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Litter on the coast of Guyana

Pollution is the introduction of

contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change.[1] Pollution can take the form of any substance (solid, liquid, or gas) or energy (such as radioactivity, heat, sound, or light). Pollutants
, the components of pollution, can be either foreign substances/energies or naturally occurring contaminants.

Although environmental pollution can be caused by natural events, the word pollution generally implies that the contaminants

agricultural runoff

Many sources of pollution were unregulated parts of industrialization during the 19th and 20th centuries until the emergence of environmental regulation and pollution policy in the later half of the 20th century. Sites where historically polluting industries released persistent pollutants may have legacy pollution long after the source of the pollution is stopped. Major forms of pollution include air pollution, water pollution, litter, noise pollution, plastic pollution, soil contamination, radioactive contamination, thermal pollution, light pollution, and visual pollution.

Pollution has widespread consequences on human and

Global South

Because of the impacts of these chemicals, local, country and international policy have increasingly sought to regulate pollutants, resulting in increasing air and water quality standards, alongside regulation of specific waste streams. Regional and national policy is typically supervised by

environmental agencies or ministries, while international efforts are coordinated by the UN Environmental Program and other treaty bodies. Pollution mitigation is an important part of all of the Sustainable Development Goals.[12]

Definitions and types

Various definitions of pollution exist, which may or may not recognize certain types, such as

Moscow, Russia
in August 2010

The major forms of pollution are listed below along with the particular

relevant to each of them:

Natural causes

Air pollution produced by ships may alter clouds, affecting global temperatures.

One of the most significant natural sources of pollution are volcanoes, which during eruptions release large quantities of harmful gases into the atmosphere. Volcanic gases include carbon dioxide, which can be fatal in large concentrations and contributes to climate change, hydrogen halides which can cause acid rain, sulfur dioxides, which are harmful to animals and damage the ozone layer, and hydrogen sulfides, which are capable of killing humans at concentrations of less than 1 part per thousand.[19] Volcanic emissions also include fine and ultrafine particles which may contain toxic chemicals and substances such as arsenic, lead, and mercury.[20]

suffocation. Large quantities of fine particulates are found within wildfire smoke as well, which pose a health risk to animals.[21]

Human generation

Deaths caused as a result of fossil fuel use (areas of rectangles in chart) greatly exceed those resulting from production of renewable energy (rectangles barely visible in chart).[22]

livestock farms (dairy cows, pigs, poultry, etc.), PVC factories, metals production factories, plastics factories, and other heavy industry. Agricultural air pollution comes from contemporary practices which include clear felling and burning of natural vegetation as well as spraying of pesticides and herbicides.[28]

About 400 million metric tons of

China overtook the United States as the world's biggest producer of CO2,[34] while still far behind based on per capita pollution (ranked 78th among the world's nations).[35]

An industrial area, with a power plant, south of Yangzhou's downtown, China

Chlorinated hydrocarbons (CFH), heavy metals (such as chromium, cadmium – found in rechargeable batteries, and lead – found in lead paint, aviation fuel, and even in certain countries, gasoline), MTBE, zinc, arsenic, and benzene are some of the most frequent soil contaminants. A series of press reports published in 2001, culminating in the publication of the book Fateful Harvest, revealed a widespread practise of recycling industrial leftovers into fertilizer, resulting in metal poisoning of the soil.[36] Ordinary municipal landfills are the source of many chemical substances entering the soil environment (and often groundwater), emanating from the wide variety of refuse accepted, especially substances illegally discarded there, or from pre-1970 landfills that may have been subject to little control in the U.S. or EU. There have also been some unusual releases of polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, commonly called dioxins for simplicity, such as TCDD.[37]

Pollution can also occur as a result of natural disasters. Hurricanes, for example, frequently result in sewage contamination and petrochemical spills from burst boats or automobiles. When coastal oil rigs or refineries are involved, larger-scale and environmental damage is not unusual. When accidents occur, some pollution sources, such as nuclear power stations or oil ships, can create extensive and potentially catastrophic emissions.[38]

Plastic pollution is choking our oceans by making plastic gyres, entangling marine animals, poisoning our food and water supply, and ultimately inflicting havoc on the health and well-being of humans and wildlife globally. With the exception of a small amount that has been incinerating, virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made in the past still exists in one form or another.  And since most of the plastics do not biodegrade in any meaningful sense, all that

plastic waste could exist for hundreds or even thousands of years. If plastic production is not circumscribed, plastic pollution will be disastrous and will eventually outweigh fish in oceans.[39]

Greenhouse gas emissions

Historical and projected CO2 emissions by country (as of 2005).
Source: Energy Information Administration.[40][41]

Carbon dioxide, while vital for photosynthesis, is sometimes referred to as pollution, because raised levels of the gas in the atmosphere are affecting the Earth's climate. Disruption of the environment can also highlight the connection between areas of pollution that would normally be classified separately, such as those of water and air. Recent studies have investigated the potential for long-term rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide to cause slight but critical increases in the acidity of ocean waters, and the possible effects of this on marine ecosystems.

In February 2007, a report by the

fossil fuels like coal and oil needs to occur within decades, according to the final report this year from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[42]


Human health

Overview of main health effects on humans from some common types of pollution[43][44][45]

Pollution affects humans in every part of the world. An October 2017 study by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health found that global pollution, specifically toxic air, water, soil and workplaces, kills nine million people annually, which is triple the number of deaths caused by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and 15 times higher than deaths caused by wars and other forms of human violence.[46] The study concluded that "pollution is one of the great existential challenges of the Anthropocene era. Pollution endangers the stability of the Earth's support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies."[4]


China alone because of air pollution.[47] China's high smog levels can damage the human body and cause various diseases.[48] In 2019, air pollution caused 1.67 million deaths in India (17.8% of total deaths nationally).[49] Studies have estimated that the number of people killed annually in the United States could be over 50,000.[50] A study published in 2022 in GeoHealth concluded that energy-related fossil fuel emissions in the United States cause 46,900–59,400 premature deaths each year and PM2.5-related illness and death costs the nation $537–$678 billion annually.[51] In the US, deaths caused by coal pollution were highest in 1999, but decreased sharply after 2007. The number dropped by about 95% by 2020, as coal plants have been closed or have scrubbers installed.[52]

In 2019,

developing countries is an issue, for example, over 732 million Indians (56% of the population) and over 92 million Ethiopians (92.9% of the population) do not have access to basic sanitation.[54] In 2013 over 10 million people in India fell ill with waterborne illnesses in 2013, and 1,535 people died, most of them children.[55] As of 2007, nearly 500 million Chinese lack access to safe drinking water.[56]

Acute exposure to certain pollutants can have short and long term effects. Oil spills can cause


Socio economic impacts

The health impacts of pollution have both direct and lasting social consequences. A 2021 study found that exposure to pollution causes an increase in violent crime.[58] A 2019 paper linked pollution to adverse school outcomes for children.[59] A number of studies show that pollution has an adverse effect on the productivity of both indoor and outdoor workers.[60][61][62][63]


Great Pacific garbage patch

Pollution has been found to be present widely in the natural

environment. A 2022 study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that levels of anthropogenic chemical pollution have exceeded planetary boundaries and now threaten entire ecosystems around the world.[7][8]

There are a number of effects of this:

Regulation and monitoring

To protect the

public health system. Different jurisdictions often have different levels regulation and policy choices about pollution. Historically, polluters will lobby governments in less economically developed areas or countries to maintain lax regulation in order to protect industrialisation at the cost of human and environmental health.[citation needed

The modern environmental regulatory environment has its origins in the United States with the beginning of industrial regulations around Air and Water pollution connected to industry and mining during the 1960s and 1970s.[64]

Because many of pollutants have trans-boundary impacts, the UN and other treaty bodies have been used to regulate pollutants that circulate as
mitigate climate change. Governments, NPOs, research groups, and citizen scientists monitor pollution with an expanding list of low-cost pollution monitoring tools.[65][66]


, Australia.
thermal oxidizer, decomposes hazard gases from industrial air streams at a factory in the United States
low impact development is a similar technique for the prevention of urban runoff

Policy, law and monitoring/transparency/life-cycle assessment-attached economics could be developed and enforced to control pollution.[67] A review concluded that there is a lack of attention and action such as work on a globally supported "formal sciencepolicy interface", e.g. to "inform intervention, influence research, and guide funding".[6]

In September 2023 a Global Framework on Chemicals aiming to reduce pollution was agreed during an international conference in Bonn, Germany. The framework includes 28 targets, for example, to “end the use of hazardous pesticides in agriculture where the risks have not been managed” by 2035.[68]




Pollution has a cost.

public safety, less of the good may be produced than would be the case if the producer were to receive payment for the external benefits to others. Goods and services that involve negative externalities in production, such as those that produce pollution, tend to be overproduced and underpriced since the externality is not being priced into the market.[73]

Pollution can also create costs for the firms producing the pollution. Sometimes firms choose, or are forced by regulation, to reduce the amount of pollution that they are producing. The associated costs of doing this are called abatement costs, or marginal abatement costs if measured by each additional unit.[75] In 2005 pollution abatement capital expenditures and operating costs in the US amounted to nearly $27 billion.[76]

Dirtiest industries


Pure Earth, an international non-for-profit organization dedicated to eliminating life-threatening pollution in the developing world, issues an annual list of some of the world's most polluting industries. Below is the list for 2016:[77]

A 2018 report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and GRAIN says that the meat and dairy industries are poised to surpass the oil industry as the world's worst polluters.[78]

Textile industry

Indigo color water pollution in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2005

The textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the globalized world of mostly free market dominated socioeconomic systems.[79] Chemically polluted textile wastewater degrades the quality of the soil and water.[80] The pollution comes from the type of conduct of chemical treatments used e.g., in pretreatment, dyeing, printing, and finishing operations[81] that many or most market-driven companies use despite "eco-friendly alternatives". Textile industry wastewater is considered to be one the largest polluters of water and soil ecosystems, causing "carcinogenic, mutagenic, genotoxic, cytotoxic and allergenic threats to living organisms".[82][83] The textile industry uses over 8000 chemicals in its supply chain,[84] also polluting the environment with large amounts of microplastics[85] and has been identified in one review as the industry sector producing the largest amount of pollution.[86]

A campaign of big clothing brands like Nike, Adidas and Puma to voluntarily reform their manufacturing supply chains to commit to achieving zero discharges of hazardous chemicals by 2020 (global goal)[87][88] appears to have failed.

The textile industry also creates a lot of pollution that leads to externalities which can cause large economic problems. The problem usually occurs when there is no division of ownership rights. This means that the problem of pollution is largely caused because of incomplete information about which company pollutes and at what scale the damage was caused by the pollution.

Fossil fuel related industries

Outdoor air pollution attributable to fossil fuel use alone causes ~3.61 million deaths annually, making it one of the top contributors to human death, beyond being a major driver of climate change whereby greenhouse gases are considered per se as a form of pollution (see above).[89]

Socially optimal level

Society derives some indirect utility from pollution; otherwise, there would be no incentive to pollute. This utility may come from the consumption of goods and services that inherently create pollution (albeit the level can vary) or lower prices or lower required efforts (or inconvenience) to abandon or substitute these goods and services. Therefore, it is important that policymakers attempt to balance these indirect benefits with the costs of pollution in order to achieve an efficient outcome.[90][additional citation(s) needed]

A visual comparison of the free market and socially optimal outcomes

It is possible to use

marginal benefit of consuming one more unit of the good or service.[92]

Moreover, the feasibility of pollution reduction rates could also be a factor of calculating optimal levels. While a study puts the global mean loss of life expectancy (LLE; similar to YPLL) from air pollution in 2015 at 2.9 years (substantially more than, for example, 0.3 years from all forms of direct violence), it also indicated that a significant fraction of the LLE is unavoidable in terms of current economical-technological feasibility such as aeolian dust and wildfire emission control.[93]

In markets with pollution, or other negative externalities in production, the free market equilibrium will not account for the costs of pollution on society. If the social costs of pollution are higher than the private costs incurred by the firm, then the true supply curve will be higher. The point at which the social marginal cost and market demand intersect gives the socially optimal level of pollution. At this point, the quantity will be lower and the price will be higher in comparison to the free market equilibrium.[92] Therefore, the free market outcome could be considered a market failure because it "does not maximize efficiency".[73]

This model can be used as a basis to evaluate different methods of internalizing the externality. Some examples include tariffs, a carbon tax and cap and trade systems.


Prior to 19th century

prehistoric times, when man created the first fires. According to a 1983 article in the journal Science, "soot" found on ceilings of prehistoric caves provides ample evidence of the high levels of pollution that was associated with inadequate ventilation of open fires."[94]

Metal forging appears to be a key turning point in the creation of significant air pollution levels outside the home. Core samples of glaciers in Greenland indicate increases in pollution associated with Greek, Roman, and Chinese metal production.[95]

Air pollution in the US, 1973

The burning of coal and wood, and the presence of many horses in concentrated areas made the cities the primary sources of pollution. King Edward I of England banned the burning of sea-coal by proclamation in London in 1272, after its smoke became a problem;[96][97] the fuel was so common in England that this earliest of names for it was acquired because it could be carted away from some shores by the wheelbarrow.

19th century

It was the Industrial Revolution that gave birth to environmental pollution as we know it today. London also recorded one of the earlier extreme cases of

London sewerage system soon afterward. Pollution issues escalated as population growth far exceeded viability of neighborhoods to handle their waste problem. Reformers began to demand sewer systems and clean water.[98]

In 1870, the sanitary conditions in Berlin were among the worst in Europe. August Bebel recalled conditions before a modern sewer system was built in the late 1870s:

Waste-water from the houses collected in the gutters running alongside the curbs and emitted a truly fearsome smell. There were no public toilets in the streets or squares. Visitors, especially women, often became desperate when nature called. In the public buildings the sanitary facilities were unbelievably primitive....As a metropolis, Berlin did not emerge from a state of barbarism into civilization until after 1870.[99]

20th and 21st century

The primitive conditions were intolerable for a world national capital, and the

Imperial German government brought in its scientists, engineers, and urban planners to not only solve the deficiencies, but to forge Berlin as the world's model city. A British expert in 1906 concluded that Berlin represented "the most complete application of science, order and method of public life," adding "it is a marvel of civic administration, the most modern and most perfectly organized city that there is."[100]

The emergence of great factories and consumption of immense quantities of coal gave rise to unprecedented air pollution and the large volume of industrial chemical discharges added to the growing load of untreated human waste. Chicago and Cincinnati were the first two American cities to enact laws ensuring cleaner air in 1881. Pollution became a major issue in the United States in the early twentieth century, as progressive reformers took issue with air pollution caused by coal burning, water pollution caused by bad sanitation, and street pollution caused by the three million horses who worked in American cities in 1900, generating large quantities of urine and manure. As historian Martin Melosi notes, the generation that first saw automobiles replacing the horses saw cars as "miracles of cleanliness".[101] By the 1940s, automobile-caused smog was a major issue in Los Angeles.[102]

Other cities followed around the country until early in the 20th century, when the short lived Office of Air Pollution was created under the Department of the Interior. Extreme smog events were experienced by the cities of Los Angeles and Donora, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s, serving as another public reminder.[103]

Air pollution would continue to be a problem in England, especially later during the industrial revolution, and extending into the recent past with the

radioactive fallout from atomic warfare and testing.[104] Then a non-nuclear event – the Great Smog of 1952 in London – killed at least 4000 people.[105] This prompted some of the first major modern environmental legislation: the Clean Air Act of 1956

Pollution began to draw major public attention in the United States between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, when Congress passed the Noise Control Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.[106]

Smog pollution in Taiwan

Severe incidents of pollution helped increase consciousness.

city planning

The development of nuclear science introduced radioactive contamination, which can remain lethally radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Lake Karachay – named by the Worldwatch Institute as the "most polluted spot" on earth – served as a disposal site for the Soviet Union throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Chelyabinsk, Russia, is considered the "Most polluted place on the planet".[108]

Fukushima pose a lingering specter of public mistrust. Worldwide publicity has been intense on those disasters.[109] Widespread support for test ban treaties has ended almost all nuclear testing in the atmosphere.[110]

International catastrophes such as the wreck of the

PBDEs and PFCs among others. Though their effects remain somewhat less well understood owing to a lack of experimental data, they have been detected in various ecological habitats far removed from industrial activity such as the Arctic, demonstrating diffusion and bioaccumulation
after only a relatively brief period of widespread use.


Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a concentration of plastics in the North Pacific Gyre. It and other garbage patches contain debris that can trsonport invasive species and that can entangle and be ingested by wildlife.[111] Organizations such as 5 Gyres and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation have researched the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and found microplastics in the water.[112]

Pollution introduced by light at night is becoming a global problem, more severe in urban centres, but nonetheless contaminating also large territories, far away from towns.[113]

Growing evidence of local and global pollution and an increasingly informed public over time have given rise to environmentalism and the environmental movement, which generally seek to limit human impact on the environment.

See also

Air pollution

Soil contamination

Water pollution



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External links