LESSON 2: Land, water, air – pollution everywhere


Environmental Education School Curriculum Outcomes mentioned in this lesson: Grade 1; Grade 2; Grade 3; Grade 4; Grade 5; Grade 6; Grade 7; Grade 8; Grade 9; Grade 10; Grade 11; Grade 12

Eco-Assignments that relate to content covered in this lesson: Grade 1; Grade 2; Grade 3; Grade 4; Grade 5; Grade 6; Grade 7; Grade 8; Grade 9; Grade 10; Grade 11; Grade 12

We have introduced Econatics in the previous lesson under the topic, “Environmental Deterioration”. In this lesson we will focus on the three main forms of pollution namely air, water and surface pollution. Pollution happens largely because of human-induced factors. Nature has an inherent capacity to recycle elements in a way that does not harm the system as a whole. For example, if a tree sheds its leaves, the leaves are not in the way – no, it serves as fuel for micro organisms which eventually transform the decomposing leaves into smaller and necessary elements that are again absorbed by the roots of the same tree or other plants. In nature there is therefore no such thing as pollution. Everything is recycled and therefore re-used.

I often take my two kids (2 and 4 years of age) to a nearby park with our two dogs – they love it. For me however, it is upsetting to notice the littering (a form of surface pollution) and the plastic bags in the river running through it (water pollution). My boy once mentioned the sounds that he heard – now a bird, then a frog, and then another bird – and then in an exited tone: “Can you hear the Truck!” (I thought: Air pollution!).

Vehicles in our cities contribute, amongst others, to air pollution. Air pollution can be described as the accumulation of substances in the air that will endanger life or health should they be present in sufficient concentration. The six major types of air pollutants are carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, particulates, sulphur dioxide, and photochemical oxidants. One should remember that not one of these is inherently a pollutant; it only becomes a pollutant when produced and released into the atmosphere at a pace faster than the capacity of nature to recycle it. Presently the natural recycling systems of many ecosystems, particulary in urban areas, are under pressure due to concentrations it was not designed to handle.

Natural causes of air pollution are forest and veldt fires, dust storms and volcanic eruptions like we experienced in 2010 in Iceland. Although it caused huge disruptions to thousands of businessmen, tourists and other jetsetters, the effects of pollution caused by humans on an ongoing basis, are far more severe. The main culprits (Supporting article V) are exhaust fumes from motor vehicles and the smoke from industry and power stations, causing thick clouds of smog over our cities often inhibiting the sun from reaching the surface of the earth. Unwanted noise can also be considered as a form of air pollution.

Inside built structures cigarette smoke endangers people’s health and it is now banned from most public places in South Africa. The use of aerosol products and gasses from jet planes (Supporting article G) are increasingly contributing to the widening hole in the ozone. This hole in the atmosphere around the earth allows passage to the harmful ultra violet rays of the sun to reach the earth’s surface. UV rays are known to cause skin cancer but it also has a very negative effect on plant life and crops in the form of acid rain (more on that in a moment).

Clouds of harmful gases in our atmosphere are forever getting thicker as pollution continues and in turn this contributes to global warming. A green house effect is created as clouds of pollution prevent the heat of the sun, radiated from the earth, to escape back into space. It is also possible that this cloud of gas could one day prevent the energy (or heat) from the sun, to enter the earth’s atmosphere. If this happens, there is the possibility that we could face instead of an increased warming of the earth’s atmosphere, a drop in temperature that could lead to a mini-ice-age. In fact, we know very little about the cumulative effects of our actions on the environmental cycles and systems of the earth. Many of our well intended actions, like supplying water for millions of people by building dams; or removing sewerage by pumping it into the sea; or generating nuclear energy from uranium; or ‘shooting’ clouds to fall down as rain – all these ‘interventions’ are causing counter effects and we just do not know in which way we will finally be affected.

Acid rain is caused when chemical reactions take place between gases (released by vehicles, power stations and industries) and vapour in the air. These chemical reactions cause the formation of an acid that returns to the earth’s surface mixed with rain, snow, hail or fog. Acid rain has a negative effect on the fertility of soil, it kills the eggs of amphibians, and causes birds to lay soft unproductive eggs. Furthermore it causes the corrosion of buildings and fences.

Another negative result from the exhaust smoke of our vehicles is that it releases lead into the air. These lead components in the air can directly be taken up into the human system through the skin and inhalation. It can also enter our bodies indirectly when we eat plant or animal material where the roots have absorbed lead into the food chain. The body is not able to dispose of the lead naturally and the accumulation could affect the nervous system and cause psychological disorders and even bone deformation in the foetal stage (Supporting article S).

So, as you can see, air pollution causes much more damage than simply the discomfort of bad smells. It threatens human, animal and plant health and survival. It could make the earth inhospitable to life as we know it by means of global warming or by causing a mini ice age. These are not mere possibilities. They are real dangers staring us in the eye. The ice caps on Kilimanjaro and the glaciers of the Arctic are melting in front of our own eyes (Supporting article D).  Unless we, the human component in the ecosystem adapt our industrial practices and personal behaviour, we may face serious challenges on earth as a result (Supporting article W).

The next area of environmental deterioration is water pollution. Although two thirds of the globe consists of water, less than two percent of it is available to us on land (Supporting article B). Pollution of water happens when chemical, physical or biological material are introduced to fresh or ocean waters. Again the danger associated with water pollution is much more severe than it being an eye sore in otherwise beautiful parks, sea views and landscapes. Polluted water is life-threatening firstly to animals and vegetation living in and around it, but also to humans making use of it. South Africa is a water-scarce country and we need to take extra care to preserve this essential resource (Supporting article N).

Early civilisations usually originated close to sources of clean water. By means of running water one could easily get rid of sewage and other forms of waste. As we have seen historically and as is often still the case today, this practice only causes discomfort and danger to people living in settlements further downstream (Supporting article A). It results in plagues like cholera and typhus fever. Presently in Southern Africa we are so aware of this problem and we seriously need to educate our people regarding the negative effects of releasing sewage into streams (Supporting article C and Supporting Article Y).  As far as possible municipalities should see to it that before sewerage and domestic wastes from our homes are released back into rivers, it is done in a highly degraded form. The waste water should therefore first be treated in septic tanks where bacteria dissolve the solids until the water is purified to an acceptable level (Supporting Article X). However more and more municipalities in South Africa are not able to service sewerage plants regularly, resulting in our rivers and dams becoming more and more polluted (Supporting Article Z).

You can imagine how gross a violation it is when waste water from industries is simply pumped directly into rivers, dams or into the sea. And it happens! (Supporting article Q) Especially gold and coal mines are culprits: releasing large quantities of acid water into water bodies. Ill-considered agricultural practices also often cause pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides to be washed into rivers and dams.

Most forms of industrial waste are foreign to the natural ecosystems existing in the water (Supporting article U). This type of waste can therefore not be successfully treated by the natural systems like marshlands. And so these toxic waste products like lead combinations and mercury enter the water cycle (much like the lead particles from exhaust fumes being released in the air) and plants living in and around these water bodies, absorb the waste products and transfer it over to animals feeding on them and higher up in the food chain. When substances like cyanide and pesticides are released into the water, fish will die and further up in the food chain it will cause birds of prey that feed on fish also to be affected. So if any form of waste – from human or industrial origin – with an unacceptable high degree of chemical or organic content, is released into our rivers or oceans, disease and death follow (Supporting article R).

The last main form of pollution is surface pollution – also known as land pollution (Supporting article T). There are two main causes for the pollution of land. Firstly soil could be polluted by chemicals contained in weed killers and pesticides. Secondly the surface is polluted by litter – waste material dumped in public places such as streets, parks, picnic areas, at bus stops, taxi ranks and near shops. Where waste accumulates it starts to decay and attract pests like rats and mice and quickly becomes unhealthy. 

The main reason for this type of pollution in and around our cities today is that products or ‘stuff’ is manufactured at such a fast pace that not enough time is allowed for it to be effectively destroyed or re-circulated back into the natural system. So it is plain to see that this form of pollution exists as a result of our present-day lifestyle and it is becoming an ever-worsening concern. Civil authorities and municipalities are having fewer answers as how to effectively deal with this type of waste building up. This is why recycling has become so vital for environmental-friendly living (Supporting article F).  We have included quite an extensive reference with regards to recycling, as it is one of the easiest ways for you as individuals, families and communities to join in on environmental-friendly living (Supporting article J).

There are three types of solid waste. The first being kitchen waste, takes from two to five months to decompose naturally. This offers a great opportunity for you to make compost that could be used in your gardens or vegetable patches. The second form of solid waste is non-combustible waste. This includes metal objects, mining waste and building rubble which can take thousands of years to decay. It is very hard to get rid of and looks unsightly where it is dumped.

The third form of solid waste is combustible waste like plastic, fibre, glass and rubber. If burned it releases dangerous fumes into the already over-saturated atmosphere. It takes from 10 to 30 years to be destroyed if it is exposed to the ultra violet rays of the sun. If it is buried, like most municipalities do, their lifetime is practically unlimited. Again, if recycling is seriously considered as an alternative, the production of these products could greatly be reduced (Supporting article I).

Although the constitution says that we have a right to a clean and healthy environment, we live in a world getting more polluted each day. Who do you think is going to suffer the consequences in about twenty years from now? Of course it is going to be today’s youth! …and their children! So the best thing to do is for us to look after our own future interests and to take action now.

Most of you participating or simply following this website already have a ‘green mindset’, but having only an interest in these matters will not change the vicious cycle of environmental neglect. Each one of us needs to get involved. How? Nothing stands in our way to start recycling. As I mentioned before, recycling truly presents the first step for most of us towards environmental-friendly living.

We could also slow down air pollution by buying ozone-friendly products; by making use of public transport instead of privately owned vehicles, or by walking or cycling to get around where possible. We could support environmentally friendly means of generating power like solar energy (Supporting article E and Supporting article M) or wind generated power (Supporting article L); re-use our bath water and dishwater (Supporting article O) for watering our gardens and vegetable gardens instead of using expensive purified water that most municipalities in South Africa (Supporting article P) still try to provide; use your garden rubble and kitchen waste to make compost; the list goes on… Let us fix dripping taps and notify municipalities when water supply-pipes burst. Let us not just look the other way when we see illegal pollution taking place, but pick up the phone and notify the Department of Environmental Affairs on their Crimes and Incidents Hotline: (0800 205 005). Or do we just wait for environmental neglect to take its course?

There are many ways in which you could alleviate the burden that is being put on our natural resources. Let us participate in environmentally-friendly initiatives (Supporting article H). Let us support the development of alternative and sustainable resources, like geothermal energy (Supporting article K), solar or wind energy and make use of it. See with how many environmentally-friendly practices you can come up with and implement them in your own home, school or community. Keep us posted on our twitter page. And remember that ringing alarm bells and complaining about wrong environmental practices means little unless you yourself become a change agent.