Environmental Aspects of Operations

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Environmental pollution

Environmental pollution can be defined as a change in the physical and natural components of the atmosphere to such an extent that it starts affecting nature’s balance adversely. It includes contami- nants that cause harm to living organisms when introduced into the environment. These contaminants can be in the form of chemical substances, or energy like sound, heat or light, which after mixing into the environment in redundant quantity, disbalance natural levels.

The following are some definitions of environmental pollution:

According to the UK Sustainable Development (DoE, 1995), pollution is a substance which is present at concentrations which cause harm or exceed an environmental standard.

According to EU Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control, pollution shall mean the direct or indirect introduction as a result of human activity, of substances, vibration heat or noise into the air, water or land which may be harmful to human health or the quality of environment, result in damage to material property, or impair or interfere with amenities and other legitimate uses of the environment.

Environmental pollution has become a global concern as it has led to an imbalance in the ecosystem, which has a significant impact on people’s lives. It is generally caused due to two types of pollutants or substances that contaminate the environment, which are as follows:

  • Biodegradable pollutants: These are the pollutants that can be disposed by micro-organisms like certain bacteria. For example, domestic waste products, paper, wood, excreta, animal bones, leather, wool, vegetable stuff or plants, agricultural residue, cloth, etc. are biodegradable pollutants. As these pollutants are broken down into simple and harmless elements by micro-organisms and are decomposed in due course of time, they are not very harmful to the environment.

  • Non-biodegradable pollutants: These pollutants do not break- down into simple and harmless elements. For example, polythene bags, insecticides, pesticides, mercury, lead, arsenic, aluminium cans, etc. are non-biodegradable pollutants and are harmful to the environment.

Types of Environment Pollution

Environment consists of mainly three components namely, air, water and land. Based on these three environmental components, environmental pollution can be divided into four main types, which are:

Air pollution

It occurs due to the emission of harmful biological particles or other dangerous materials into the atmosphere. This causes disease or death to humans and animals; damage to agricultural products and adverse impact on the natural composition of the environment. Carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, ammonia, nitrogen oxides, radioactive materials, etc. are some major pollutants that cause air pollution.

Water pollution

It refers to the pollution of water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, oceans and groundwater and occurs when toxins and chemicals are released into water bodies. These chemicals are released from factories, power plants, coal mines and oil wells to nearby water bodies. Water pollution changes the physical, biological or chemical composition of water, and makes it unfit for consumption. It not only harms human lives but also aquatic lives.

Soil pollution

It reduces the yielding capacity of soil and turns a land into a wasteland. Reasons behind soil pollution may include accidental spills, acid rain, intensive farming, deforestation, nuclear wastes, illegal dumping, land erosion, excess use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, mining activities, disposal of coal ash and ammunition, drainage of polluted water into the soil; electronic waste, etc.

The contamination of soil has major ill effects on our health as the crops and plants grown on polluted soil absorb the pollutants and then pass them to us. This may result into bad health and in some cases may lead to death. Soil pollution also decreases soil fertility, which directly affects agricultural production.

Noise pollution

It is a troubling or extreme noise that may harm the actions or balance of human or animal life. Industrialisation, poor traffic control planning in urban areas, social events like marriages and parties, construction activities, household chores, etc. are some causes of noise pollution. Noise pollution may create sleeping disorders, anxiety and stress and in extreme cases may also result in a permanent hearing impairment.

Excessive noise affects animals too. For example, oil drills, submarines and other vessels, which create excessive noise, affect many marine animals, especially whales that use their hearing capability to search food, communicate, protect and stay alive in the ocean. Excessive noise results in injuries and deaths to whales.

Factors Causing Pollution

Environmental pollution is not caused by any one particular factor rather it occurs due to a variety of natural as well as anthropogenic activities.

Air pollution

Air pollution can be caused due to both natural as well as man-made sources. The natural sources of air pollution are as follows:

  • Volcanic eruptions: These are responsible for producing toxic gases like sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide in the environment. These gases have a harmful effect on the health of liv- ing beings and also raise the temperature of the environment.

  • Bacterial action: Bacteria present in the environment are responsible for decomposition and decay, thereby producing harmful gases, such as methane and nitrogen oxides.

  • Forest fires: These are uncontrolled fires that occur in forests generally due to hot and dry climate. The major causes of wildfire ignitions are lightning, volcanic eruption, sparks from rock falls and natural combustion. However, it has been observed that many wildfires are caused by human activities too, such as use of open flames and barbeques.

    A wildfire differs from other fires as it has tremendous speed to spread in the entire forest and can change its direction unpredictably. It could result into severe health hazards if one inhales the smoke and gases produced from wildfires. Such smoke consists of carbon dioxide, water vapour, particulate matter, organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides and other compounds.

    The wildfire smoke can easily get deposited into lungs, and absorbed into bloodstream, which may further result into chronic diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis and cardiovascular conditions.

The anthropogenic (human-made) factors of air pollution are as follows:

  • Deforestation: It is a process of cutting down trees to make the land available for industrialisation, habitation, etc. Due to deforestation, around 12% of carbon dioxide is emitted in the environment leading to global warming.

  • Combustion of fuels: Another factor that causes air pollution is combustion of fuels, resulting in harmful emission of gases, such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide.

  • Emission of chlorofluorocarbons: Chlorofluorocarbons re- leased from various products, such as refrigerators, air-condi- tioners, deodorants and insect repellents cause severe damage to the atmosphere by depleting the ozone layer.

  • Industrialisation: Increase in industries has caused severe en- vironmental degradation by releasing contaminants in air and depleting air quality.

Water pollution

The following factors are responsible for water pollution:

  • Pesticides: These are organic and inorganic chemicals produced to control insects and other organisms such as bacteria and pests. However, these pesticides cause a significant amount of pollution in water. The drainage water with pesticides pollutes both surface and ground water.

  • Industrial waste effluents: There are various manufacturing and chemical companies that always produce by-products and waste discharges in the form of smoke, solid or liquid waste. Such effluents mainly consist of toxic organic compounds, acids and heavy metals and contaminate both ground water and water bodies. Consumption of contaminated water is toxic for plants, animals and human beings.

  • Insecticides: These are used to exterminate the insects that destroy crops. These insecticides are usually washed off in streams and other water bodies where they harm water life and domestic animals, thereby disturbing the food chains in the ecosystem.

  • Oil spills: There are times when sea water gets polluted due to accidental leakage and oil spills from tankers, pipelines, etc. This can harm marine life.

  • Sewage and fertilisers: Human sewage and cattle excreta of- ten get dumped in water in an untreated form. This may pollute water and harm both marine life and consumers of water. Similarly, fertilisers, washed from farmlands into river; may also pollute water.

Soil pollution

The following factors are responsible for soil pollution:

  • Oil spills: Oil when spilled or leaked accidentally from pipe- lines, tankers and trucks pollute soil. As a result, the fertility of soil gets harmed, making cultivation difficult.

  • Heavy metals: The improper disposal of heavy metals from manufacturing, mining and man-made products often pollutes soil when exposed for a long time. This may have adverse ef- fects on the health of living beings.

  • Solid waste: The most important environmental problem that is faced in modern times is the improper disposal of solid waste, such as polythene bags, plastic, etc. Most often solid waste is disposed of in landfills where non-biodegradable products may remain buried for years. As a result, leakage of chemicals may take place underground, contaminating soil and groundwater.

Noise pollution

The following factors are responsible for noise pollution:

  • Industrialisation: It is one of the major sources of noise pollution. Most of the industries use machines, producing excessive noise. Moreover, various equipment, such as compressors, generators, exhaust fans and grinding mills are also used in industries that produce noise.

  • Poor planning in urban areas and social events: Overcrowded cities with unplanned residential arrangements, frequent traffic jams, etc. lead to noise pollution and may disturb the societal environment. Usually, in social events like marriage, parties, religious events, etc., high-volume loudspeakers and musical instruments are used that create a lot of noise.

  • Transportation: Large number of cars, scooters, motorcycles on roads; aeroplanes flying nearby residential areas, underground trains, etc. create heavy noise and may affect the health of living beings.

  • Construction activities: Construction activities like mining, building of bridges, dams, buildings, roads, stations, etc. use heavy instruments and equipment that produce a significant amount of noise.

Effects of Environmental Pollution on Human Health

The impact of environmental pollution is visible on all living beings, be it plants, animals or birds. For instance, due to the emission of heavy smoke from a factory, people living in the nearby area may develop respiratory problems, such as asthma. The following points explain the adverse impact of pollution:

  • Air pollution has depleted the ozone layer considerably, resulting in UV radiation. These radiations may cause damage to eyes and skin diseases.

  • Emissions of carbon monoxide from automobiles and cigarette smoking have been instrumental in affecting central nervous systems of living beings.

  • Due to the combustion of fuels at high temperature, nitrogen diox- ide (NO2) is discharged in the air, which can disturb the functioning of the lungs and cause infections like influenza.

  • Another toxic effluent emitted in air is sulphur dioxide (SO2) that can have significant impact on breathing, causing respiratory problems and worsening existing cardiovascular diseases.

  • Due to the consumption of polluted water, human beings can be exposed to diseases, such as typhoid, cholera, hepatitis and jaundice.

  • Toxic effluents present in water may affect aquatic lives in the sea and other water bodies. Some other diseases that may be caused due to the consumption of water polluted by chemicals are hormonal imbalance, liver and kidney damage, cancer, etc.

  • Soil pollution results in increasing the wasteland, thereby affecting the productivity level of agricultural land.

  • Improper disposal of solid waste may become a breeding ground for flies, mosquitoes and rats that spread contagious diseases.

  • Lead present in contaminated soil is also harmful to the health of human beings and animals.

  • Excessive noise affects both the health and behaviour of living beings. It can cause hypertension, stress, hearing loss, sleep disorder, etc.

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