It’s virtually impossible to get lawmakers in Washington to agree on anything these days, but in late 2015 legislators waged a strong bipartisan effort to fight a very tiny menace: microbeads. You’ve undoubtedly seen these tiny plastic particles that are used in many brands of soap and toothpaste. Problem is, after they wash down the drain, they don’t dissolve, and end up polluting waterways. So on Dec. 28, President Barack Obama signed the “Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015,” which will phase out the sale of products containing microbeads. Chances are when you think of pollution, factories and cars belching smoke come to mind. Or maybe you worry about the effects of carbon dioxide on climate change. Yet as the microbeads example shows, there are several lesser-known forms of pollution that impact the environment as well as public health.
These tiny exfoliating and scrubbing beads might have seemed like a good idea when companies introduced them in products a few years ago, but there’s now plenty of evidence showing their environmental impact. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to handle these polyethylene beads. Eventually, they pour into waterways by the billions. Along the way, these stubborn particles absorb other harmful pollutants such as the notorious pesticide DDT. Fish and other wildlife mistake them for food, and the beads become lodged in their digestive tracts. Since humans are at the top of the food chain, it’s likely those who eat these fish also absorb the poisons collected by all those microbeads.
In the U.S., many companies have already voluntarily removed these polyethylene beads from their products, or announced plans to that effect. They did this in response to public demand. One notable driver for change: a dental hygienist in Arizona who blogged about how she constantly found microbeads lodged in her patients’ gums, like popcorn hulls. If that doesn’t sound very appealing to you, look for products that contain natural alternatives or are labeled with “zero plastic inside.” A list of products that contain microbeads can be found at Beatthemicrobead.org.
When upgrading to the latest iPhone or laptop, you probably don’t give the old device a second thought. E-waste contains many toxic compounds, including lead, mercury, beryllium, chromium, as well as flame-retardants. With electronics becoming obsolete at a dizzying rate, you can imagine the volume of toxic materials entering landfills. From there, these contaminants can seep into the groundwater, where humans consume them.
Thankfully, there is much greater public awareness of this issue than just a few years ago. Yet the answer is not as simple as e-recycling. Recyclers may unscrupulously sell scavenged metal from these devices. Also, most of this toxic waste is sent to developing countries, where workers are exposed to these toxic materials without the benefit of protective equipment or techniques. Refurbishing and reusing is a preferred approach. It’s not only better for the environment, but your old computer could be a welcome gift to a low-income household.
3. Noise Pollution
It makes sense that excessive noise can cause hearing impairment … but heart disease? World Health Organization researchers found noise is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, which affects more than 15 million Americans. This narrowing of the blood vessels has long been associated with conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and a sedentary lifestyle. However, data also suggests many cases of heart disease may be linked to noise pollution.
That WHO study estimates that long-term exposure to traffic-related noise may account for around 3 percent of annual CHD deaths in Europe. While daytime noise is also associated with health problems, the risk particularly escalates during the evening hours. Nighttime noise is shown to increase levels of stress hormones. These hormones include cortisol, which is linked to hypertension, immune dysfunction, stroke, and heart failure. If that’s not bad enough, chronic noise exposure is also associated with a range of cognitive and social problems, and increased use of drugs and accident rates.
2. Coal Ash
Coal is often portrayed as the villain in discussions about the future of energy and renewable sources. But most environmentalists primarily worry about coal in terms of its effect on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Fewer worry about the nasty waste product created by burning coal. As of 2012, the EPA estimated that 470 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. produced about 110 million tons of coal ash. These coal combustion residuals contain many harmful chemicals, including mercury, cadmium and every 19th century villain’s favorite poison: arsenic. Without proper containment, coal ash contaminants can leak into groundwater, or blow into the air. Even worse, the failure of large coal ash surface impoundments can cause devastating damage to the environment. In the largest such incident, a 2008 spill in Kingston, Tenn., tore homes off foundations and contaminated waterways. The Tennessee Valley Authority estimated the cost of cleanup there at up to $975 million.
That incident prompted the EPA to adopt strict new guidelines for the disposal of coal ash. For example, the policy requires that landfills and containment ponds be lined to protect groundwater. Also, the rules require each site handling CCRs to develop a “fugitive dust” plan, which is just what it sounds like — a plan designed to prevent coal ash residue from blowing into surrounding communities. However, perhaps most notably, the rules call for more recycling of coal ash, which can be used in everything from concrete to gypsum wallboard.
1. Agricultural Runoff
The U.S. agriculture industry is a modern marvel, feeding more than 300 million Americans — too well, some might say — but still creating enough annual surplus to export almost $140 billion in products. Yet all this productivity comes with a price: according to the EPA, agriculture is now the leading cause of impaired water quality in U.S. waterways. All those chemicals that have made American farmers so productive — fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, livestock nutrients, etc. — are carried away by rain or snowmelt and eventually deposited into lakes, rivers, wetlands and groundwater. From there, these contaminants find their way into water treatment plants. These plants not only spend millions each year on chemicals to clean agriculture contaminants from drinking water, the amount of runoff sometimes stretches their capabilities to the limit.
Most of this non-point source pollution is the result of poor land management. For instance, poorly located and managed feedlots, overgrazing, plowing too often or improperly applying fertilizer are risk factors. Both the EPA and the USDA have taken steps in recent years to reduce this runoff. The USDA has even developed an Internet-based tool, the Water Quality Index for Agricultural Runoff, or the WQIag, to help producers calculate the quality of water flowing off their fields.
One More: Light Pollution
(Editor’s note: You don’t have to be a migrating sea turtle, or an astronomer, to feel the effects of the growing light pollution in the U.S. We took a look at some of the negative effects of light pollution in another Listosaur story.)