Essays Articles Science Environmental Pollution Photos

September 18, 2007Two girls walk to school amid smoky skies in La Oroya, Peru, in this September 2003 photo. (See a map of Peru.)

The congested mining town of 35,000 nestled high in the Andes was recently added to the Blacksmith Institute's list of the ten most polluted places in the world.

A metal smelter run by the Missouri-based Doe Run Corporation has operated in the remote settlement since 1922.

Exposure to the smelter's pollution has led to dangerously high blood lead levels in nearly all of La Oroya's children, according to the New York-based institute.

Lung ailments are widespread, and high numbers of premature death have been linked to the smelter's emissions, the nonprofit reports on its Web site.

Likewise, acid rain from sulfur dioxide pollution has destroyed much of the vegetation in the area.

Doe Run says it has invested approximately 1 million U.S. dollars a year in a joint program with the Peruvian Ministry of Health to lower blood lead levels in the region.

The Blacksmith Institute, which collaborates with local agencies to fight pollution worldwide, compiled its annual list of the most polluted places through a nomination process.

The entries were then reviewed by a technical advisory board of medical and environmental experts.

William Suk, acting deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was not involved in the report.

"What the [Blacksmith Institute] has done is a good thing," Suk told National Geographic News.

"They are trying to bring to the attention of the world that these sites exist."

Keep clicking to see the other locations named on this year's list: Sumgayit, Azerbaijan; Linfen, China; Sukinda, India; Vapin, India; La Oroya, Peru; Dzerzhinsk, Russia; Noril'sk, Russia; Chernobyl, Ukraine; Kabwe, Russia; (Tianying, China, is not pictured.)

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—Photograph by AP

Pollution, also called environmental pollution, the addition of any substance (solid, liquid, or gas) or any form of energy (such as heat, sound, or radioactivity) to the environment at a rate faster than it can be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form. The major kinds of pollution are (classified by environment) air pollution, water pollution, and land pollution. Modern society is also concerned about specific types of pollutants, such as noise pollution, light pollution, and even plastic pollution.

Although environmental pollution can be caused by natural events such as forest fires and active volcanoes, use of the word pollution generally implies that the contaminants have an anthropogenic source—that is, a source created by human activities. Pollution has accompanied humankind ever since groups of people first congregated and remained for a long time in any one place. Indeed, ancient human settlements are frequently recognized by their pollutants—shell mounds and rubble heaps, for instance. Pollution was not a serious problem as long as there was enough space available for each individual or group. However, with the establishment of permanent settlements by great numbers of people, pollution became a problem, and it has remained one ever since.

Cities of ancient times were often noxious places, fouled by human wastes and debris. Beginning about 1000 ce, the use of coal for fuel caused considerable air pollution, and the conversion of coal to coke for iron smelting beginning in the 17th century exacerbated the problem. In Europe, from the Middle Ages well into the early modern era, unsanitary urban conditions favoured the outbreak of population-decimating epidemics of disease, from plague to cholera and typhoid fever. Through the 19th century, water and air pollution and the accumulation of solid wastes were largely problems of congested urban areas. But, with the rapid spread of industrialization and the growth of the human population to unprecedented levels, pollution became a universal problem.

By the middle of the 20th century, an awareness of the need to protect air, water, and land environments from pollution had developed among the general public. In particular, the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring focused attention on environmental damage caused by improper use of pesticides such as DDT and other persistent chemicals that accumulate in the food chain and disrupt the natural balance of ecosystems on a wide scale.

The presence of environmental pollution raises the issue of pollution control. Great efforts are made to limit the release of harmful substances into the environment through air pollution control, wastewater treatment, solid-waste management, hazardous-waste management, and recycling.

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