Chemicals have been instrumental in bettering our lives, and their use is ubiquitous. Chemicals are found in fertilisers used in agriculture, household appliances, soaps and detergents, clothes we wear, cars, packaging materials, sports shoes, helmets, hand sanitisers, medicines, computers, undersea cables, aerospace, mobile phones and many more products.
While chemicals have benefitted humankind immensely, ey have several harmful effects. Unfortunately, the recent focus on greenhouse gas emissions has obscured the equally important issue of chemical pollution. So, what is chemical pollution? Chemical pollution is the presence or increase in our environment of chemical pollutants that are not naturally present or found in amounts higher than their natural background values. Chemical pollution comes from three primary sources – Persistent Organic Pollutants that come from fertilisers; oil that comes from urban-based runoffs, operational fuel discharge and oil spills; and toxic metals that come from industrial activity and waste dumps
There are many sources of chemical pollution. For example, fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture can seep into the soil and contaminate it. Ships containing crude oil can cause oil spills and cause chemical pollution. Everyday household cleaner released in water carries several polluting chemicals. In industries, chemical pollution results from human activities like the manufacturing, handling, storing, and disposing of chemicals. Thus, chemical pollution pervades all human activities.
The impact of chemical pollution can be severe. In seas, rivers and lakes, many areas suffer from low levels of oxygen due to chemicals from land running off into the sea. As a result, there is a mass killing of fishes and destruction of water body ecology. As a result, fishing communities are finding it difficult to survive – the boats are getting spoilt, and their catch is reduced. On land, the effects are far-reaching. Fields poisoned by chemicals may become unusable. Crops may contain higher than permissible levels of chemicals. Contaminated water sources add to the problem. Compared to CO2 emissions, toxins in the soil remain for centuries. In humans, chemical pollution causes damage to the liver, kidneys, nervous system, blood, cardiovascular system, immune system, or reproductive system. Certain pollutants can also be carcinogenic.
What can be done? First, we need to create effective regulations with robust monitoring mechanisms. Awareness and education for responsible behaviour are essential. Companies need to take urgent steps. Chemical pollution is a scrouge that needs to be stamped out.