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10 Cases Of Massive Environmental Poisoning

by Gregory Myers
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The Industrial Revolution changed modern life in an untold number of ways. Unfortunately, not all of them were positive, including the large-scale production of pollution. While it may not be instantly noticeable in some areas, that doesn’t change the fact that our world has been irreparably altered by all of the toxic substances that have now made it into our air, soil, and groundwater.

10Toxic Byproducts From Computer Waste Are Polluting Third World Countries

Every year, we buy tons of iPhones, laptop computers, and other handy gadgets, throwing out the old to make room for the new. Many people give their old computers to donation centers with the hope that someone else will at least get some use out of them, but this practice actually creates an immense amount of electronic waste, most of which gets imported to third world countries. Dumping electronic garbage in another country is illegal, but these companies make use of a very clever legal loophole.

As far as the law is concerned, it is perfectly okay to donate computers and other technological devices as long as they are reusable or can be refurbished in some way. However, companies are often sending huge piles of stuff that is impossible to refurbish, depending on enforcers of the regulations to be too busy to catch on. This abuse has created a brand new industry in Ghana, a country that receives more than its fair share of toxic waste. The computers contain lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other dangerous substances, but they also contain small amounts of precious metals like gold. People, including children, melt the computers down to get to the precious metals. Of course, this means breathing in horribly toxic fumes and polluting the air.

Learn how the planet is affected by pollution with Understanding Environmental Pollution at!

9All Sorts Of Nasty Things Are Dumped Down The Sink

People like to joke about the horrors that lurk in sewers, but one danger that has gone under the radar is prescription medication. That’s not to say that people are dumping pills down the sink en mass—a significant amount actually passes in human waste. Scientists have been aware of the problem for a few decades and certainly don’t think it’s going well.

While waste management operations try to downplay the dangers, many scientists believe they have seen evidence that some medications found in water, especially oral contraceptives, could already be having harmful effects. Scientists found mutated fish with both sex organs in the Potomac and believed this might be linked to oral contraceptives that have polluted our drinking water. They are especially concerned because, even though the levels are very low, it doesn’t take much for hormones to affect the human body in a significant way.

Studies have also found large amounts of various antidepressants in our tap water, and scientists worry about its long-term effects. They tested it on fish, who started mutating like crazy and showing signs of neurological disorders. To make matters worse, the systems in place at water treatment facilities don’t really have a way to remove any of these contaminants, so it will likely only continue to build up.

8Mercury Poisoning Is A Global Crisis

You have probably heard that the EPA recommends cutting down your daily fish intake, especially large fish, due to the small amounts of methyl mercury that build up in the animals. As you also know, mercury is incredibly toxic to humans—breaking a thermometer that contains mercury still leads to rooms being cleared and specialists being called in to clean up the mess. What many people don’t know, however, is how the mercury ended up in the water in the first place.

Most modern mercury contamination is caused by coal power plants, which flush the neurotoxin into the water. Lakes, rivers, oceans—none are immune to its grasp. Not only is mercury poisoning our water and fish, it looks like the pollution may actually increase as time goes on. Unfortunately, while world leaders have talked about the problem, the treaties discussed are only concerned with limiting the amount of pollution that’s slowly poisoning the entire globe’s water supply, not actually stopping it. In fact, some proposed limits only extend to how much mercury each plant may produce, which would allow a loophole for countries to just build more plants.

7The Legacy Of Lead Paint Still Haunts Us

Lead paint was banned in the 1970s, but its legacy continues to this day. That’s because the ban prevented its use in further construction projects but did nothing about the poisoning that had already occurred. Many houses built before the 1970s still have lead paint, and UK homes built in the 1930s may still have lead water pipes.

Owners are required to notify prospective occupants of the presence of lead paint before selling or renting a property but not to get rid of it, which means it has usually just been painted over by other, less toxic paints, since stripping off all the old paint is both very dangerous and expensive. Even worse, some poorer countries still use leaded gasoline, which leads to environmental issues.

Most of the time, lead paint isn’t a huge problem. However, if the paint gets chipped deep enough, lead dust can end up in the air. This can be very dangerous, and even tiny pieces of paint can harm the small children who eat them. If you think you are going to be disturbing lead paint, it is recommended that you take several safety precautions to avoid kicking up or inhaling the dust and get professional help if you are doing a big project.

6Petcoke Is Poisoning The Lungs Of Chicagoans

Recently, citizens of Chicago near the Calumet River complained about a black substance that seemed to travel on the air currents down to them. It made people cough and affected their lungs, and it was greasy and very hard to wash off. Vice News produced a documentary on the subject to explore the problem in depth, and what they learned was far from pretty.

The substance was something called “petcoke,” which stands for petroleum coke, a byproduct of refining tar sands oil. Petcoke is even dirtier to burn than regular fossil fuels, so it’s usually exported to countries like China. Instead of putting the petcoke in a covered factory or secure storage containers, they left it right out in big containers exposed to the open air. The Windy City did what it’s known for, and now those who live in the area have a very big problem to worry about in the form of black dust particles that float their way inexorably toward them.

For those who live near the petcoke storage areas in Chicago, their lungs are their main worry. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to get any relief from their problems unless they move. Chicago is planning new regulations, but it will be two years before they take effect, and compliance is based on the size of the facilities. What this means is that a company could theoretically keep several small facilities and not bother securing their petcoke at all.

5Asbestos Lawsuits Are Still Ongoing

Asbestos was once used as insulation in buildings, including many offices and homes. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate product, but it eventually came to light that exposure to asbestos can lead to a form of cancer known as mesothelioma, which starts in either your chest or abdomen and does its best to make sure that you don’t live much longer. First presented in the 1930s, the findings were almost universally ignored until the ’60s, when they were finally accepted by the scientific community. Unfortunately, by then, many people had already been exposed to asbestos for a long time.

Those who believed their cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos sought compensation from companies who failed to act on the scientific data. The number of people who have filed suit over asbestos is well over 500,000, and the cost of the resulting litigation is estimated at approximately $1 billion. Some companies did more than just ruin the health of employees—one company called W.R. Grace and Co. knowingly sold vermiculite with asbestos, which made its way to playgrounds and other places you don’t want carcinogens. These lawsuits have been a boon for lawyers but a nightmare for corporations, several of whom have declared bankruptcy over asbestos lawsuits and related expenses. While claims have started to drop, the ball that started rolling all the way back in 1969 hasn’t stopped.

4Nuclear Waste Is Polluting Our Groundwater And Soil

Some people think that nuclear power is the savior that will lead us away from dirty energy like coal that fills the atmosphere with mercury and petcoke dust, while others think that it will lead to global annihilation or an accident even worse than Fukushima. However, the truth is that nuclear power’s safety record is really good, and incidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl are extremely rare. Those who are worried about nuclear safety do have some very valid concerns, though, and the biggest one is the question of how we deal with nuclear waste.

The media usually only mentions something when a major disaster occurs, so the dangers of radioactive compounds in our drinking water and soil are quickly forgotten. However, these issues remain a serious problem at nuclear waste storage facilities, and scientists aren’t even sure yet just how bad the problem is or what the long-term ramifications will be. The high half-life of radioactive compounds makes the problem worse, and we are still struggling to come up with a way to safely deal with nuclear waste.

For instance, Hanford, Washington is home to a facility where plutonium was produced. It was shut down in 1987, but the cleanup process is still ongoing. This site has 177 storage tanks, and specialists race to contain the 67 that are leaking and many more that may start falling apart soon.

3Fracking Is Ruining Water Sources

Fracking, the common term for hydraulic fracturing, is a process that is becoming increasingly popular in the world of resource mining, specifically for the purpose of extracting natural gas. The miners use a combination of water, sand, and chemicals under extremely high pressure to loosen shale thousands of feet below the ground, which allows them to access the natural gas lurking there. Proponents of the process tout the incredible amount of natural gas to be had from this process, and many nations in Europe are looking to implement hydraulic fracturing as a means of getting closer to energy independence. However, it turns out there are a few problems with fracking, and unfortunately, they are not minor.

There have been plenty of cases already where fracking has polluted nearby water sources. One result is water that can actually be set on fire due to the high methane content. Scientists have also found unpleasant substances like radium and benzene. Pollution has become so bad in some towns near fracking operations that they are almost unlivable. Fracking has affected more than just the water, too—it is also doing its best to poison our air supply. A study of the air in one town in Texas found that there were neurotoxins in the air at levels 55 times the recommended safe amount.

While fracking is a very dangerous way to mine for natural gas, it looks like it will only become more popular as the world looks wherever it can for more energy. China intends to invest heavily in the process, and several other countries are doing the same.

2The Ganges River Is A Horror Show

The importance of the Ganges River cannot be overstated. It is considered to be holy by the Hindu faith, and as one of the largest rivers in the world, it is also a vital source of water to millions of people. Unfortunately, the river has become increasingly polluted in recent years, and it may be too late to undo the damage. The main problem is that many of the millions who rely on it use it for improper purposes. For examples, there are multiple cremation sites right by the riverbank, and ashes are often dumped straight in the river.

However, it gets much, much worse. Like Ghana, they have problems with pollution from metallic and other compounds that end up in the water. India’s taste for gadgets has recently increased, and the country now produces plenty of their own electronic waste. Human waste, however, is even worse. It is estimated that about 3 billion liters of the stuff is making its queasy way into the Ganges every single day, and unfortunately, much of it is not being treated at all.

To make matters worse, some unscrupulous farmers are not only poisoning the river further by not taking proper precautions with pesticides but also draining the water levels. This has led some people to worry that one day, the Ganges as we know it won’t even exist anymore, replaced by many separate and dirty puddles of muddy water.

1China’s Pollution Problem Is Like A Bad Sci-Fi Movie

You may have heard of Beijing’s pollution problem when China hosted the Olympics, as well as the Chinese government’s attempt to cover it up as much as possible while company was over. The poison cat is out the bag, however, although many people are not aware of just how serious and extensive the problem is.

Beijing is far from the only city in China afflicted with very serious air pollution problems. In fact, many of these cities are actually faring much, much worse. One city called Xingtai, which is home to around 7 million people, had 129 days last year in which the air quality was so bad that it was considered an emergency. This means that if you lived in Xingtai, you would spend one-third of the year in fear of going outside due to the incredibly toxic atmosphere.

Of course, no one can say that the Chinese people do not have a sense of humor about the issue. A company called Jing-A Brewing created a new beer called “Airpocalypse,” a beverage with an alcohol content of almost 9 percent that could easily knock you on the floor. The brewery marketed its product with the promise that if Beijing’s air pollution was rated above a certain level, people would receive their Airpocalypse beer for free that day. We can always find something to amuse ourselves, even in the darkest situations.

Gregory is hiding in a vacuum-sealed chamber to escape all the poison in our atmosphere and water. If you want to attempt to coax him out, you can message him on Twitter.

fact checked by Jamie Frater