Pollution—Who Causes It?
“THIS island is government property under experiment. The ground is contaminated with anthrax and dangerous. Landing is prohibited.”* This sign posted on the Scottish mainland opposite Gruinard Island warns off would-be visitors. For the past 47 years, since an experimental explosion of biological weapons during the second world war, this beautiful island has been contaminated by the disease agents of anthrax.
Gruinard Island is an extreme example of pollution. But milder forms of ground pollution are a problem that is widespread and growing.
Ground Pollution on the Increase
One cause of this ground pollution is garbage. For example, the average British family of four, according to The Times of London, throws away 112 pounds [51 kg] of metal and 90 pounds [41 kg] of plastic each year, “much of which will further disfigure streets, roadside verges, beaches and leisure areas.”
The French magazine GEO reported that at one point the vast Entressen garbage dump outside Marseilles, France, had reached a height of 200 feet [60 m] and attracted an estimated 145,000 gulls. A wire perimeter fence around the dump did not prevent the wind from blowing away paper and plastic rubbish. As a result, the local authorities bought up 74 acres [30 ha] of adjacent agricultural land in an attempt to contain the litter problem.
It is little wonder that in organizing the European Year of the Environment—which ended in March 1988—EEC Commissioner Stanley Clinton Davis found the list of pollution troubles “infinite.”* Consequently, a campaign to encourage the reuse of waste was planned with the aim of recycling 80 percent of the Community’s 2,200,000,000 tons of garbage every year.
Pollution by garbage is by no means confined to Western Europe. It is now global. According to New Scientist magazine, it has even been necessary to clean up the remote continent of Antarctica. Australian research scientists gathered more than 40 tons of discarded machinery and building materials that were scattered near their base. The New York Times (December 19, 1989) reports that Americans at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, are cleaning up 30 years of accumulated trash, including a 77,000-pound [35,000 kg] tractor that sank in 80 feet [24 m] of water.
Yes, on dry land, pollution and contamination abound. But what of earth’s water?
Dirty Water—Unfit for Life
“Britain’s rivers are getting dirtier for the first time in more than a quarter of a century,” said The Observer. “The Kattegat [sea between Sweden and Denmark] is dying. It is rapidly becoming unable to support fish life because it is so polluted and starved of oxygen,” reported The Times of London. “Poland’s rivers are fast becoming open sewers and little improvement is in sight.”—The Guardian.
November 1986 saw a pollution catastrophe described by London’s Daily Telegraph as “the rape of Western Europe’s greatest and most charismatic waterway.” A serious fire in a Basel, Switzerland, chemical plant brought in firefighters who hosed down the blaze. Unwittingly, they washed from 10 to 30 tons of chemicals and pesticides into the Rhine, bringing about the “Chernobyl of the water industry.” This event hit the headlines. What is not usually reported, however, is the fact that toxic wastes are regularly dumped into the Rhine on a less dramatic scale.
Water-borne pollution is not confined to the area around its source. Miles away, its effects can be deadly. Europe’s rivers that flow into the North Sea transport paint, toothpaste whiteners, toxic waste, and manure in such quantities that the Dutch Institute for the Investigation of Fishery now labels North Sea flatfish as unfit to be eaten. Surveys show that 40 percent of the flounder from the shallow areas have skin diseases or cancerous tumors.
Who is to blame for such contamination? Most point the finger at industry, whose greed for profits far exceeds concern for the environment. Yet, farmers too are guilty of polluting streams and rivers near their land. Their growing use of nitrate fertilizers can now render the runoff from silage lethal.
Individuals also use rivers as a dumping ground for junk. The river Mersey, with a catchment area in the northwest region of England, is claimed to be the filthiest in Europe. “Now, only the foolish or unaware would swim in the Mersey,” commented Liverpool’s Daily Post, adding: “Anyone unlucky enough to fall into the river is likely to be taken sick to hospital.”
Raw sewage also figures prominently among the ingredients of marine pollution. The sea along one popular English holiday beach reportedly contained the equivalent of “a cupful of raw sewage in the average household bath,” exceeding the EEC limit fourfold.
Then there is another danger; this one falls from the sky.
Acid Rain—A Worrisome Threat
At one time, people in England used to die because of breathing the air—or, rather, the smog. Today, deaths from such pollution are rare. London’s smog, which killed an estimated 4,000 in 1952, is no longer a threat. Some coal-burning power stations that contributed to the smog have been transferred to the countryside and equipped with high chimneys and, in some cases, scrubbers to remove a large percentage of the most deadly gases.
This has not, however, stopped the polluting of the atmosphere. Tall chimneys may have eliminated the danger from the immediate area. But now, prevailing winds transport the pollutants far afield—often to other countries. As a result, Scandinavia suffers from British pollution, and many people refer to Britain as the “Dirty Old Man of Europe.” In a similar way, Midwestern industry in the United States causes much of Canada’s acid rain problem.
For years, scientists have pointed an accusing finger at sulfur dioxide as the main culprit responsible for the air pollution that causes acid rain. In 1985 Drew Lewis, a U.S. presidential envoy on Canadian-American concerns about acid rain, claimed: “Saying that sulphates do not cause acid rain is the same as saying that smoking does not cause lung cancer.” Seemingly, when it comes in contact with water vapor, sulfur dioxide produces sulfuric acid, which may acidify the rain or collect in the droplets of clouds, thus bathing upland forests with deadly moisture.
As the acid rain falls or, worse, as the acid snow melts, the soil beneath is affected. Swedish scientists who repeated a 1927 study concluded that at a depth of 28 inches [70 cm], the acidity of forest soil had risen tenfold. This chemical change seriously affects a plant’s ability to take up vital minerals, such as calcium and magnesium.
What effect does all of this have on man? He suffers when lakes and rivers formerly teeming with life become acidic and lifeless. Moreover, Norwegian scientists conclude from their studies that the increased acidity of the water, whether in lakes or soil, dissolves aluminum. This poses a definite health hazard. Scientists have noted “a clear relationship between higher mortality statistics and increasing aluminum concentrations” in the water. Possible links between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments of the aged continue to cause alarm.
True, in areas like Britain’s Mersey River and France’s Entressen garbage dump, efforts have been made to improve the situation. However, this type of problem does not go away. It reappears all over the world. But there is yet another kind of pollution—invisible.
Ozone—The Unseen Enemy
Burning fossil fuels, whether in power stations or in domestic furnaces, produces other pollutants in addition to sulfur dioxide. These include oxides of nitrogen and unburned hydrocarbons.
Scientific opinion now places increasing blame for air pollution on these nitrogen oxides. Under the effect of sunlight, they help produce a deadly gas, ozone. “Ozone is the most important air pollutant affecting vegetation in the US,” stated David Tingey of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He estimated that this was costing his country $1,000 million a year in 1986. Europe’s loss was then put at $400 million annually.
Hence, while acid rain is killing waterways, many feel that ozone, linked ultimately to automobile exhausts, is more to blame than acid rain for the death of trees. The Economist stated: “Trees [in Germany] are being prematurely killed not by acid rain but by ozone. Though the death blow may be delivered by frost, acid mist or disease, it is ozone that makes the trees vulnerable.” And what is happening in Europe merely mirrors the conditions on other continents. “Trees in the national parks of California are being damaged by air pollution that may be coming from as far away as Los Angeles,” reported New Scientist.
There is, however, a worse kind of pollution defiling the earth. It is a fundamental causative factor in the physical polluting of the land, water, and air of our planet.
It is easy to be deceived by people’s appearance. Jesus Christ graphically illustrated this. Addressing the religious leaders of his day, he said: “Woe to you . . . because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of . . . every sort of uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27) Yes, a person may look clean-cut, even attractive, outside, but his speech and conduct may reveal his true degraded personality. Sad to say, such moral pollution is widespread today.
Moral pollution includes drug abuse, which is more widespread than ever. Pop stars, stage and screen idols, and even apparently respectable businessmen, have become the objects of scandal due to their dependence on drugs. Moral pollution also includes sexual immorality, which can be the cause of broken families, divorce, abortions, as well as burgeoning epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases, including the sinister scourge of AIDS.
At the root of this moral pollution lies selfishness, which also lies at the root of much of the physical pollution afflicting mankind. Tereza Kliemann, involved in AIDS treatment in São Paulo State, Brazil, identified the problem: “Prevention [of AIDS] implies a change in behaviour among high-risk groups and that is difficult.” The vast majority of people insist on doing what they want to do, rather than taking into consideration how their actions affect others. As a result, literature, entertainment, and virtually the whole of human culture are riddled with moral pollution.
To thinking people, most present-day efforts at a physical and moral cleanup appear as no more than a cover-up. You may well wonder, then, whether there is any reliable hope for an earth that is clean both physically and morally. Do not be disheartened. The Bible tells us that the end of pollution is in sight!
Anthrax is an infectious disease of animals that causes ulcerous skin nodules or lung infections in man.
EEC stands for European Economic Community, or Common Market.
[Box/Picture on page 7]
Worse Than the Ravages of Time
After years of exposure to the elements, this carved stone face presented a mere death mask. Worse than the ravages of time are the corrosive effects of air pollution. Old buildings throughout the world suffer the gnawing erosion of the acidic rain that washes them, from the City Hall in Schenectady, United States, to the famous edifices of Venice, Italy. Rome’s monuments reportedly crumble away at a touch. Greece’s famed Parthenon is believed to have suffered more damage in the last 30 years than in the preceding 2,000. Such damage is often compounded by a mixture of environmental factors including temperature, wind, and humidity, as well as by bacteria living on the building’s walls. With these consequences for inanimate objects, what must be the effect of pollution on living creatures?
Carving on a cathedral in London