Most people are aware of the damage to cognitive development that arises as a result of lead poisoning. In fact, even thought it used as a sweetener for wine during the Roman Imperial Era, even Roman contemporaries knew it was a neurotoxin. It is especially harmful to pregnant women and children, causing blood and brain disorders, accumulating in the tissues and shaving IQ points off entire neighborhoods.
Until the 1970s, lead paint and leaded gasoline were common in North America. Unlike many of the other neurotoxic metals, it also happens to be rather common, naturally. It is still used extensively in car batteries, though most of these are caught in the hazardous waste recycling stream as per federal, state and provincial law. It`s use in paint has proven particularly difficult to remediate given how long these substances are capable of persisting in soils, particularly in urban areas. The long time use of lead in gasoline has resulted in a very widespread soil contamination.
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Carpets are not only home to a great many allergens and pests, but they are also very likely to continue to off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be a powerful indoor pollutant. Many people are tearing out their old carpets and carpet pads in favor of bare floors and smaller rugs that can be more thoroughly cleaned. But, what happens to it all? A large proportion of the carpet installed in the US after 1940 is wholly or partly synthetic and incapable of decomposition.
It is estimated that by 2012, nearly 7 billion pounds of old carpet will be discarded in the US alone. There is currently no infrastructure in place to recycle old carpet. This is complicated by the complicated nature of most carpets, with several different types of complicated materials that can be hard to separate from one another for further processing. Some carpets are able to be recycled into a large number of far more inert construction and home decorating items including synthetic lumber and roof tiles.
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For many years, the use of phosphates in laundry detergents was responsible for making clothes appear far more “white” than they really were. Large ad campaigns throughout the second half of the 20th century re-enforced the notion that whiter laundry was cleaner laundry. In fact, this supposedly cleaner laundry was impregnated with chemical additives during the wash process in an effort to fool consumers with an optical illusion.
Since phosphates are not a direct threat to human health, this wouldn`t be of concern except that it also happens to be a fertilizer – one that is most often lacking for the growth of algae, seaweeds and other lower level marine plant life. This causes algal blooms that in turn lower the oxygen content of waters, kill fish and encourage dangerous organisms to spread though the weakened marine populations, sometimes becoming a major threat to human health and welfare.
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When sulfur and nitrogen dioxides (both common by-products of coal and other fossil fuels) are emitted into the atmosphere, they often fall back to Earth as acid rain. While normal rainfall has a very slightly acid pH of about 5.6, acid rain can be so highly acidic that it is capable of literally melting rocks. In parts of the world with a great deal of atmospheric pollution, rain, snow and fog with a pH lower than that of vinegar has been reported.
This is a problem for urban Europe for many reasons, but perhaps most notably because the statues and buildings that have stood for thousands of years are now, suddenly, disintegrating due to the very crush of people who want to see them. Calcium containing stones such as marble, granite and limestone are particularly vulnerable, now noted in many historical districts as causing statues and buildings to quite literally flake away as bits of gypsum.
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Most people spend at least a third of their lives in bed. In fact, given that one`s face is planted right in a pillow or mattress much of the time, the potential for being, quite literally, gassed in your sleep is quite high. Many of the materials that make up modern pillows, mattresses and bedclothes have been shown to release fumes that are either themselves or in combination with other bedroom chemicals, harmful to human health. Over the span of a lifetime, this can add up in ways that are just now being explored.
Flame retardants, federally mandated in new mattresses, are known to bio-accumulate in human beings. They are so widespread that in recent tests researchers couldn`t find a single lactating mother who didn`t have this chemical in her breast milk. The coverings and petrochemical fillings are also well known to off-gas for months and even years, with potentially carcinogenic consequences.
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If you`re looking for pollution, you`re in luck. It`s everywhere. Pollution is present in the air in the form of carbon dioxide that causes climatological chaos, CFCs and methane that destroy the protective ozone layer, sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain and smog, not to mention all the other chemicals that contribute to respiratory ailments and cancers. You`ll find it in the soil, deposited as it falls from the air and lingering for decades after being applied to croplands or washed into the silt of riverbeds in North America`s most seemingly pristine estuaries. Pollution is also found in the water, making ground-level pollution mobile, taking raw discharge from factories and sewage plants. That`s just to name a few – you simply can`t get away from it.
Once it was reasonable (though naive) to think that the skies and ocean were large enough to dilute anything human beings could collectively throw at it. However, the Earth has been shown to be an effectively closed system that can no longer handle the number of people or the polluting waste that we toss out.
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The technology that brought nighttime illumination to the whole world, didn`t change much for about a century. And, it turns out, that`s a problematic thing. Not only do the filaments burn out quickly, leaving glass and metal that is not recyclable, but they emit far more heat than light, using a great deal of electricity. With the advent of a long lasting compact fluorescent bulb in the 1990s, it became easy for consumers to change out these bulbs and use anywhere from half to one tenth the amount of power for the same amount of light.
In the `aughts, governments all over the world have seized upon the light bulb as an inherently wasteful technology that needlessly uses vast amounts of electricity – electricity that is emits carbon dioxide and all the other air pollutants that increase dependence upon fossil fuels. Replacing these bulbs can go a long way in helping nations meet their environmental treaty obligations. They also last longer and produce far less dangerous waste.
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There are many reasons why plastic containers largely replaced glass in the 1970s. The petroleum crisis made the price of transport an issue and glass is expensive. It can`t be squeezed, and it breaks when kids drop it. There seemed nothing wrong with plastics in the mid-20th century. Even being made of oil, they actually saved more oil. This is no longer necessarily the case.
Of course, this doesn`t take into account the impact that plastics pollution would have when it escaped the normal routes of underground disposal. And in facilities where plastic was incinerated without exhaust control for many years, a massive amount of toxic substances was released into the global atmosphere contributing to both air and soil pollution. The breakdown products are sometimes toxic themselves, but how they`ll interact with each other largely remains unknown.
Even some of the plastics that are commonly used are now known to cause problems, such as plastic baby bottles and cups. These are now being phased out in favor of washable glass.
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Though it was realized by scientists in the early 1970s that chlorofluorocarbons posed a massive potential threat to the ozone layer that protects the Earth (and it`s inhabitants) from DNA-damaging solar radiation, action was not taken on an international scale until for nearly 20 years. CFCs were, when they were invented in the 1930s, supposed to be a safe alternative to the refrigerants that were commonly used at the time.
During the 70 or so years that CFCs were manufactured in large quantities, they turned up in far more than air conditioners and refrigerators. For instance, they were the main propellant in aerosol cans for decades. They are a very common ingredient in fire extinguishers, though most older fire extinguishers have been emptied and refilled by the late `aughts. Even after the international ban on these chemicals that was brought about by the Montreal Protocols, CFCs and other “chloroalkanes” are still used in airplane fire suppression systems.
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