Environmental pollution, pollutants and endangered species
Environmental pollution, in the classical concept, occurs when certain elements that cause harmful effects accumulate in quantities that nature cannot recycle.
A contaminant is a substance that is found in a medium to which it does not belong or that does so at levels that can cause adverse effects.
A species is in danger of extinction when its existence is globally compromised.
Humans, in a short time, we have turned the Earth into a kind of supermarket where we are supplied with everything we need, including the spaces to build our towns, cities, mining camps, agricultural and livestock lands. We have wrested huge areas that recently belonged to the other species, without much regard to the damage we have caused them.
Without realizing it we have a wide catalog of methods with which we have intervened the planet. Such is the variety of harmful products that we emit, so diverse the means that we pollute and so many species that we put in danger, that it is difficult to inventory and understand in its totality the multiplicity of means and factors that intervene in the damage. Even more difficult, if not impossible, to predict the impact that the sum of its effects on the Earth and its inhabitants will have in terms of 50 or 100 years.
To understand the varied and massive human intervention of the environment, which affects most of the biological diversity of the planet, we have devised a method of analysis to simplify the understanding of the problem.
First, we affect our environment in three ways: by injection, by extraction and by invasion.
Secondly, there are three means that we contaminate or affect: air, soil and water.
We therefore have, mathematically, nine different ways or categories to contaminate or affect our environment.
Anthropogenic effect on soils, air and water
In soils we inject all kinds of substances that can be very toxic and dangerous. We introduce fertilizers, pesticides, solid waste, heavy metals, radioactive contaminants. Acid rains inject toxic substances into the soil, harmful products in the lands of towns and cities. We inject pollutants into agricultural and livestock soils, mining camps, plains, mountains, forests, beaches, glaciers or deserts and even our small gardens. There are few spaces in the planet’s soils that remain virgin, that is, with their surfaces free of contamination.
In the air we inject massive quantities of gases and particles. In the lower layers of the atmosphere the injections of carbon dioxide and methane are modifying the natural greenhouse effect, causing progressive increases in the temperature on the planet. Global warming brings climate change therefore. If the objectives and actions contained in the Paris Agreement cannot be achieved, we can expect serious damage to the Earth, as most scientists estimate.
We also injected carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide and trioxide, nitrous and nitrous oxides, nitrogen dioxide. The particles come from dust, fumes, mists and aerosols that rise to the atmosphere. Some remain in the air for years and others return to the earth through acid rain. Powders of industrial origin contain heavy metals such as iron, zinc and plumb. Other pollutants come from eroded soils that release mineral particles, animal waste and dried vegetables. Fumes and mists are sets of gases that carry various particles with them.
The aerosols inject liquid or solid corpuscles that remain suspended in the atmosphere. We must point out that the injection of chlorofluorocarbons, causing ozone holes, which have decreased dramatically since this gas was replaced by others used in aerosols and refrigeration.
Until the exosphere we have begun to contaminate it with cosmic scrap of out-of-service artifacts, to which we must add the waste coming from capsules and spacecraft.
In the waters. The injections cover oceans, seas, lakes, lagoons, rivers and ponds. Pollutants include all types of substances and materials. Throwing a plastic bag into the sea is an act of injection, just like a can of soda to a river. Many cities inject large volumes of fecal material, pathogenic microorganisms, detergents, insoluble gases, all types of garbage, debris, glass, microplastics and single-use plastic objects into rivers and seas.
Wastewater from industrial landfills contains oils, phosphates, nitrates, fluorides, lead, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, manganese, mercury and even radioactive substances. Another type of very lethal injections are oil spills. Many of these pollutants can take hundreds and even thousands of years to be recycled by nature.
The injection of plastics in the oceans is so serious that objects of this material have been found in depths that were until recently unimaginable. Using robots, a British team has recently located in the Mariana Trench and the Kermadec Trench, both in the Pacific Ocean, but separated by some 7,000 kilometers, plastic sinks in the most remote and hostile habitats. A plastic bag was found in the Mariana Trench, at 10,898 meters, near the maximum marine depth on Earth. Humans have reached the most unthinkable levels with our waste. The aggravating factor is that these plastic objects are for single use and take centuries to degrade.
From the soils we extract large amounts of resources for our food, protection and comfort. The felling of a tree in the Amazonrainforest is the extraction of a unit that has been removed from our largest plant lung. From the Borneo forest, until recently considered the lung of Southeast Asia, we extracted two thirds of the trees, with severe changes in weather patterns in consequence. Its effects have been felt even in very remote areas.
The killings of elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, foxes and bears, to name but a few examples, correspond to the extraction category. The extractions of animals or plants made on species of a medium can have effects on fauna and vegetation located in remote areas. The decline of salmon decimates the population of bears. This is known as imbalances in trophic chains.
From the air we extract the winged fauna. Each flying specimen killed by humans corresponds to an air extraction unit. We beat birds with different purposes: edible species, exotic birds such as hunting trophies, predatory birds for defensive purposes of agriculture, livestock breeding and farm animals. We also kill them for side effects, such as air pollution or fumigation of crops. The extermination can come from the extinction or population decrease of its prey, or the destruction of habitats or breeding sites of birds.
Of the waters. The extraction of aquatic species by humans has acquired dramatic volumes. Many fish can no longer reproduce at the speed with which they are caught. They are fished before they can reach their final size. We massively extract snappers, groupers, tuna, anchovies, hake, mullet, sole, trout, salmon, carp, sardines, catfish, dogfish, sharks, cod, sea bass, shrimp, prawns, lobsters, crabs, octopus, squid and many others. A separate chapter deserves the whales. The huge cetaceans have become one of the icons of our depredations, although their hunting in most of the planet is prohibited.
Of the terrestrial spaces. The most widespread method of invasion is the displacement of plants and animals from their terrestrial habitats by humans. We invaded forests and jungles, valleys and mountains, pampas and plains, islands and beaches, taiga and tundra to build towns, cities, vacation camps, mining fields, agricultural and livestock land, which previously belonged to other species.
We have invaded millions of square kilometers of ecosystems and destroyed millennial habitats to make way for agricultural lands and savannahs to raise livestock to produce food for almost eight billion humans, so enormous that they are lost in infinity.
In the destroyed or ruined habitats many animals fall. Others flee looking for new accommodations. Some achieve it, but the most unfortunate are isolated in ecosystems without a future, where they perish because they cannot adapt. The trees and other plants succumb under the saws of machines of newest generation. Each device has the capacity to cut, clear and load hundreds of logs in trucks, all in one operation, with only one operator, in hours.
Of the air spaces. The zones of the flying species invaded them with the construction of tall buildings, skyscrapers, electric towers and antennas in our cities or in high mountains. We also displace them with the pollution of automotive traffic and smoke from the factories. With all this we divert birds from their natural routes. We also invaded their airspaces with aircraft, rockets and missiles. However, the air invasion is not comparable to what we do at the terrestrial level.
Of the aquatic spaces. We invaded the waters with large fillings to gain spaces to build ports, roads, airports and expand housing developments. It is a fairly common practice that affects the biomes located on the coasts and marine, oceanic and lacustrine beaches. We also invaded and diverted the rivers to build hydroelectric dams. However, these invasions of the waters affect the environment much less than injections of pollutants or extractions of the fauna of rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.
Conclusions: We have created this simple classification system because we believe that its simplicity can help people remember and raise awareness of our actions on the planet. Our proposal is equivalent to a kind of “catalog index” to list the nine ways we affect our environment. It is very easy to remember the three medias: soil, air and water, combined with the three methods of contamination or affectation of the planet: injection, extraction and invasion. But this is just the beginning, a very simplified basis to begin to understand the problem. The catalog needs to be developed.
The subject of climate, in all its areas, is so important and urgent that it should be incorporated into the education programs of elementary and high school throughout the world. Issues such as climate change, environment, energy, forests, sustainable development, extinction of species, etc., should be studied in each of the school levels from the first grade of the elementary school until the last year of secondary education. Climate awareness is essential from an early age.
The UN, through its Climate Action program, is incorporating children, adolescents and young people in different areas. The more people know about these issues, the easier it will be to fix the planet. There are already many institutions and organizations that are working hard to stop climate change.
Some countries have understood the problem and are modifying their energy patterns in addition to implementing other measures. It is worth mentioning the efforts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Holland and Denmark among others.
Sandor Alejandro Gerendas-Kiss