Pollution is the introduction of harmful materials into the environment. These harmful materials are called pollutants.

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Pollution is the introduction of harmful materials into the environment . These harmful materials are called pollutants . Pollutants can be natural, such as volcanic ash . They can also be created by human activity, such as trash or runoff produced by factories. Pollutants damage the quality of air, water, and land. Many things that are useful to people produce pollution. Cars spew pollutants from their exhaust pipes. Burning coal to create electricity pollutes the air. Industries and homes generate garbage and sewage that can pollute the land and water. Pesticides —chemical poisons used to kill weeds and insects— seep into waterways and harm wildlife . All living things—from one-celled microbes to blue whales—depend on Earth ’s supply of air and water. When these resources are polluted, all forms of life are threatened. Pollution is a global problem. Although urban areas are usually more polluted than the countryside, pollution can spread to remote places where no people live. For example, pesticides and other chemicals have been found in the Antarctic ice sheet . In the middle of the northern Pacific Ocean, a huge collection of microscopic plastic particles forms what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch . Air and water currents carry pollution. Ocean currents and migrating fish carry marine pollutants far and wide. Winds can pick up radioactive material accidentally released from a nuclear reactor and scatter it around the world. Smoke from a factory in one country drifts into another country. In the past, visitors to Big Bend National Park in the U.S. state of Texas could see 290 kilometers (180 miles) across the vast landscape . Now, coal-burning power plants in Texas and the neighboring state of Chihuahua, Mexico have spewed so much pollution into the air that visitors to Big Bend can sometimes see only 50 kilometers (30 miles). The three major types of pollution are air pollution , water pollution , and land pollution . Air Pollution Sometimes, air pollution is visible . A person can see dark smoke pour from the exhaust pipes of large trucks or factories, for example. More often, however, air pollution is invisible . Polluted air can be dangerous, even if the pollutants are invisible. It can make people’s eyes burn and make them have difficulty breathing. It can also increase the risk of lung cancer . Sometimes, air pollution kills quickly. In 1984, an accident at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released a deadly gas into the air. At least 8,000 people died within days. Hundreds of thou sands more were permanently injured. Natural disasters can also cause air pollution to increase quickly. When volcanoes erupt , they eject volcanic ash and gases into the atmosphere . Volcanic ash can discolor the sky for months. After the eruption of the Indonesian volcano of Krakatoa in 1883, ash darkened the sky around the world. The dimmer sky caused fewer crops to be harvested as far away as Europe and North America. For years, meteorologists tracked what was known as the “equatorial smoke stream .” In fact, this smoke stream was a jet stream , a wind high in Earth’s atmosphere that Krakatoa’s air pollution made visible. Volcanic gases , such as sulfur dioxide , can kill nearby residents and make the soil infertile for years. Mount Vesuvius, a volcano in Italy, famously erupted in 79, killing hundreds of residents of the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Most victims of Vesuvius were not killed by lava or landslides caused by the eruption. They were choked, or asphyxiated , by deadly volcanic gases. In 1986, a toxic cloud developed over Lake Nyos, Cameroon. Lake Nyos sits in the crater of a volcano. Though the volcano did not erupt, it did eject volcanic gases into the lake. The heated gases passed through the water of the lake and collected as a cloud that descended the slopes of the volcano and into nearby valleys . As the toxic cloud moved across the landscape, it killed birds and other organisms in their natural habitat . This air pollution also killed thousands of cattle and as many as 1,700 people. Most air pollution is not natural, however. It comes from burning fossil fuels —coal, oil , and natural gas . When gasoline is burned to power cars and trucks, it produces carbon monoxide , a colorless, odorless gas. The gas is harmful in high concentrations , or amounts. City traffic produces highly concentrated carbon monoxide. Cars and factories produce other common pollutants, including nitrogen oxide , sulfur dioxide, and hydrocarbons . These chemicals react with sunlight to produce smog , a thick fog or haze of air pollution. The smog is so thick in Linfen, China, that people can seldom see the sun. Smog can be brown or grayish blue, depending on which pollutants are in it. Smog makes breathing difficult, especially for children and older adults. Some cities that suffer from extreme smog issue air pollution warnings. The government of Hong Kong, for example, will warn people not to go outside or engage in strenuous physical activity (such as running or swimming) when smog is very thick.

When air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide mix with moisture, they change into acids . They then fall back to earth as acid rain . Wind often carries acid rain far from the pollution source. Pollutants produced by factories and power plants in Spain can fall as acid rain in Norway. Acid rain can kill all the trees in a forest . It can also devastate lakes, streams, and other waterways. When lakes become acidic, fish can’t survive . In Sweden, acid rain created thousands of “ dead lakes ,” where fish no longer live. Acid rain also wears away marble and other kinds of stone . It has erased the words on gravestones and damaged many historic buildings and monuments . The Taj Mahal , in Agra, India, was once gleaming white. Years of exposure to acid rain has left it pale. Governments have tried to prevent acid rain by limiting the amount of pollutants released into the air. In Europe and North America, they have had some success, but acid rain remains a major problem in the developing world , especially Asia. Greenhouse gases are another source of air pollution. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane occur naturally in the atmosphere. In fact, they are necessary for life on Earth. They absorb sunlight reflected from Earth, preventing it from escaping into space. By trapping heat in the atmosphere, they keep Earth warm enough for people to live. This is called the greenhouse effect . But human activities such as burning fossil fuels and destroying forests have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This has increased the greenhouse effect, and average temperatures across the globe are rising. The decade that began in the year 2000 was the warmest on record. This increase in worldwide average temperatures, caused in part by human activity, is called global warming . Global warming is causing ice sheets and glaciers to melt. The melting ice is causing sea levels to rise at a rate of two millimeters (0.09 inches) per year. The rising seas will eventually flood low-lying coastal regions . Entire nations, such as the islands of Maldives, are threatened by this climate change . Global warming also contributes to the phenomenon of ocean acidification . Ocean acidification is the process of ocean waters absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Fewer organisms can survive in warmer, less salty waters. The ocean food web is threatened as plants and animals such as coral fail to adapt to more acidic oceans. Scientists have predicted that global warming will cause an increase in severe storms . It will also cause more droughts in some regions and more flooding in others. The change in average temperatures is already shrinking some habitats, the regions where plants and animals naturally live. Polar bears hunt seals from sea ice in the Arctic. The melting ice is forcing polar bears to travel farther to find food , and their numbers are shrinking. People and governments can respond quickly and effectively to reduce air pollution. Chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a dangerous form of air pollution that governments worked to reduce in the 1980s and 1990s. CFCs are found in gases that cool refrigerators, in foam products, and in aerosol cans . CFCs damage the ozone layer , a region in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The ozone layer protects Earth by absorbing much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation . When people are exposed to more ultraviolet radiation, they are more likely to develop skin cancer, eye diseases, and other illnesses. In the 1980s, scientists noticed that the ozone layer over Antarctica was thinning. This is often called the “ ozone hole .” No one lives permanently in Antarctica. But Australia, the home of more than 22 million people, lies at the edge of the hole. In the 1990s, the Australian government began an effort to warn people of the dangers of too much sun. Many countries, including the United States, now severely limit the production of CFCs. Water Pollution Some polluted water looks muddy, smells bad, and has garbage floating in it. Some polluted water looks clean, but is filled with harmful chemicals you can’t see or smell. Polluted water is unsafe for drinking and swimming. Some people who drink polluted water are exposed to hazardous chemicals that may make them sick years later. Others consume bacteria and other tiny aquatic organisms that cause disease. The United Nations estimates that 4,000 children die every day from drinking dirty water. Sometimes, polluted water harms people indirectly. They get sick because the fish that live in polluted water are unsafe to eat. They have too many pollutants in their flesh. There are some natural sources of water pollution. Oil and natural gas, for example, can leak into oceans and lakes from natural underground sources. These sites are called petroleum seeps . The world’s largest petroleum seep is the Coal Oil Point Seep, off the coast of the U.S. state of California. The Coal Oil Point Seep releases so much oil that tar balls wash up on nearby beaches . Tar balls are small, sticky pieces of pollution that eventually decompose in the ocean.

Human activity also contributes to water pollution. Chemicals and oils from factories are sometimes dumped or seep into waterways. These chemicals are called runoff. Chemicals in runoff can create a toxic environment for aquatic life. Runoff can also help create a fertile environment for cyanobacteria , also called blue-green algae . Cyanobacteria reproduce rapidly, creating a harmful algal bloom (HAB) . Harmful algal blooms prevent organisms such as plants and fish from living in the ocean. They are associated with “ dead zones ” in the world’s lakes and rivers, places where little life exists below surface water. Mining and drilling can also contribute to water pollution. Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a major contributor to pollution of rivers and streams near coal mines . Acid helps miners remove coal from the surrounding rocks . The acid is washed into streams and rivers, where it reacts with rocks and sand. It releases chemical sulfur from the rocks and sand, creating a river rich in sulfuric acid . Sulfuric acid is toxic to plants, fish, and other aquatic organisms. Sulfuric acid is also toxic to people, making rivers polluted by AMD dangerous sources of water for drinking and hygiene . Oil spills are another source of water pollution. In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing oil to gush from the ocean floor. In the following months, hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spewed into the gulf waters. The spill produced large plumes of oil under the sea and an oil slick on the surface as large as 24,000 square kilometers (9,100 square miles). The oil slick coated wetlands in the U.S. states of Louisiana and Mississippi, killing marsh plants and aquatic organisms such as crabs and fish. Birds, such as pelicans , became coated in oil and were unable to fly or access food. More than two million animals died as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Buried chemical waste can also pollute water supplies. For many years, people disposed of chemical wastes carelessly, not realizing its dangers. In the 1970s, people living in the Love Canal area in Niagara Falls, New York, suffered from extremely high rates of cancer and birth defects . It was discovered that a chemical waste dump had poisoned the area’s water. In 1978, 800 families living in Love Canal had to a bandon their homes. If not disposed of properly, radioactive waste from nuclear power plants can escape into the environment. Radioactive waste can harm living things and pollute the water. Sewage that has not been properly treated is a common source of water pollution. Many cities around the world have poor sewage systems and sewage treatment plants. Delhi, the capital of India, is home to more than 21 million people. More than half the sewage and other waste produced in the city are dumped into the Yamuna River. This pollution makes the river dangerous to use as a source of water for drinking or hygiene. It also reduces the river’s fishery , resulting in less food for the local community. A major source of water pollution is fertilizer used in agriculture . Fertilizer is material added to soil to make plants grow larger and faster. Fertilizers usually contain large amounts of the elements nitrogen and phosphorus , which help plants grow. Rainwater washes fertilizer into streams and lakes. There, the nitrogen and phosphorus cause cyanobacteria to form harmful algal blooms. Rain washes other pollutants into streams and lakes. It picks up animal waste from cattle ranches. Cars drip oil onto the street, and rain carries it into storm drains , which lead to waterways such as rivers and seas. Rain sometimes washes chemical pesticides off of plants and into streams. Pesticides can also seep into groundwater , the water beneath the surface of the Earth. Heat can pollute water. Power plants, for example, produce a huge amount of heat. Power plants are often located on rivers so they can use the water as a coolant . Cool water circulates through the plant, absorbing heat. The heated water is then returned to the river. Aquatic creatures are sensitive to changes in temperature. Some fish, for example, can only live in cold water. Warmer river temperatures prevent fish eggs from hatching. Warmer river water also contributes to harmful algal blooms. Another type of water pollution is simple garbage. The Citarum River in Indonesia, for example, has so much garbage floating in it that you cannot see the water. Floating trash makes the river difficult to fish in. Aquatic animals such as fish and turtles mistake trash, such as plastic bags, for food. Plastic bags and twine can kill many ocean creatures. Chemical pollutants in trash can also pollute the water, making it toxic for fish and people who use the river as a source of drinking water. The fish that are caught in a polluted river often have high levels of chemical toxins in their flesh. People absorb these toxins as they eat the fish. Garbage also fouls the ocean. Many plastic bottles and other pieces of trash are thrown overboard from boats. The wind blows trash out to sea. Ocean currents carry plastics and other floating trash to certain places on the globe, where it cannot escape. The largest of these areas, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. According to some estimates, this garbage patch is the size of Texas. The trash is a threat to fish and seabirds, which mistake the plastic for food. Many of the plastics are covered with chemical pollutants. Land Pollution Many of the same pollutants that foul the water also harm the land. Mining sometimes leaves the soil contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural fields are blown by the wind. They can harm plants, animals, and sometimes people. Some fruits and vegetables absorb the pesticides that help them grow. When people consume the fruits and vegetables, the pesticides enter their bodies. Some pesticides can cause cancer and other diseases. A pesticide called DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was once commonly used to kill insects, especially mosquitoes. In many parts of the world, mosquitoes carry a disease called malaria , which kills a million people every year. Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize for his understanding of how DDT can control insects and other pests. DDT is responsible for reducing malaria in places such as Taiwan and Sri Lanka. In 1962, American biologist Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring , which discussed the dangers of DDT. She argued that it could contribute to cancer in humans. She also explained how it was destroying bird eggs, which caused the number of bald eagles, brown pelicans, and ospreys to drop. In 1972, the United States banned the use of DDT. Many other countries also banned it. But DDT didn’t disappear entirely. Today, many governments support the use of DDT because it remains the most effective way to combat malaria. Trash is another form of land pollution. Around the world, paper, cans, glass jars, plastic products, and junked cars and appliances mar the landscape. Litter makes it difficult for plants and other producers in the food web to create nutrients . Animals can die if they mistakenly eat plastic. Garbage often contains dangerous pollutants such as oils, chemicals, and ink. These pollutants can leech into the soil and harm plants, animals, and people. Inefficient garbage collection systems contribute to land pollution. Often, the garbage is picked up and brought to a dump, or landfill . Garbage is buried in landfills. Sometimes, communities produce so much garbage that their landfills are filling up. They are running out of places to dump their trash. A massive landfill near Quezon City, Philippines, was the site of a land pollution tragedy in 2000. Hundreds of people lived on the slopes of the Quezon City landfill. These people made their living from recycling and selling items found in the landfill. However, the landfill was not secure. Heavy rains caused a trash landslide, killing 218 people. Sometimes, landfills are not completely sealed off from the land around them. Pollutants from the landfill leak into the earth in which they are buried. Plants that grow in the earth may be contaminated, and the herbivores that eat the plants also become contaminated. So do the predators that consume the herbivores. This process, where a chemical builds up in each level of the food web, is called bioaccumulation . Pollutants leaked from landfills also leak into local groundwater supplies. There, the aquatic food web (from microscopic algae to fish to predators such as sharks or eagles) can suffer from bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals. Some communities do not have adequate garbage collection systems, and trash lines the side of roads. In other places, garbage washes up on beaches. Kamilo Beach, in the U.S. state of Hawai'i, is littered with plastic bags and bottles carried in by the tide . The trash is dangerous to ocean life and reduces economic activity in the area. Tourism is Hawai'i’s largest industry . Polluted beaches discourage tourists from investing in the area’s hotels, restaurants, and recreational activities. Some cities incinerate , or burn, their garbage. Incinerating trash gets rid of it, but it can release dangerous heavy metals and chemicals into the air. So while trash incinerators can help with the problem of land pollution, they sometimes add to the problem of air pollution. Reducing Pollution Around the world, people and governments are making efforts to combat pollution. Recycling, for instance, is becoming more common. In recycling, trash is processed so its useful materials can be used again. Glass, aluminum cans, and many types of plastic can be melted and reused . Paper can be broken down and turned into new paper. Recycling reduces the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills, incinerators, and waterways. Austria and Switzerland have the highest recycling rates. These nations recycle between 50 and 60 percent of their garbage. The United States recycles about 30 percent of its garbage. Governments can combat pollution by passing laws that limit the amount and types of chemicals factories and agribusinesses are allowed to use. The smoke from coal-burning power plants can be filtered. People and businesses that illegally dump pollutants into the land, water, and air can be fined for millions of dollars. Some government programs, such as the Superfund program in the United States, can force polluters to clean up the sites they polluted. International agreements can also reduce pollution. The Kyoto Protocol , a United Nations agreement to limit the emission of greenhouse gases, has been signed by 191 countries. The United States, the world’s second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, did not sign the agreement. Other countries, such as China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, have not met their goals. Still, many gains have been made. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River, in the U.S. state of Ohio, was so clogged with oil and trash that it caught on fire. The fire helped spur the Clean Water Act of 1972. This law limited what pollutants could be released into water and set standards for how clean water should be. Today, the Cuyahoga River is much cleaner. Fish have returned to regions of the river where they once could not survive. But even as some rivers are becoming cleaner, others are becoming more polluted. As countries around the world become wealthier, some forms of pollution increase. Countries with growing economies usually need more power plants, which produce more pollutants. Reducing pollution requires environmental, political, and economic leadership. Developed nations must work to reduce and recycle their materials, while developing nations must work to strengthen their economies without destroying the environment. Developed and developing countries must work together toward the common goal of protecting the environment for future use.

How Long Does It Last? Different materials decompose at different rates. How long does it take for these common types of trash to break down?

Indoor Air Pollution The air inside your house can be polluted. Air and carpet cleaners, insect sprays, and cigarettes are all sources of indoor air pollution.

Light Pollution Light pollution is the excess amount of light in the night sky. Light pollution, also called photopollution, is almost always found in urban areas. Light pollution can disrupt ecosystems by confusing the distinction between night and day. Nocturnal animals, those that are active at night, may venture out during the day, while diurnal animals, which are active during daylight hours, may remain active well into the night. Feeding and sleep patterns may be confused. Light pollution also indicates an excess use of energy. The dark-sky movement is a campaign by people to reduce light pollution. This would reduce energy use, allow ecosystems to function more normally, and allow scientists and stargazers to observe the atmosphere.

Noise Pollution Noise pollution is the constant presence of loud, disruptive noises in an area. Usually, noise pollution is caused by construction or nearby transportation facilities, such as airports. Noise pollution is unpleasant, and can be dangerous. Some songbirds, such as robins, are unable to communicate or find food in the presence of heavy noise pollution. The sound waves produced by some noise pollutants can disrupt the sonar used by marine animals to communicate or locate food.

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Educator reviewer, last updated.

December 14, 2022

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Visitors: The SERC campus is open Monday-Saturday, 8:00am-5:30pm. We're closed Sundays and federal holidays. Please do a health self-check before arriving, and stay home if feeling sick. Read Plan Your Visit for information on where to park, updated maps and hours, safety, and more.

The Reed Education Center and surrounding trailheads are closed to the public until early April 2023 for maintenance. Our trails are open but only accessible from the trailhead near the main campus. Parking is available in the gravel lot on the main campus. Read Plan Your Visit for information on where to park, updated maps and hours, safety, and more.

The Woodlawn History Center is open Fri. & Sat. with extended hours from 10am-2pm! health self-check before arriving, and stay home if feeling sick.-->

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SERC and University of Maryland scientists found low-cost way to slash the risk from methylmercury hot spots.

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Chesapeake Bay has seen the largest underwater grass recovery ever recorded, thanks to a three-decade nutrient pollution diet, a new study finds. (Photo: J. J. Orth/VIMS)

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Riparian buffers

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Affiliated Labs

Pollution has many faces. Some pollutants, like mercury, are dangerous even in small quantities. Others, like nutrient pollution, are harmful in excess when massive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus stream into the water. And some, like ultraviolet radiation, are ambiguous: the same rays that can cause skin cancer and cataracts also help the body make vitamin D.

SERC researchers trace pollution from its origins in the air, the land, and the water. Nutrient pollution has a myriad of sources: exhaust from cars, fertilizers on farms and lawns, and sewage from cities and suburbs. When it reaches large bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay, it can feed algal blooms that contribute to low-oxygen dead zones. On the mercury front, SERC microbial ecologists uncover hotspots where microbes transform mercury into methylmercury, a neurotoxin that contaminates our food webs, negatively impacting people and wildlife. And SERC photobiologists have monitored ultraviolet radiation from the forests of Maryland to the waters of the South Pole.

But SERC researchers are also looking for solutions. In the 1980s, they helped discover that riparian buffers (streamside forests and marshes) can act as sponges, soaking up nutrient pollution and keeping it out of the water. Today, SERC scientists have studied and sometimes led stream restorations, seeking to uncover what it takes to make restorations successful and what additional ripples a restoration can have on the environment. SERC’s microbial ecologists helped develop a technique to reduce methylmercury risk from mercury-contaminated sediments and soils. By understanding the nature of environmental problems and their origins, scientists are finding ways to overcome them.

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What is pollution?

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air pollution

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Pollution occurs when an amount of any substance or any form of energy is put into the environment at a rate faster than it can be dispersed or safely stored. The term pollution can refer to both artificial and natural materials that are created, consumed, and discarded in an unsustainable manner.

What kinds of pollution are there?

Air pollution , water pollution , and land pollution are three major forms of environmental pollution. Pollution can also refer to excessive human activity, such as light and noise pollution , or to specific pollutants such as plastic or radioactive material. Learn more in this infographic.

Air pollution is the main cause of climate change . Human activities such as burning fossil fuels and mass deforestation lead to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere , which traps heat inside the atmosphere through a process called the greenhouse effect . This impacts climate patterns and sea levels around the world.

Pollution can be reduced through processes such as recycling and the proper treatment of water and toxic waste . The reduction of corporate fossil fuel extraction is another way to counter air pollution . According to the Carbon Majors Report prepared by the Carbon Disclosure Project in 2017, more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions comes from only 100 companies.

How many people die annually from pollution?

Air pollution is estimated to kill 7 million people every year. Radioactive and toxic waste in water can cause many diseases, including fatal conditions such as typhoid fever and cholera . Consumption of contaminated water causes approximately 485,000 deaths every year.

pollution , also called environmental pollution , the addition of any substance ( solid , liquid , or gas ) or any form of energy (such as heat , sound, or radioactivity ) to the environment at a rate faster than it can be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form. The major kinds of pollution, usually classified by environment, are air pollution , water pollution , and land pollution . Modern society is also concerned about specific types of pollutants, such as noise pollution , light pollution , and plastic pollution . Pollution of all kinds can have negative effects on the environment and wildlife and often impacts human health and well-being.


Although environmental pollution can be caused by natural events such as forest fires and active volcanoes , use of the word pollution generally implies that the contaminants have an anthropogenic source—that is, a source created by human activities. Pollution has accompanied humankind ever since groups of people first congregated and remained for a long time in any one place. Indeed, ancient human settlements are frequently recognized by their wastes— shell mounds and rubble heaps, for instance. Pollution was not a serious problem as long as there was enough space available for each individual or group. However, with the establishment of permanent settlements by great numbers of people, pollution became a problem, and it has remained one ever since.

Plastic bag garbage on beach. (pollution; land fill; trash; water pollution; waste)

Cities of ancient times were often noxious places, fouled by human wastes and debris. Beginning about 1000 ce , the use of coal for fuel caused considerable air pollution, and the conversion of coal to coke for iron smelting beginning in the 17th century exacerbated the problem. In Europe, from the Middle Ages well into the early modern era, unsanitary urban conditions favoured the outbreak of population-decimating epidemics of disease, from plague to cholera and typhoid fever . Through the 19th century, water and air pollution and the accumulation of solid wastes were largely problems of congested urban areas. But, with the rapid spread of industrialization and the growth of the human population to unprecedented levels, pollution became a universal problem.

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By the middle of the 20th century, an awareness of the need to protect air, water, and land environments from pollution had developed among the general public. In particular, the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson ’s book Silent Spring focused attention on environmental damage caused by improper use of pesticides such as DDT and other persistent chemicals that accumulate in the food chain and disrupt the natural balance of ecosystems on a wide scale. In response, major pieces of environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972; United States), were passed in many countries to control and mitigate environmental pollution.

Major types of pollution explained

Giving voice to the growing conviction of most of the scientific community about the reality of anthropogenic global warming , the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) was formed in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to help address greenhouse gas emissions. An IPCC special report produced in 2018 noted that human beings and human activities have been responsible for a worldwide average temperature increase between 0.8 and 1.2 °C (1.4 and 2.2 °F) since preindustrial times, and most of the warming over the second half of the 20th century could be attributed to human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels .

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The presence of environmental pollution raises the issue of pollution control . Great efforts are made to limit the release of harmful substances into the environment through air pollution control , wastewater treatment , solid-waste management , hazardous-waste management , and recycling . Unfortunately, attempts at pollution control are often surpassed by the scale of the problem, especially in less-developed countries . Noxious levels of air pollution are common in many large cities, where particulates and gases from transportation, heating, and manufacturing accumulate and linger. The problem of plastic pollution on land and in the oceans has only grown as the use of single-use plastics has burgeoned worldwide. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane and carbon dioxide , continue to drive global warming and pose a great threat to biodiversity and public health .

Water pollution is a rising global crisis. Here’s what you need to know.

The world's freshwater sources receive contaminants from a wide range of sectors, threatening human and wildlife health.

From big pieces of garbage to invisible chemicals, a wide range of pollutants ends up in our planet's lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater, and eventually the oceans. Water pollution—along with drought, inefficiency, and an exploding population—has contributed to a freshwater crisis , threatening the sources we rely on for drinking water and other critical needs.

Research has revealed that one pollutant in particular is more common in our tap water than anyone had previously thought: PFAS, short for poly and perfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS is used to make everyday items resistant to moisture, heat, and stains; some of these chemicals have such long half-lives that they are known as "the forever chemical."

Safeguarding water supplies is important because even though nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh. And just one percent of freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in remote glaciers and snowfields.

Water pollution causes

Water pollution can come from a variety of sources. Pollution can enter water directly, through both legal and illegal discharges from factories, for example, or imperfect water treatment plants. Spills and leaks from oil pipelines or hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations can degrade water supplies. Wind, storms, and littering—especially of plastic waste —can also send debris into waterways.

Thanks largely to decades of regulation and legal action against big polluters, the main cause of U.S. water quality problems is now " nonpoint source pollution ," when pollutants are carried across or through the ground by rain or melted snow. Such runoff can contain fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides from farms and homes; oil and toxic chemicals from roads and industry; sediment; bacteria from livestock; pet waste; and other pollutants .

Finally, drinking water pollution can happen via the pipes themselves if the water is not properly treated, as happened in the case of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan , and other towns. Another drinking water contaminant, arsenic , can come from naturally occurring deposits but also from industrial waste.

Freshwater pollution effects

Beautiful tendrils fill the now-dry Colorado River Delta in northern Mexico. So much water has been taken out of the river upstream that it rarely reaches the sea.

Water pollution can result in human health problems, poisoned wildlife, and long-term ecosystem damage. When agricultural and industrial runoff floods waterways with excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, these nutrients often fuel algae blooms that then create dead zones , or low-oxygen areas where fish and other aquatic life can no longer thrive.

Algae blooms can create health and economic effects for humans, causing rashes and other ailments, while eroding tourism revenue for popular lake destinations thanks to their unpleasant looks and odors. High levels of nitrates in water from nutrient pollution can also be particularly harmful to infants , interfering with their ability to deliver oxygen to tissues and potentially causing " blue baby syndrome ." The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 38 percent of the European Union's water bodies are under pressure from agricultural pollution.

Globally, unsanitary water supplies also exact a health toll in the form of disease. At least 2 billion people drink water from sources contaminated by feces, according to the World Health Organization , and that water may transmit dangerous diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

Freshwater pollution solutions

In many countries, regulations have restricted industry and agricultural operations from pouring pollutants into lakes, streams, and rivers, while treatment plants make our drinking water safe to consume. Researchers are working on a variety of other ways to prevent and clean up pollution. National Geographic grantee Africa Flores , for example, has created an artificial intelligence algorithm to better predict when algae blooms will happen. A number of scientists are looking at ways to reduce and cleanup plastic pollution .

There have been setbacks, however. Regulation of pollutants is subject to changing political winds, as has been the case in the United States with the loosening of environmental protections that prevented landowners from polluting the country’s waterways.

Anyone can help protect watersheds by disposing of motor oil, paints, and other toxic products properly , keeping them off pavement and out of the drain. Be careful about what you flush or pour down the sink, as it may find its way into the water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends using phosphate-free detergents and washing your car at a commercial car wash, which is required to properly dispose of wastewater. Green roofs and rain gardens can be another way for people in built environments to help restore some of the natural filtering that forests and plants usually provide.

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Indigenous Nations in U.S. More Vulnerable to Climate Change

In a first-of-its-kind study, a team of researchers led by YSE Professor of Sociology Justin Farrell found that Indigenous nations across the U.S. have lost 98.9% of their historical land base and this land dispossession is associated with current and future climate risks.

The study, published in Science and made public in collaboration with the Native Land Information System, quantified the loss of Indigenous land since Europeans first settled in the U.S. More than 40% of tribes now possess no federally recognized land. The study also found that historical land dispossession was associated with current and future climate risks. Indigenous peoples were forced to move to lands that are more exposed to a range of climate change risks and hazards and are less likely to lie over valuable subsurface oil and gas resources. Present-day lands endure, on average, an increased number of extreme-heat days compared to historical lands. Wildfire risks are also more severe for about half of all tribes.

“There is a violent legacy that persists today, and it remains critical that we try to understand it at large scales. This is not only for historical clarity around land dispossession and forced migration but for concrete policies moving forward: How can we use this information so that day-to-day lived experiences of Indigenous peoples are improved — so that existing inequities are righted and future risks mitigated?” Farrell says.

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Need for Greater Focus on Environmental Justice for LGBTQ+ Community

More than 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ Americans faced discrimination of some kind during 2020, including more than 3 in 5 transgender Americans, according to the Center for American Progress. A paper, published in the American Journal of Public Health by Michelle Bell, Mary E. Pinchot Professor of Environmental Health, and Leo Goldsmith ’20 MEM, examines how the discrimination is putting the LGBTQ+ community disproportionately at risk to environmental exposures.

The paper identifies air pollution, environmental disasters, and secondhand smoke as having a disproportional impact on LGBTQ+ populations. It outlines recommendations including anti-discriminatory policies within health care and the federal government, policies to aid the ability of transgender and nonbinary individuals to obtain appropriate identification documents, and the incorporation of LGBTQ+ issues into environmental justice research and organizations.

YSE Industrial Symbiosis Research Spurs Partnership with World Bank

A new World Bank platform, based on YSE’s research through the Center for Industrial Ecology, is promoting opportunities for the reuse of waste materials — a process known as industrial symbiosis — across a worldwide digital marketplace.

The platform will help foster industrial symbiosis opportunities in Eco-Industrial Parks, particularly in developing countries. 

The data will include information on renewable technologies, waste management strategies, and environmental performance.

YSE PhD student Koichi Kanaoka has been working under the direction of CIE Director Marian Chertow, professor of industrial environmental management, to identify companies that can utilize each other’s byproducts for the platform — including those in the U.S.

“The idea is to try to avoid waste by maximizing the number of possible exchanges among the companies,” says Chertow, who is leading the partnership with the World Bank.

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Electric Vehicles Have Emissions Advantage over Conventional Vehicles

Some analysts have raised concerns over how green the electric vehicle industry is, focusing particularly on indirect emissions caused within the supply chains of the vehicle components and the fuels used to supply the power that charges the vehicles.

A new study published in Nature Communications shows that the total indirect emissions from electric vehicles pale in comparison to the indirect emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

A research team, which included YSE Environmental and Energy Economics Professor Ken Gillingham, combined carbon pricing, life cycle assessment, and modeling energy systems to compare fossil fuel and electric vehicles.

“A major concern about electric vehicles is that the supply chain, including the mining and processing of raw materials and the manufacturing of batteries, is far from clean,” says Gillingham. “So, if we priced the carbon embodied in these processes, the expectation is electric vehicles would be exorbitantly expensive. It turns out that is not the case.”

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Poor Households in India Bear Brunt of Pollution Effects

Poorer households in India are bearing a disproportional impact from pollution caused by others, a study published in the journal Nature Sustainability found.

YSE Associate Professor of Energy Systems Narasimha Rao, the study’s lead author, said the data will likely hold for other countries with similar issues.

The study is the first to analyze and review how different households contribute to air pollution. It also examines the impact of the pollution on households according to income level and defines a new pollution inequity index.

While industrywide pollution controls can reduce inequity in the impacts of ambient air pollution, providing low-income households with clean cooking fuels remains the most effective way to reduce the number of premature deaths from air pollution in India, the authors concluded.

Planning Cities for Sustainable Biodiversity

Within the next 30 years, the global urban population is projected to increase by 2.5 billion people, which will increase urban spread by 1.53 million square kilometers, directly threatening 855 species, according to the findings of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America .

The study relied on data from Yale’s Map of Life — a collection of species distribution data. The cities that pose the greatest threat to species due to expansion are predominantly located in the developing tropical regions of sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Mesoamerica, and Southeast Asia.

“Cities are actually part of the solution,” says Karen Seto, Frederick C. Hixon Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science, who co-authored the study with PhD student Rohan Simkin; Walter Jetz, director of the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; and Robert McDonald, lead scientist for nature-based solutions at The Nature Conservancy. “We can build cities differently than we have in the past. They can be good for the planet; they can save species; they can be biodiversity hubs and save land for nature.”

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Effects of garbage salvaging and suspended crossbar on microplastic pollution along a typical urban river


Microplastic pollution has been considered as a global environmental issue that potentially threatens human health. However, research about microplastic pollution in urban rivers is still insufficient. This study analyzed the abundance and distribution of microplastics in surface water of the Nanfei River in Hefei, China. Microplastic concentrations ranged from 0.8 to 27 items/L along the studied river. The small size (50-333 μm) (47.58-84.89%) and white (55.65-88.89%) were predominant among all samples, except that collected from the source reach. Pellet was a typical and abundant microplastic type and accounted for 60.30%. PE and PP were the major polymers, occupying 55.24% and 22.86%, respectively. The results showed that traditional environmental management practices including salvaging surface garbage regularly and setting wooden suspended crossbars at tributary confluences could significantly mitigate the pollution degree of microplastics. The polymer risk index was calculated to describe the potential risk of microplastics, and the pollution level was still at high risk under various management practices. This study provides a valuable finding for future research on microplastics in urban city rivers, which may improve the knowledge that how to control and prevent microplastic pollution.

Keywords: Management practice; Microplastic; Pollution; Urban river.

© 2021. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.

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3. concern over climate and the environment predominates among these publics.

There is a common concern across most of the surveyed publics around environmental protection. A median of seven-in-ten report that climate change is having at least some effect in the area where they live. About half or more consider climate change to be a very serious problem; public concern about climate change is up since 2015 in places where a previous Pew Research Center survey is available. And, while there is some variation, majorities across most of these publics believe their national government is doing too little to address climate change.

When respondents were asked to choose between protecting the environment and job creation, the balance of opinion landed squarely on the side of environmental protection. (This survey was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic and resultant economic strains in many of these publics.)

Further, as people think about energy issues, many more would prioritize expanding renewable energy production over that for fossil fuel energies. Views about specific energy sources underscore this pattern, with strong majorities in favor of expanding the use of wind, solar and hydropower sources and much less support, by comparison, for energy sources such as oil or coal.

People’s views on climate, environment and energy issues tend to align with their political ideology. Those who place themselves on the left are more inclined to see climate change as a serious problem and to think their government is doing too little to address it. Left-leaning adults are especially inclined to prioritize protecting the environment or creating new jobs and to think it more important to increase renewable energy production over that for fossil fuels.

There is also a tendency for environmental and energy priorities to vary with age. In particular, a larger share of younger adults than older ones across most of these publics prioritize protecting the environment even it means harm to economic development.

Majorities see at least some effects of climate change where they live; a median of 58% say government action to address climate change is insufficient

A median of 70% across the 20 publics surveyed say they are experiencing a great deal or some effects of climate change in the area where they live. Italians and Spaniards stand out. More than eight-in-ten Italians (86%) say climate change is affecting the area where they live at least some, including 55% who think climate change is having a great deal of influence. A similar share of Spaniards say climate change is affecting their local area at least some (84%, including 53% who say climate change is affecting where they live a great deal).

Those in two northern European nations, the UK and Sweden, are far less likely to say they are experiencing the effects of climate change. In Sweden, for example, 55% say they experience a great deal (16%) or some (39%) effects of climate change where they live.

Overall, majorities across most of these publics believe their national government is doing too little to address climate change. A 20-public median of 58% say their national government is doing too little, compared with a median of 27% who say their government is doing about the right amount and a median of just 6% who say it is doing too much to reduce the effects of climate change.

Those in Spain and Italy again stand out. About eight-in-ten Spaniards (82%) and Italians (81%) say their government is doing too little on climate change. Only 14% in both Spain and Italy say their government is doing the right amount. Six-in-ten or more in other places, including the UK (69%), Poland (67%), France (63%), Germany (63%), the U.S. (63%), Canada (60%) and Taiwan (60%), say their government is doing too little.

Places where fewer than half see a need for more government action on climate change include Malaysia, Singapore and India. In Singapore, more say their government is doing the right amount (45%) to address climate change than say it is doing too little (38%). In Malaysia, similar shares say their government is doing too little (41%) and say it is doing the right amount (39%) now. And, in India, 37% say the government is doing too little, while 15% say it is doing the right amount and 32% say it doing too much to address climate change.

Chart shows majorities in most publics surveyed see climate change as a very serious problem and think their government is doing too little to address it

Increasing shares see climate change as a very serious problem since 2015

Chart shows rising shares see climate change as a very serious problem

A 2015 Center survey found the U.S. and China stand apart from other nations for their relatively low levels of concern about climate change. In the new survey, too, Americans stand out for having a higher share who say that climate change is not too serious or not a problem (25%).

Concern about climate change is rising across many publics; the share saying climate change is a very serious problem rose in 12 of 15 publics where a comparison is available. In five European countries – Italy, France, Spain, the UK and Poland – the percentage of those who think climate change is a very serious problem has grown by about 20 or more percentage points over roughly five years. For example, in the UK, about two-thirds (65%) now say climate change is a very serious problem, compared with roughly four-in-ten (41%) in 2015. Marked increases in the share saying climate change is a very serious problem also occur in South Korea and Japan (up 23 and 25 percentage points, respectively).

These findings are consistent with past Pew Research Center surveys using different question wording, which showed that global perceptions of climate change as a threat increased between 2013 and 2018. In the U.S., public concern about climate change has also gone up over time ; however, concern has risen primarily among Democrats and not Republicans.

People’s views about climate change are strongly linked to political ideology

Global perspectives on climate are strongly aligned with people’s ideological leanings; those on the left are more inclined than those on the right to see climate change as a serious problem and to think their government is doing too little to address it.

Ideological divides in the U.S. are larger than in any other public surveyed. Wide differences among Americans are also seen when comparing conservative Republicans with liberal Democrats. Political differences have been a hallmark of Americans’ views on climate . But other publics also have wide ideological divides over climate matters, consistent with past Center findings.

Australians on the left are more than twice as likely as Australians on the right to say climate change is a very serious problem (79% vs. 36%). Similarly, Canadians on the left are 38 percentage points more likely than Canadians on the right to say climate change is a very serious problem (82% vs. 44%). And in five European countries (Sweden, UK, Germany, Netherlands and Poland), those on the left are 20 or more points more likely than those on the right to say climate change is a very serious problem.

Views on climate change are widely shared among older and younger adults. There is a modest tendency for younger adults (at or under the median age) to say climate change is a very serious problem compared with older adults in a handful of places, including Australia, Canada, UK, the U.S. and others.

Chart shows large ideological gaps across many publics in views on climate change

Supporters of right-wing populist parties show less concern about climate change

In Europe, those who hold favorable views of right-wing populist parties generally see climate change as a less serious problem. For example, about one-third (32%) of supporters of Sweden Democrats (SD) say climate change is a very serious problem. In comparison, roughly seven-in-ten (69%) of Swedes who do not support SD say climate change is a very serious problem. Similarly, supporters of right-wing populist parties have drastically different views about how much their government is doing on climate change. In the UK, 49% of those who support the Brexit Party think the government is doing too little on climate, compared with 78% of those who do not support the party.

Chart shows supporters of right-wing populist parties in Europe generally less likely to think their government is doing too little on climate change

Large majorities see environmental problems where they live; a median of 71% would prioritize environmental protection over job creation

In most of these survey publics, large majorities classify a range of environmental issues as a big problem where they live. Majorities in 18 out of 20 survey publics see pollution of rivers, lakes and oceans as a big problem (20-public median of 78%). Nearly all in Spain (96%) and about nine-in-ten in Brazil, Italy, France and Russia say this. Swedes and Singaporeans are less concerned about water pollution, by comparison. In Sweden, for example, 54% say this is a big problem, 29% say it is a moderate problem and 16% say it is either a small problem or not problem.

There is a similarly high level of concern about the amount of garbage, waste and landfills. Around nine-in-ten say this is a big problem in Spain, Brazil and Italy. Across 17 of the 20 publics, two-thirds or more consider this is a big problem. The Dutch (43%) and Swedes (32%) have lower levels of concern about this issue.

Public concern about other environmental issues is also high, including air pollution (20-public median of 76% say this is a big problem), the loss of forests (74% median) and extinction of plant and animal species (67% median).

Swedes are less likely to consider each of these issues to be a big problem where they live. In Sweden, roughly a third see landfill waste, air pollution and loss of forests as a big problem – the lowest percentage among survey publics for these three items.

Chart shows most see each of a range of environmental problems where they live

Public priorities on environmental protections have risen over time. In 18 of the 19 survey publics with a comparable survey trend, the share who would prioritize protecting the environment went up since 2005/2006.

The exception is Canada, where 69% would prioritize protecting the environment, about the same as said this in a 2006 World Values Survey. (All trend comparisons to surveys conducted by the World Values Survey or the Asian Barometer Survey. Note that these surveys used different ways of contacting survey respondents over time and such differences in survey mode can influence findings.) ( See Appendix A for details .)

Chart shows two-thirds in China said environmental protection should have priority over creating jobs as of 2018

Public priorities related to the environment are strongly aligned with political ideology. People who think of their political views as on the left are much more likely than those on the right to prioritize environmental protection over job creation. Ideological differences are particularly wide in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the Netherlands (differences of at least 30 percentage points). This pattern is in line with wide differences by ideology on a range of climate, environment and energy issues. (Ideological self-placement is asked in 14 of the 20 publics; it is not asked in many of the Asian publics.)

There are also differences by age across 12 of the 20 survey publics, with younger adults more likely than older adults to say that protecting the environment should be given priority. The difference is largest in the Netherlands (16 points) and the U.S. (15 points). In Spain, Brazil and Australia, there is a 13-point gap. See details in Appendix A .

Most adults across these publics would prioritize renewable energy sources over fossil fuel production

Chart shows strong support for prioritizing energy from renewables over fossil fuels

Across the 20 publics, a median of 86% would prioritize renewable energy production, from sources such as wind and solar, while a median of just 10% would prioritize fossil fuel production. In Spain and Sweden, there is near consensus over prioritizing renewable energy production (96% each). In Malaysia (67%) and India (66%), about two-thirds say the same.

As with beliefs about climate change, people on the left are more likely to prioritize renewable energy production than those on the right. See details in Appendix A .

When asked for their views about each of seven energy sources, a similar portrait emerges. Strong majorities support expanding solar power (20-public median 93%), wind power (median 87%) and hydropower (median 85%).

Views on other energy sources are mixed. Support for expanding the use of natural gas ranges from a high of 88% in South Korea to a low of 38% in the Netherlands. Demand for natural gas has increased around the world over the last decade, in part from an interest in its lower carbon footprint. Across the 20 survey publics, a median of 69% support expanding the use of natural gas.

Public support for expanding the use of oil or coal is considerably lower. Medians of 39% and 24%, respectively, favor expanding reliance on oil and expanding the use of coal. Majorities in Russia and Malaysia support expanding the use of both energy sources, however. The two countries are major producers of fossil fuels. Russia is the world’s largest producer of crude oil and third-largest exporter of coal. Malaysia is the second-largest oil and natural gas producer in Southeast Asia.

Public opinion on nuclear power is quite varied. In Sweden, the Czech Republic and India, about half the public favors expanding nuclear power. In Japan, where the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident led the government to drastically decrease reliance on nuclear power, 24% favor expanding nuclear power and 68% oppose it. The accident also led to reappraisals of nuclear energy production in other countries, including Germany (21% favor expanding), Italy (21%) and Spain (16%), which, along with Japan, are among the publics with the lowest support for expanding nuclear power.

Men tend to be more supportive of nuclear power than women. Swedish men are 31 percentage points more likely than Swedish women to favor expanding nuclear power, for example. Differences between men and women are also sizable in Australia (31 points), the Netherlands (30 points), Canada (27 points) and the U.S. (27 points). Gender differences on nuclear power are consistent with those in past surveys on this topic, including a 2008 Eurobarometer survey , which found men were more supportive of energy production from nuclear power stations across Europe.

As with views about climate and the environment, people’s views about energy issues also tend to vary with their ideology. Across many of the publics, where ideology ratings are available, those on the left express are less likely than those on the right to favor expanding fossil fuel energy sources.

Chart shows most publics surveyed support expanding renewable energy sources and natural gas, fewer support expanding oil and coal

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Americans’ trust in scientists, other groups declines, trust in america: in the age of covid-19, do americans trust science, science and scientists held in high esteem across global publics, black americans have less confidence in scientists to act in the public interest, public confidence in scientists has remained stable for decades, most popular.

About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .

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Study Finds Exposure to Air Pollution Higher for People of Color Regardless of Region or Income

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Published September 20, 2021

In the United States, people of color breathe more particulate air pollution on average, a finding that holds across income levels and regions of the US, according to a study by researchers at the EPA-funded Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions. The findings expand a body of evidence showing that African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other people of color are disproportionately exposed to a regulated air pollutant called fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 ).

The findings, published in April 2021 in Science Advances , have serious public health implications–exposure to PM 2.5 can cause lung and heart problems, especially for those with chronic disease, younger people, older people, and other more vulnerable populations. 

The researchers conducted modeling and analyzed EPA data from the National Emissions Inventory for more than 5,000 emission source types for PM 2.5 such as industry, agriculture, light- and heavy-duty vehicles, construction, residential sources, and road dust to determine which source(s) were causing inequal exposure to PM 2.5 pollution by race-ethnicity.

They found racial-ethnic disparities for nearly all major emission categories. White people are exposed to lower than average concentrations from emission source types causing 60 percent of overall exposure, whereas people of color experience greater than average exposures from source types causing 75 percent of overall exposure. The disparity generally held across states and urban and rural areas and occurs for people at all income levels.

In other words, the study found that race appears to be an important factor for exposure in nearly all regions.

“Some assume that when there is a systematic racial-ethnic disparity, such as the one we see here, that the underlying cause is a difference in income,” says lead author Christopher Tessum of the University of Illinois. “Because the data shows that the racial disparities hold for all income levels, our study reinforces previous findings that race/ethnicity, independently of income, drives air pollution-exposure disparities.”

Tessum said the results have implications for how regulations might be designed to effectively address environmental injustice for people of color exposed to air pollution from multiple source types.

“We find that nearly all emission sectors cause disproportionate exposures for people of color on average,” said co-author Julian Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington. The authors noted in the paper that because of a legacy of housing policy and other factors, racial-ethnic exposure disparities continue to persist even with a decrease in the overall exposure. 

“The inequities we report are a result of systemic racism: Over time, people of color and pollution have been pushed together, not just in a few cases but for nearly all types of emissions,” said Marshall.

The study results also comes with caveats including uncertainty in the models and in inputs to the models and notes the potential benefit of additional analysis using local data and expertise. In addition, the study focuses on outdoor concentrations at locations of residence; disparities in associated health impacts would also reflect racial-ethnic variability in mobility, microenvironment, outdoor-to-indoor concentration relationships, dose-response, access to health care, and baseline mortality and morbidity rates.

EPA's goal is to provide an environment where all people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to maintain a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. To help achieve this, EPA researchers are focused on understanding the air quality concerns in overburdened communities and the health impacts of the residents. They are providing scientific expertise and tools to assist states, tribes, and communities to address environmental justice and equity issues, so that all people can breathe clean air and enjoy improved quality of life.

This research was funded by an EPA Science to Achieve Results grant: https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/display.abstractDetail/abstract_id/10614

Tessum, C. W., Paolella, D. A., Chambliss, S. E., Apte, J. S., Hill, J. D., & Marshall, J. D. (2021). PM2. 5 polluters disproportionately and systemically affect people of color in the United States. Science Advances, 7(18), eabf4491.


Coastal water pollution transfers to the air in sea spray aerosol and reaches people on land

Scientists find bacteria, chemical compounds from coastal water pollution in sea spray aerosol along beaches.

New research led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has confirmed that coastal water pollution transfers to the atmosphere in sea spray aerosol, which can reach people beyond just beachgoers, surfers, and swimmers.

Rainfall in the US-Mexico border region causes complications for wastewater treatment and results in untreated sewage being diverted into the Tijuana River and flowing into the ocean in south Imperial Beach. This input of contaminated water has caused chronic coastal water pollution in Imperial Beach for decades. New research shows that sewage-polluted coastal waters transfer to the atmosphere in sea spray aerosol formed by breaking waves and bursting bubbles. Sea spray aerosol contains bacteria, viruses, and chemical compounds from the seawater.

The researchers report their findings March 2 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology . The study appears in the midst of a winter in which an estimated 13 billion gallons of sewage-polluted waters have entered the ocean via the Tijuana River, according to lead researcher Kim Prather, a Distinguished Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry, and Distinguished Professor at Scripps Oceanography and UC San Diego's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. She also serves as the founding director of the NSF Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment (CAICE).

"We've shown that up to three-quarters of the bacteria that you breathe in at Imperial Beach are coming from aerosolization of raw sewage in the surf zone," said Prather. "Coastal water pollution has been traditionally considered just a waterborne problem. People worry about swimming and surfing in it but not about breathing it in, even though the aerosols can travel long distances and expose many more people than those just at the beach or in the water."

The team sampled coastal aerosols at Imperial Beach and water from the Tijuana River between January and May 2019. Then they used DNA sequencing and mass spectrometry to link bacteria and chemical compounds in coastal aerosol back to the sewage-polluted Tijuana River flowing into coastal waters. Aerosols from the ocean were found to contain bacteria and chemicals originating from the Tijuana River. Now the team is conducting follow-up research attempting to detect viruses and other airborne pathogens.

Prather and colleagues caution that the work does not mean people are getting sick from sewage in sea spray aerosol. Most bacteria and viruses are harmless and the presence of bacteria in sea spray aerosol does not automatically mean that microbes -- pathogenic or otherwise -- become airborne. Infectivity, exposure levels, and other factors that determine risk need further investigation, the authors said.

This study involved a collaboration among three different research groups -- led by Prather in collaboration with UC San Diego School of Medicine and Jacobs School of Engineering researcher Rob Knight, and Pieter Dorrestein of the UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science, both affiliated with the Department of Pediatrics -- to study the potential links between bacteria and chemicals in sea spray aerosol with sewage in the Tijuana River.

"This research demonstrates that coastal communities are exposed to coastal water pollution even without entering polluted waters," said lead author Matthew Pendergraft, a recent graduate from Scripps Oceanography who obtained his PhD under the guidance of Prather. "More research is necessary to determine the level of risk posed to the public by aerosolized coastal water pollution. These findings provide further justification for prioritizing cleaning up coastal waters."

Additional funding to further investigate the conditions that lead to aerosolization of pollutants and pathogens, how far they travel, and potential public health ramifications has been secured by Congressman Scott Peters (CA-50) in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 Omnibus spending bill.

Besides Prather, Pendergraft, Knight and Dorrestein, the research team included Daniel Petras and Clare Morris from Scripps Oceanography; Pedro Beldá-Ferre, MacKenzie Bryant, Tara Schwartz, Gail Ackermann, and Greg Humphrey from the UC San Diego School of Medicine; Brock Mitts from UC San Diego's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Allegra Aron from the UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science; and independent researcher Ethan Kaandorp. The study was funded by UC San Diego's Understanding and Protecting the Planet (UPP) initiative and the German Research Foundation.

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Environmental Research

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A Multidisciplinary Journal of Environmental Sciences and Engineering

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Environmental Research is a multi-disciplinary journal publishing high quality and novel information about anthropogenic issues of global relevance and applicability in a wide range of environmental disciplines, and demonstrating environmental application in the real-world context. Coverage …

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José l. domingo, phd.

Rovira i Virgili University, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Reus, Spain

Robert Letcher, BSc, MSc, PhD

Environment and Climate Change Canada, Gatineau, Quebec, Canada

Aijie Wang, PhD

Harbin Institute of Technology, Haerbin, China

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Zhenduo Zhu.

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Environmental fluid mechanics; Urban stormwater management; water quality modeling; ecohydraulics

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Environmental Politics

Hide and brag: the strategic use of media in china’s war on air pollution.

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Air pollution is a pressing concern for the Chinese government. While an increase in public concern about air pollution can be politically costly for the regime, we show that the Chinese government proactively utilizes the news media to increase public awareness of air pollution instead of suppressing relevant information. By analyzing media coverage of air pollution by 161 government-controlled and commercially-oriented newspapers between 2000 and 2017, we find that government-controlled newspapers provide more extensive coverage of air pollution than commercially-oriented newspapers. This tendency has become more pronounced since China declared its war on air pollution. Automated text analysis further demonstrates that the news media under government control emphasized the government’s response to air pollution, while diverting attention away from the negative health effects of air pollution. The analysis suggests that an authoritarian government can strategically use the news media to enhance public support for pollution mitigation strategies.

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Your Environment. Your Health.

Air pollution.

toddler with breathing mask

Air pollution affects an individual’s health in a variety of ways. The effects of air pollution can be seen in the young and old as well as the healthy and sick.

With both outdoor and indoor sources, air pollution is a health issue with global consequences. NIEHS works to understand how air pollution is associated with disease and how to prevent or reduce harm from exposures.

Air pollution is linked to health problems in the respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems. For example, people with asthma can have difficulty breathing if air pollution is high, and prenatal and early childhood air pollution exposure is linked with neurobehavioral problems. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, and, more recently, scientists have discovered associations with obesity and diabetes .

What NIEHS Is Doing

NIEHS-funded researchers study the biological mechanisms that lead to and exacerbate diseases linked to air pollution exposure. They examine the role air pollution plays in the development of various diseases, biological effects on the body, and groups who are most susceptible.

Researchers also study the combined effects of air pollution and other factors in the indoor and outdoor environment.

Outdoor Air

Outdoor air pollutants come from vehicle emissions, factory chimneys, chemical manufacturing, forest fires and other sources. NIEHS funds research on criteria air pollutants such as particulate matter, ultrafine particles, ozone, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide that are regulated by national ambient air quality standards as well as other air toxicants that are emitted to ambient air from livestock and agricultural farming.

NIEHS research provides a sound scientific base for the development of stricter air quality standards by regulatory agencies while also contributing to the identification of new risks. As research in this area advances, it continues to inform public health interventions, including regulatory actions, to improve health and protect quality of life.

Gas stoves and heating units can contribute indoor pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide. Mold, tobacco smoke, pet dander, and pest allergens can cause or exacerbate health problems. Many outdoor air pollutants can penetrate the indoor environment and accumulate, especially if buildings have poor ventilation.

NIEHS funds research on the health effects of indoor air pollutants found in homes as well as the workplace, such as pesticides, ultrafine particles, nanoparticles, and fumes from industrial chemicals.

To better understand the effects of air pollution, especially as individuals move between indoor and outdoor environments, researchers develop technologies to measure and collect data on personal exposures to understand when and where they occur. They also consider factors such as a person’s activity levels, which could increase inhalation of pollutants and bring about deeper deposition in the lungs.

This work contributes to NIEHS efforts to measure all the exposures a person experiences during their lifetime, a concept known as the exposome .

Global Concerns

women using a cookstove in India

While all air pollution problems have a global nature, NIEHS also focuses on health problems associated with open fires and traditional cookstoves that burn solid fuels, such as wood, crop waste, or dung. About 3 billion people around the globe – nearly half the world’s population – rely on open fires and traditional stoves for cooking. The smoke from these cooking methods can contain high levels of health-damaging pollutants such as fine particles and carbon monoxide. NIEHS funds research on cookstoves and their health effects in Ghana, Nepal, Peru, and Nicaragua, among other countries. Scientists are also testing interventions involving less-polluting stove designs and proper ventilation.

NIEHS supports research on the health effects of ambient air pollution in India and China by participating in a NIH-wide program. Recently NIEHS, in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research, initiated joint efforts to stimulate and promote collaborative basic, translational, and clinical research between U.S.-based researchers and Indian researchers in environmental health, including ambient air pollution.

Another global factor affecting air pollution is the changing global climate, and the heat waves and droughts that come with it. NIEHS-funded scientists study how climate influences health effects from air pollution.

For additional information on the work of NIEHS grantees, visit our Who We Fund tool .

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Srikanth Nadadur, Ph.D.

Fact sheets

Feature stories

Ambient (outdoor) air pollution

Outdoor air pollution is a major environmental health problem affecting everyone in low-, middle-, and high-income countries.

Ambient (outdoor) air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide per year in 2019; this mortality is due to exposure to fine particulate matter, which causes cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers.

WHO estimates that in 2019, some 37% of outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and stroke, 18% and 23% of deaths were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute lower respiratory infections respectively, and 11% of deaths were due to cancer within the respiratory tract.

People living in low- and middle-income countries disproportionately experience the burden of outdoor air pollution with 89% (of the 4.2 million premature deaths) occurring in these areas. The greatest burden is found in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions. The latest burden estimates reflect the significant role air pollution plays in cardiovascular illness and death.

Policies reducing air pollution

Addressing air pollution, which is the second highest risk factor for noncommunicable diseases , is key to protecting public health.

Most sources of outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals and this demands concerted action by local, national and regional level policy-makers working in sectors like energy, transport, waste management, urban planning and agriculture.

There are many examples of successful policies that reduce air pollution:

Particulate matter (PM) PM is a common proxy indicator for air pollution. There is strong evidence for the negative health impacts associated with exposure to this pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfates, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water.

Carbon monoxide (CO) Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless and tasteless toxic gas produced by the incomplete combustion of carbonaceous fuels such as wood, petrol, charcoal, natural gas and kerosene.

Ozone (O 3 ) Ozone at ground level – not to be confused with the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere – is one of the major constituents of photochemical smog and it is formed through the reaction with gases in the presence of sunlight.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO 2 ) NO 2 is a gas that is commonly released from the combustion of fuels in the transportation and industrial sectors.

Sulfur dioxide (SO 2 ) SO 2  is a colourless gas with a sharp odour. It is produced from the burning of fossil fuels (coal and oil) and the smelting of mineral ores that contain sulfur.

To read more details about these pollutants and other types, please visit this page .

Air quality guidelines

The WHO Global air quality guidelines (AQG) offer global guidance on thresholds and limits for key air pollutants that pose health risks. These guidelines are of a high methodological quality and are developed through a transparent, evidence-based decision-making process. In addition to the guideline values, the WHO Global air quality guidelines provide interim targets to promote a gradual shift from high to lower concentrations.

The guidelines also offer qualitative statements on good practices for the management of certain types of particulate matter (PM), for example black carbon/elemental carbon, ultrafine particles, and particles originating from sand and dust storms, for which there is insufficient quantitative evidence to derive AQG levels.

Chart showing pollutant, average time, interim target and AQG level

WHO response

Recognizing the gravity and urgency of the problem, all WHO Member States approved resolution A68.8, “Health and the Environment: addressing the health impact of air pollution,” at the World Health Assembly in 2015, complemented by a road map for action the following year.

WHO, as the coordinating authority on international health, supports countries in protecting public health through evidence-based policies and actions. Considering the significant health burden and the multiple potential benefits of interventions, WHO supports countries by providing evidence, building institutional capacity and leveraging the health argument to convene sectors to tackle air pollution.

To support reducing air pollution levels and to protect populations from health risks, WHO’s Air Quality and Health Unit works in three cross-cutting areas: 1. knowledge, evidence and measuring progress 2. institutional capacity building and technical support 3. leadership and coordination. Member States and sub-national entities are typically responsible for the implementation and monitoring of policies to promote air quality for health. Successful policies and solid governance depend on coordinated action between a variety of stakeholders and sec- tors. Cooperation with other UN agencies and non-state actors is essential and is integrated into WHO’s work to ensure synergies and maximize impact on the ground.

A full list of WHO’s activities to combat ambient air pollution can be found here and here .

Related links

Air Pollution

Air pollution is one of the world’s largest health and environmental problems. It develops in two contexts: indoor (household) air pollution and outdoor air pollution.

We look in detail at the data and research on the health impacts of Indoor Air Pollution, attributed deaths, and its causes across the world in our full entry: Indoor Air Pollution .

We look in detail at how exposure to Outdoor Air Pollution, its health impacts and attributed deaths across the world in our full entry: Outdoor Air Pollution .

In this entry we look at the aggregate picture of air pollution – both indoor and outdoor.

Interactive charts on Air Pollution

Related research entries

Share deaths indoor pollution

Air pollution is one of the world’s leading risk factors for death

Air pollution is responsible for millions of deaths each year.

Air pollution – the combination of outdoor and indoor particulate matter, and ozone – is a risk factor for many of the leading causes of death including heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in its Global Burden of Disease study provide estimates of the number of deaths attributed to the range of risk factors for disease. 1

In the visualization we see the number of deaths per year attributed to each risk factor. This chart is shown for the global total, but can be explored for any country or region using the “change country” toggle.

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death. In low-income countries, it is often very near the top of the list (or is the leading risk factor).

Air pollution contributes to {"value":11.65,"formattedValue":"11.65","template":"%value","year":2019,"unit":"%","entityName":"World"} 11.65 % of deaths globally

In the map shown here we see the share of deaths attributed to air pollution across the world.

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for disease burden

Air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death. But its impacts go even further, also being one of the main contributors to global disease burden.

Global disease burden takes into account not only years of life lost to early death, but also the number of years lived in poor health.

In the visualization we see risk factors ranked in order of DALYs – disability-adjusted life years – the metric used to assess disease burden. Again, air pollution is near the top of the list making it one of the leading risk factors for poor health across the world.

Air pollution not only takes years from peoples’ lives, but also had large effect on quality while they’re still living.

Who is most affected by air pollution?

Death rates from air pollution are highest in low-to-middle income countries.

Air pollution is a health and environmental issue across all countries of the world, but with large differences in severity. In the interactive map we show death rates from air pollution across the world, measured as the number of deaths per 100,000 people of a given country or region.

The burden of air pollution tends to be greater across both low and middle income countries for two reasons: indoor pollution rates tend to be high in low-income countries due to a reliance on solid fuels for cooking; and outdoor air pollution tends to increase as countries industrialize and shift from low-to-middle incomes.

A map of the number deaths from air pollution by country can be found here .

How are death rates from air pollution changing?

Death rates from air pollution are falling – mainly due to improvements in indoor pollution.

In the visualization we show global death rates from air pollution over time – shown as the total air pollution, in addition to the individual contributions from outdoor and indoor pollution.

Globally we see that in recent decades the death rates from total air pollution has declined: since 1990 death rates have nearly halved. But, as we see from the breakdown, this decline has been primarily driven by improvements in indoor air pollution.

Death rates from indoor air pollution have seen an impressive decline, whilst improvements in outdoor pollution have been much more modest.

You can explore this data for any country or region using the “change country” toggle on the interactive chart.

Outdoor air pollution

Share deaths outdoor pollution

You can find in-depth statistics on outdoor air pollution, its health impacts and causes across the world in our full entry here.

Indoor air pollution

Share deaths indoor pollution

You can find in-depth statistics on indoor air pollution, its health impacts and causes across the world in our full entry here.

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Help us do this work by making a donation.


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