Types of Pollution

Updated September 10, 2019
air pollution

Pollution comes from all types of sources with various consequences. Pollution is harmful to the natural world and human health. If you're environmentally conscious, understanding the pollution basics can help you to minimize your contribution to pollution.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is any contamination of the atmosphere that disturbs the natural composition and chemistry of the air. This can be in the form of particulate matter, such as dust or excessive gases like carbon dioxide or other vapors that can't be effectively removed through the natural cycles of the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle.

Some of the most excessive sources of air pollution include:

  • Vehicle or manufacturing exhaust
  • Forest fires, volcanic eruptions, dry soil erosion, and other natural sources
  • Building construction or demolition
Illuminated Trees Against Sky At Night

Effects of Air Pollution

Depending on the concentration of air pollutants, several effects can be noticed. For example, polluted air results in smog increase, higher rain acidity, crop depletion from inadequate oxygen, and higher rates of asthma in the human population. Some scientists believe that climate change is also related to increased air pollution.

Air Pollution Statistics

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year, 7 million people worldwide die from air pollution. WHO states the annually death rate from ambient outdoor air pollution is 4.2 million people worldwide. The organization's statistics also reveal an annual death rate from exposure to household smoke from fuels and dirty cookstoves is 3.8 million people. Of the world's population, WHO reports that 91% live where air quality exceeds the limits of the WHO guidelines.

Water Pollution

Water pollution means any contaminated water, whether from chemical, particulate, or bacterial matter that degrades the water's quality and purity. Water pollution can occur in oceans, rivers, lakes, and underground reservoirs. The pollution spreads from different water sources flowing together through the natural water cycle.

Causes of water pollution include:

  • Increased sediment from soil erosion
  • Improper waste disposal and littering
  • Leaching of soil pollution into water supplies
  • Organic material decay in water supplies
water pollution

Effects of Water Pollution

The effects of water pollution include decreasing the quantity of drinkable water available, lowering water supplies for crop irrigation, and impacting fish and wildlife populations that require water of a certain purity for survival.

Water Pollution Statistics

One of the worst water contaminants is untreated wastewater from municipalities and industries. This type of pollution leaches into the soil and water. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports on municipal and industrial wastewater contamination to world water supplies in various countries. For example, in Europe 71% of municipal and industrial wastewater is treated, but in Latin America counties, that figure is only 20%. Middle East and North Africa statistics fall around 51%, whereas Asia and the Pacific region is between 10% and 20%. Untreated wastewater is simply released and pollutes land, water, coastal ecosystems.

Wastewater Treatment Statistics for United States

It's estimated that water from U.S. major rivers is used and reused more than 20 times before it finally reaches the ocean. Nineteen percent of U.S. households are connected to septic tanks for treatment and disposal of wastewater. The 2012 UN statistics revealed 75.5% of the U.S. population was connected to wastewater treatment.

Soil Pollution

Soil, or land pollution is soil contamination that prevents the natural growth and balance of the land. Pollution can be present in land used for cultivation, habitation, or as a wildlife preserve. Some soil pollution is deliberate, such as the creation of landfills. However much of soil/land pollution is accidental and can have widespread effects.

Soil pollution sources include:

  • Hazardous waste and sewage spills
  • Non-sustainable farming practices, such as the heavy use of inorganic pesticides
  • Strip mining, deforestation, and other destructive practices
  • Household dumping and littering
Open sewage

Effects of Soil Pollution

Soil contamination can lead to poor growth and reduced crop yields. Wildlife habitats can be destroyed. Water and visual pollution are often the result of soil pollution. Other results include, soil erosion and desertification.

Soil Pollution Statistics

According to the Conservation Institute, soil pollution is attributed to deforestation and soil erosion, agricultural chemicals, industrialization, mining, landfills, and human sewage. The loss of topsoil is attributed to fertilizers and the use of pesticides in farming practices. These chemicals create a breeding ground for harmful and devastating fungi that lead to land erosion.

Noise Pollution

Noise pollution refers to undesirable levels of noises caused by human activity that disrupt the standard of living in the affected area. Noise pollution can come from:

  • Road traffic
  • Airports
  • Railroads
  • Manufacturing plants
  • Construction or demolition
  • Concerts
air pollution from car fumes

Effects of Noise Pollution

Some noise pollution may be temporary while other sources are more permanent. Effects may include hearing loss, wildlife disturbances, and a general degradation of lifestyle.

Childhood Development Impaired

Early childhood development and education can be impaired from noise. The WHO reports that studies and statistics on children exposed to chronic aircraft noise suffer from impaired cognitive performance, well-being and moderate evidence of blood pressure and catecholamine hormone secretions are effected.

Noise Pollution Statistics

The WHO reports environmental noise and its effect on human health. In the EU, road traffic noise exceeds 55 db with 40% of the EU population exposed. 20% suffer from exposure to more than 65dB levels. More than 30% are exposed to nighttime noise levels of more than 55 dB. The Acoustical Society of America reports that in 1900, only 20% to 25% Americans were exposed to noise created by vehicles. That percentage in 2000 was 97.4%.

Radioactive Pollution

Radioactive pollution is rare but extremely detrimental, and even deadly, when it occurs. Because of its intensity and the difficulty of reversing damage, there are strict government regulations to control radioactive pollution.

Sources of radioactive contamination include:

  • Nuclear power plant accidents or leakage
  • Improper nuclear waste disposal
  • Uranium mining operations
People in Yellow Suits Collecting Hazardous Material

Effects of Radioactive Pollution

Radiation pollution can cause birth defects, cancer, sterilization, and other health problems for human and wildlife populations. It can also sterilize the soil and contribute to water and air pollution.

Radioactive Pollution Statistics

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), 82% of radioactive pollution is the result of natural sources while 18% comes from anthropogenic sources (x-rays, nuclear medicine and products).

  • Radon gas is responsible for 55% of the natural radioactive pollution.
  • Only 0.5% of radioactive pollution comes from radioactive fallout from nuclear power plants and the testing of nuclear weapons testing.
  • Residual radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere can remain for 100 years

Thermal Pollution

Thermal pollution is excess heat that creates undesirable effects over long periods of time. The earth has a natural thermal cycle, but excessive temperature increases can be considered a rare type of pollution with long-term effects. Many types of thermal pollution are confined to areas near their source, but multiple sources can have wider impacts over a greater geographic area.

Thermal pollution may be caused by:

  • Power plants
  • Urban sprawl
  • Air pollution particulates that trap heat
  • Deforestation
  • Loss of temperature moderating water supplies
oil refinery

Effects of Thermal Pollution

When temperatures increase, mild climatic changes may be observed. Swift changes make wildlife populations vulnerable and they may be unable to recover.

Thermal Pollution Statistics

Thermal pollution can be seen as a result of various manufacturers. For example, Illinois State Water Survey reports the highest heat emissions worldwide are found in the Mississippi River, generated by coal-burning power plants. The most polluted basin in the world from thermal pollution is found in Europe - the Rhine River.

Light Pollution

Light pollution is the over illumination of an area that is considered obtrusive. Light pollution isn't just found in cities. Much of the modern world suffers from light pollution.

Sources include:

  • Large cities
  • Billboards and advertising
  • Nighttime sporting events and other nighttime entertainment
  • Sky glow (bright halo over urban areas)
  • Light trespass (unwanted artificial light overflow from street lights and security yard lights)
light pollution

Effects of Light Pollution

Light pollution can interfere with the normal sleep cycle. If it is near residential areas, light pollution can also degrade the quality of life for residents. Light pollution makes it impossible to see stars, therefore interfering with astronomical observation and personal enjoyment.

Light Pollution Health Statistics

The National Institutes of Health reveals a growing body of work that suggests light pollution may have long-term ill effect on humans and wildlife. Exposure to light photons that hit your retinas can disrupt the circadian rhythm of humans and animals.

  • Studies revealed 10% to 15% of human genes are controlled by the circadian cycle. This cycle disruption can cause health problems, such as insomnia, depression, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases.
  • In one 15-year study, nurses working night shift three times a month had a 35% increase in colorectal cancer.
  • In neighborhoods brightly lit, so you can read a book outdoors, women had a 73% higher risk of breast cancer compared to women living with little artificial nighttime lighting.

Light Pollution Night Sky Statistics

Another effect of light pollution is the inability to see the night sky. This is troublesome to astronomers and anyone wishing to enjoy star gazing. In 2016, the New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness reported that 80% of the world resides under light pollution. In fact, 99% of the populations of the United States and Europe live under skies of light pollution. More than a third of the world's population is unable to see the Milky Way. This breaks down to 80% North Americans and 60% Europeans never see the Milky Way.

Visual Pollution

Visual pollution is more than an aesthetic eyesore or undesirable, unattractive views. It can lower the quality of life in certain areas, and have an economic impact on property values as well as personal enjoyment.

Sources of visual pollution include:

  • Power lines
  • Construction areas
  • Billboards and advertising
  • Neglected areas or objects such as polluted vacant fields or abandoned buildings
Overhead power line on railway tracks in Berlin

Effects of Visual Pollution

While visual pollution has a few health or environmental effects, is the pollution that can have detrimental affects. Most of the effects impact those living near or in this type of pollution. Visual pollution presents a hazard and alters the community identity. For example, visual pollution can be distracting while driving a vehicle or operating equipment, and can lead to traffic congestion.

Visual Pollution Statistics

The European Scientific Journal published a study in June 2015 called "Visual Pollution Can Have A Deep Degrading Effect On Urban And Suburban Community: A Study In Few Places Of Bengal, India, With Special Reference To Unorganized Billboards." The study concluded that developed countries recognized and were taking steps to reduce visual pollution. The researchers concluded that in developing countries, garbage is a greater nuisance and health problem than it is a visual pollution issue.

  • The psychological effects of visual pollution include, eye fatigue, irritability and sense of hygiene diminishes.
  • People living with visual pollution see their quality of life diminish.
  • Interaction with others can suffer as civility weakens.
  • Children may suffer from their aesthetic sense failing to develop.
  • Children may grow up incapable of appreciating the beauty of an aesthetically pleasing environment. This could stunt their ability to create and strive for a better environment and life.

Personal Pollution

Personal pollution is the contamination of one's body and lifestyle with detrimental actions. This may include:

  • The National Institutes of Health lists tobacco smoking as personal pollution.
  • The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) states other personal pollution is caused by pet owners neglecting to clean up after their dogs (fecal matter).
  • The use of turf fertilizers is categorized as personal pollution. In fact, the EPA recommends changing these fertilizers to 15-0-15, which is a non-P (phosphorus) fertilizer.
  • The Environmental Pollution Centers lists chemicals found in detergents and household cleaners as personal pollution.
Smoking is personal pollution.

Effects of Personal Pollution

According to the EPA, personal pollution includes, all types of pharmaceuticals, and personal care products (PPCP). The human and veterinarian products create trace environmental pollutants found in both surface waters and ground waters.

Personal Pollution Statistics

Personal pollution gained its own category, but no studies have been made directly assessing personal pollution. However, there are studies on various types of personal pollution, such as turf fertilizers found in EPA reports on Nutrient Pollution, another type of pollution not commonly reported.

Nutrient Pollution

The EPA reports nutrient pollution is a challenge since it is a big problem that is spread throughout the U.S. Excessive phosphorous and nitrogen discharged into the water and air is largely blamed on personal pollution or human activities, such as fertilizers, sewage discharge from treatment plants, animal manure, runoff, pet waste, and more. Row crop runoff and animal feeding operations are a major cause.

Farmer and vet inspecting cows feeding from trough on dairy farm

Effects of Nutrient Pollution

Intertwined with other forms of pollution, such as its carriers of air and water and personal pollution, nutrient pollution impacts all of these areas as well as human health. Water charged with nutrient pollution can generate algae that overcomes the water systems (algae blooms). Shellfish, aquatic and marine life suffer when they absorb the toxins created by algae blooms. Eating contaminated shellfish or drinking water from this source can make a person very ill and in extreme cases lead to death.

Nutrient Pollution Statistics

The Mississippi River Basin runs through 31 states before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrient pollution effects this ecosystem. The EPA reports in the United States:

  • 60% of Americans consume food choice or freshwater from the Mississippi River Basin.
  • 78% of coastal waters suffer from algae overgrowth
  • 15,000 bodies of water, impaired by nutrient pollution
  • 101,000 miles of rivers and streams, impaired by nutrient pollution
  • 3,500,000 acres of reservoirs and rivers, impaired by nutrient pollution
  • 20% of home wells (shallow) register levels of nitrate above drinking water standards.

Littering Pollution

Littering is a form of pollution that can fall into several other types of pollutions, such as personal, visual, water, and soil. Any type of waste or trash carelessly discarded without proper disposal is the definition of littering. This can include anything from fast-food containers, bottles, paper and plastic packaging, sales receipts, electronic waste, etc.

Woman throwing bottle out of car window

Effects of Littering Pollution

The type of litter often determines the effect it has on the environment. For example, some litter contains harmful chemicals that can find their way into water and soil. Plastics can harm wildlife that either get trapped in plastic bags, and die, or marine life that consumes small pieces of broken down plastic.

Litter Statistics

The leading national nonprofit Keep America Beautiful reports statistics on the types of litter in the United states. These figures show 40% less litter in residential neighborhoods than along the roads. When it comes to convenience stores and commercial areas, the surrounding roadways have 11% more litter.

Keep America Beautiful report on percentages of roadside litter and sources:

  • 23% from pedestrians
  • 53% from motorists
  • 16% from vehicle loads escaping poor coverings/enclosures
  • 2% from vehicles, such as pieces of cars, trucks, blown tires, etc.
  • 1% receptacle spillages

Pollution Types Are Connected

All types of pollution are interconnected. For example, light pollution requires energy to be made, which means the electric plant needs to burn more fossil fuels to supply the electricity. Those fossil fuels can contribute to air pollution, which returns to the earth as acid rain and increases water pollution. The cycle of pollution can go on indefinitely, but once you understand the different pollution types, how they are created, and the effects they can have, you can make personal lifestyle changes to combat poor conditions for yourself and others around you.

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Types of Pollution