In recent years, attempts to safeguard the Earth’s air, water, vegetation, and other important natural resources have become a matter of heated political debate, with figures representing certain sectors of industry arguing that the preservationist instincts of the so-called environmental movement are impractical and will hamper economic growth.
When we really understand the depth of our dependence on these very resources, though, it’s clear that there is no drive more practical than the attempt to safeguard environmental health.
With all of our modern conveniences and advances in medicine, transportation, and shelter, it can be easy to forget that human being are animals whose physical well-being is intimately tied to the well-being of the planet we call home. No matter how many technological strides we make, we still need clean air to breathe, pure water to drink, and wholesome food to eat, all of which require a healthy environment.
We can exercise fanatically, make good nutritional choices, get regular check-ups, and try to take good care of our bodies, but if we’re living in a toxic environment, our health will ultimately suffer. Here’s a look at just a few common environmental pollutants, and how they can affect our health:
In the Water
– Heavy metals: such as lead, can leach into water thorough old pipes, causing serious damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system, and red blood cells.
– Bisphenol A: Also known as BPA, this chemical, which has been used to make plastic water bottles, mimics the effects of estrogen, interfering with hormone levels and increasing human risk for reproductive disorders, including cancer.
– Biological contaminants: Solid waste, fertilizers and other biological pollutants can make lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water pools of unsafe bacteria. This primarily affects recreational use, since drinking water is generally sanitized to kill hazardous bacteria. Those coming into physical contact with biologically contaminated water sources can suffer from gastrointestinal distress or even more serious ilnnesses.
– Groundwater contamination: Man-made products such as gasoline, oil, road salt, and other chemicals can get into the groundwater, making it unsafe for human consumption or use.
– Aquifer contamination: Typically, water that comes up from aquifers — great storehouses of water deep beneath the ground — has been safer to drink than potentially contaminated groundwater. A recent growth in a form of natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has created concern that the aquifers, too, could become contaminated by industrial waste.
In Our Food
– Lead: This dangerous heavy metal can also find its way into our food, right from the soil at it grows in. If you grow your own food, it’s important to test your soil for lead contamination. If you do find unacceptably high levels of lead, you’ll need to remediate the soil before you can grow anything.
– Mercury: Fish is one of the healthiest foods around, rich in protein and beneficial Omega fatty acids. Unfortunately, most fish is also high in mercury due to environmental contaminants. Experts advise eating fish no more than once or twice a week to avoid health problems associated with this neurotoxin, which can interfere with the brain and nervous system.
– BPA: In addition to water bottles, BPA has also been used to line aluminum cans for storing soup, vegetables, and other foods.
– Pesticides: Frequent exposure to, or consumption of pesticides has been linked to birth defects, nerve damage, and cancer. This is particularly troubling because of the sheer amount of pesticides used in commercial farming. The potential dangers of pesticides are one reason a growing number of people prefer organic produce. Pesticides have also been found to be responsible for the mass deaths of honeybees. This in problematic because bees are necessary for the life cycle of our food supply.
In the Air
– Offgassing: A number of synthetically produced products we buy today, including furniture, building materials, toys, cars, and even clothing, are made from synthetic materials that can give off noxious fumes. Depending on the concentration and composition of the chemicals involved, offgassing can lead to headaches, nausea, eye or throat irritation, asthma attacks, or dizziness.
– Solvents: Most cleaning supplies and industrial solvents also release noxious fumes with the same results, unless they are made from natural sources.
– Combustion: Many sources, from factories to waste processing plants to power generation tour own automobiles and home heating units, rely on some form of combustion — whether of wood, trash, or fossil fuels — to make power. That means solid materials, liquids, or gasses are burned up to produce energy. Even the cleanest-burning fuels create a waste product, releasing particulates, as well as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide, into the atmosphere. Some of these toxins can be filtered at the time they are produced, minimizing the harm they do. For many years, though, no one realized they existed. High concentrations of these particulates can lead to respiratory distress, including asthma attacks, bronchitis, and lung diseases such as cancer and emphysema. They are also responsible for acid rain and have been implicated as a factor in global climate change.
With all of these pollutants threatening the health of our environment, it’s clear that the most self-interested thing to do is to protect the health of our planet.