Types of pollution and related challenges


2023 will be the tenth year in a row that the Earth's average surface temperature will exceed one degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. This is suggested by the United Kingdom Meteorological Office (Met Office) in an analysis released in December 2022. To stop this constant rise in temperatures we have been observing in the last decade, a coordinated effort by private and public companies and governments is very important to stop or slow down the impact of the different types of pollution, which have a direct effect on climate change.

1. Effects and consequences of pollution

We can talk about pollution when elements or substances enter an ecosystem when they should not be there, and it affects its balance. Polluting agents can be physical, chemical or biological and harm different environments such as water, soil or air when they are present in very high concentrations.

There are several types of pollution, including:

Air pollution

It is caused by the emission of gases and particles into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, among others. This is one of the greatest environmental risks that exist for human health.

By lowering air pollution levels, countries can reduce the risk of disease from acute and chronic stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and lung disease, including asthma.

Air pollution, mainly identified as an urban problem, is also linked to climate change. Both climate change and air pollution are worsened by the burning of fossil fuels , which increase CO2 emissions. These gases are the cause of global warming.

The WHO estimates that 600,000 children died in 2016 from acute respiratory infections caused by air pollution. The report highlights that "more than 40% of the world's population is exposed to high levels of air pollution in their homes, mainly from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies."

For example, in developing countries, women typically rely on biomass and coal fuels for cooking and heating, so they and their children are at greater risk of being affected by the effects of pollutants in their homes.

Water contamination

This type of pollution is generated by the dumping of chemical substances, industrial waste, wastewater and garbage in oceans, seas, rivers, etc.

Due to the pollution of the water, the food chain is also affected and, as a consequence, the humans may contract diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever or diarrhea. In addition, the consumption of unsafe water is closely related to numerous infectious diseases.

Besides, water pollution is the main cause of the disappearance of biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems. The poor state of freshwater has a great impact on the marine habitat, since it leads to the poisoning of different marine species and, therefore, the disappearance of biological diversity.

Soil contamination

It is caused by the release of toxic substances into the soil, such as pesticides, herbicides, chemical products and industrial residues.

Soil pollution affects food security as crop yields and quality are reduced. Safe, nutritious and good quality food can only be produced if our soils are kept healthy .

This type of pollution can also put our health at risk. A significant part of antibiotics – widely used in agriculture and in the field of human health – are released into the environment after being excreted from animals that have previously ingested them. These antibiotics can leach into soil and spread in the environment, leading to antimicrobial-resistant bacteria and decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics.

With a world population estimated to exceed 9 billion by 2050, our current and future food safety will depend on our ability to increase yields and food quality using the soils we currently have available. Pollution negatively affects all of us, and has been identified as one of the main threats to soil around the world.

2. Some challenges to fight against pollution.

There are numerous examples of pollution affecting developing countries or vulnerable communities. Some examples can be found below:

2.1 Pollution due to excess salmon production in Chile

Experts agree that an overproduction of salmon increases the risk of generating "anaerobic conditions" (where oxygen runs out) on the seabed, ending the lives of countless species.

Salmon farming center. File Photo: WWF Chile – Denisse Mardones.

The loss of oxygen occurs when, under the cages, where thousands of salmon are bred, the fish feces and part of the food they are unable to devour accumulate.

In the affected areas, there are natural schools of other species, such as sea urchins, which have been affected by salmon farming. Shellfish divers have detected a strong weakening of the fauna and the marine landscapes, which today are becoming marine deserts.

Another problem that increased fish density generates is the potential loss of effectiveness of antibiotics, as bacteria become resistant due to their widespread use. This is one of the main concerns of the World Health Organization since "it compromises our ability to treat infectious diseases and jeopardizes many medical advances."

2.2 Contamination of the Pilcomayo River due to the collapse of mining dikes. bolivian

The collapse of a dam with mining waste in Bolivia contaminated the water of the Pilcomayo river through its tributaries, making it unfit for human consumption. The collapse caused a large amount of mud with unrecovered minerals and chemical elements to reach the Rivera River, as well as the Tarapaya ravine in that country, which connects with the Pilcomayo River. The sediments that contaminated the waters due to the collapse of the tailings dam in Potosí traveled 32 kilometers downstream.

The government of Salta asked the population not to consume water, fish, eat fish or swim in the Pilcomayo due to the collapse of a mining dam in Bolivia. Now, a laboratory analysis in that country ensures that the river water is not suitable for human consumption. 

The researcher Gonzalo Mondaca stated that studies of pollutants should be carried out on those who live near the river, since this could trigger the alert of a danger that is currently repeated in the north of the country, where indigenous populations are contaminated by the mercury used in gold mining .

2. 3 Prevent oil spills in rivers and forests. The ARIEL project.

The Tupan motorboat and the drone are undergoing tests in Guanabara Bay, in Rio de Janeiro Michelle Chevrand / Repsol

When a spill occurs in a marine area, it can have a huge impact on the surrounding ecosystem and the effect on local wildlife can be severe. The most serious impacts are the poisoning of the organisms, causing damage to their skin, digestive system and internal organs. This can cause breathing problems, swimming problems, immune system disorders, and death.

In the event that the spill is oil, a very opaque hydrocarbon layer can be created on the surface of the water that prevents light from reaching the depths and, therefore, prevents the plants below the water column from doing photosynthesis, and so the entire ecosystem dies.

The ARIEL project (Autonomous Robot for the Identification of Emulsified Liquids) aims to detect hydrocarbons in the sea through a multi-drone system that relies on the use of special cameras.

The researchers tested the prototype in a relevant environment with a fully autonomous drone landing on an autonomous vessel. ARIEL, developed by Repsol Sinopec Brasil, reached a milestone in December 2020, being the first physical prototype to successfully complete the first tests in Guanabara Bay (Brazil).

This multi-drone system aims to detect marine spills and carry out environmental monitoring activities, which allows reducing operator exposure.

2.4 Reuse or recycle clothing from landfills

Mountains of used clothing in the Atacama desert (Chile). (Reddit/ed8907)

To the east of the Chilean town of Iquique, the driest desert on our planet folds away, so much so that in some places it has never rained and there is no life. Instead, there are tons of clothes about to catch fire .

In Chile, it is forbidden to dump textile waste in legal landfills, as it generates instability in the soil. Thus, there is nowhere to leave what is not marketed, so the remains of the textile industry end up in these gigantic and polluting illegal dumps in the Atacama desert.

The fashion industry is one of the most polluting in the world, after oil. In addition, today, much of the clothing is made of polyester, a type of plastic resin obtained from petroleum. Polyester takes more than 200 years to disintegrate, while cotton approximately 30 months. In the Atacama desert, most of the clothes are made, precisely, of polyester.

But, over time, these garments will begin to wear out, releasing microplastics that are dispersed into the atmosphere, seriously affecting the fauna of the area and the sea. Another thing that worries the local authorities are the fires that occur annually in these clandestine dumps.

The solution, however, is not simple. At the moment, there are two plans underway: a program to eradicate clandestine dumps and the incorporation of used clothing in the Extended Producer Responsibility Law (REP), which establishes an obligation for companies that import to take charge of their waste.

However, important steps are still missing for both plans to become a reality: in the first case, it still has to be approved by the regional governor, and in the second case, a decree that will establish that obligation has yet to be drawn up.