the World Health Organization. Directly consuming the contaminated water can cause health effects associated with the type of chemical that are in the water.

Direct contact: Human health can be severely affected by direct contact with contaminated soil. For example building a playground on a contaminated site can be disastrous since the children will tend to come into heavy contact with the contaminated soil and their development will be drastically harmed.

Chromium has been linked to cancer. Lead has been linked to kidney and brain damage. Mercury can lead to both kidney and liver damage.

Children are at a higher risk than adults, since soil pollution can get ingested into their bodies at much higher relative quantities.

4. Noise Pollution

Noise pollution affects everyone, yet this problem is largely ignored by most people. Upon hearing loud noises and sounds, we might be irritated but feel at a loss to do anything about it.

Noise pollution comes from various sources including traffic, airports, industries, factories and highly populated urban areas.

However, these are not the only ways we can be affected by noise pollution. A loud musical event such as a rock concert, occupational noises, and large crowds are just as detrimental to humans, especially with repeated exposure.

The effects of noise pollution on humans are being studied all over the world. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a “safe noise level” of no more than 55 decibels.

Decibels are units that help to express how loud sounds are. For example, sounds that are inaudible range from 0 to 10 decibels; noises that are loud enough to damage your hearing are 150 decibels.

Noise pollution affects sleep, eating habits, mood, concentration and body functions such as respiration and heart rate. When humans are unable to sleep due to noise, they get insomnia. Insomnia causes mood swings and can affect performance in all areas of your life, as well as negatively affect your health.

Loud noises cause stress, increasing respiration and heart rate. Then your body begins to secrete hormones such as adrenaline, which prepare us for fight or flight. This response puts unnecessary stress on the body. As a result, your blood pressure increases, leaving you vulnerable to heart disease.

Stress also contributes to lowered immunity, which can lead to infection and illness. Some scientists are now suggesting that psychiatric disorders are related to noise. This theory is still under investigation and is highly controversial.

The most significant way that people are affected by noise is through hearing loss. This is easy to measure and widely studied. It is known that young people today experience hearing loss at early ages because of the loud music they listen to while wearing headphones and attending concerts.

Therefore, teenagers are likely to hear 25 per cent less than their parents or grandparents do. The effects of noise pollution are also relevant to each individual. Some people are not bothered by particular sounds as much as others might be. This is because some are more sensitive to auditory stimulation.

It is not understood why certain people become more aggressive when exposed to loud noises, but it probably has to do with how much noise you are used to hearing. For example, a rural dweller who is used to the quiet sounds of nature would probably be agitated if he to spend the night in a city.

The EPA regulates businesses and areas for noise pollution. However, there are ways that you can control your environment.

Noise-blocking devices such as earplugs and headphones cut out sounds that may affect your sleep, work or personal time.
You can also buy CDs that play monotone- or nature-type sounds and use this as soothing background music.

Another way to reduce noise is to get involved with local organisations that shape new business development and regulate present industries and noise problems in your area.

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Benadine Nonye

An Agric. Consultant & a Blogger- National Diploma in Agricultural Technology. - Bachelor's Degree in Agricultural Science. - Master's Degree in Science Education. Join Me On: Twitter: @benadinenonye - Instagram: benadinenonye - LinkedIn: benadinenonye - YouTube: Agric4ProfitsTV - Pinterest: BenadineNonye4u - Facebook: BenadineNonye

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