This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee. Preface



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Environmental Problems


To say that the world is in peril environmentally might sound extreme, but the world is in fact in peril. An overview of environmental problems will indicate the extent and seriousness of this problem.

Air Pollution


Estimates of the annual number of US deaths fromair pollution range from a low of 10,000 to a high of 60,000 (Reiman & Leighton, 2010). [12] The worldwide toll is much greater, and the World Health Organization (2011) [13] estimates that 1.3 million people across the globe die every year from air pollution.

These deaths stem from the health conditions that air pollution causes, including heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory disease such as asthma. Most air pollution stems from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. This problem occurs not only in the wealthy industrial nations but also in the nations of the developing world; countries such as China and India have some of the worst air pollution. In developing nations, mortality rates of people in cities with high levels of particulate matter (carbon, nitrates, sulfates, and other particles) are 15–50 percent higher than the mortality rates of those in cleaner cities. In European countries, air pollution is estimated to reduce average life expectancy by 8.6 months. The World Health Organization (2011) [14] does not exaggerate when it declares that air pollution “is a major environmental health problem affecting everyone in developed and developing countries alike.”

Pollution of many types especially harms children’s health. The box discusses this harm in greater detail.

Children and Our Future


Children and Environmental Health Hazards

As we consider environmental problems, we must not forget the world’s children, who are at special risk for environmental health problems precisely because they are children. Their bodies and brains grow rapidly, and they breathe in more air per pound of body weight than adults do. They also absorb substances, including toxic substances from their gastrointestinal tract faster than adults do.

These and other physiological differences all put children at greater risk than adults for harm from environmental health hazards. Children’s behavior also puts them at greater risk. For example, no adult of normal intelligence would eat paint chips found on the floor, but a young child can easily do so. Children also play on lawns, playgrounds, and other areas in which pesticides are often used, and this type of activity again gives them greater exposure. Young children also put their hands in their mouths regularly, and any toxins on their hands are thereby ingested.

Poverty compounds all these problems. Poor children are more likely to live in houses with lead paint, in neighborhoods with higher levels of air pollution, and in neighborhoods near to hazardous waste sites. Poor children of color are especially at risk for these environmental problems.

Three of the greatest environmental health hazards for children are lead, pesticides, and air pollution. Lead can cause brain and nervous system damage, hearing problems, and delayed growth among other effects; pesticides can cause various problems in the immune, neurological, and respiratory systems; and air pollution can cause asthma and respiratory illnesses. All these health problems can have lifelong consequences.

Unfortunately, certain environmentally induced health problems for children are becoming more common. For example, US children’s asthma cases have increased by more than 40 percent since 1980, and more than four hundred American children now have asthma. Two types of childhood cancer thought to stem at least partly from environmental hazards have also increased during the past two decades: acute lymphocytic by 10 percent and brain tumors by 30 percent.

It should be evident from this overview that environmental health hazards pose a serious danger for children in the United States and the rest of the world. Because children are our future, this danger underscores the need to do everything possible to improve the environment.

Source: Children’s Environmental Health Network, 2009 [15]

Global Climate Change


The burning of fossil fuels also contributes to global climate change, often called global warming, thanks to the oft-discussed greenhouse effect caused by the trapping of gases in the atmosphere that is turning the earth warmer, with a rise of almost 1°C during the past century. In addition to affecting the ecology of the earth’s polar regions and ocean levels throughout the planet, climate change threatens to produce a host of other problems, including increased disease transmitted via food and water, malnutrition resulting from decreased agricultural production and drought, a higher incidence of hurricanes and other weather disasters, and extinction of several species (Gillis & Foster, 2012; Zimmer, 2011). [16] All these problems have been producing, and will continue to produce, higher mortality rates across the planet. The World Health Organization (2010) [17] estimates that climate change causes more than 140,000 excess deaths worldwide annually.

Another problem caused by climate change may be interpersonal violence and armed conflict (Agnew, 2012; Fisman & Miguel, 2010; Kristof, 2008), [18]already discussed as a consequence of population growth. Historically, when unusual weather events have caused drought, flooding, or other problems, violence and armed conflict have resulted. For example, witch-burnings in medieval Europe accelerated when extremely cold weather ruined crops and witches were blamed for the problem. Economic problems from declining farm values are thought to have increased the lynchings of African Americans in the US South. As crops fail from global warming and reduced rainfall in the years ahead, African populations may plunge into civil war: According to an Oxford University economist, having a drought increases by 50 percent the chance that an African nation will have a civil war a year later (Kristof, 2008). [19]

As we consider climate change, it is important to keep in mind certain inequalities mentioned earlier (McNall, 2011). [20] First, the world’s richest nations contribute more than their fair share to climate change. The United States, Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom compose 15 percent of the world’s population but are responsible for half of the planet’s carbon dioxide emissions. Second, the effects of climate change are more severe for poor nations than for rich nations. Africans, for example, are much less able than Americans to deal with the effects of drought, weather disasters, and the other problems caused by climate change.

Although almost all climate scientists believe that climate change is a serious problem and stems from human behavior, 28 percent of Americans in a November 2011 poll responded “no” when asked, “Is there solid evidence the earth is warming?” Another 18 percent said solid evidence does exist but that global warming is occurring because of “natural patterns” rather than “human activity.” Only 38 percent agreed with climate scientists’ belief that global warming exists and that it arises from human activity (Pew Research Center, 2011). [21]

Overall, 63 percent of respondents agreed that solid evidence of global warming exists (leaving aside the question of why it is occurring). This figure differed sharply by political party preference, however: Whereas 77 percent of Democrats said solid evidence exists, only 43 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Independents shared this opinion. Similarly, whereas 55 percent of Democrats said global warming is a “very serious” problem, only 14 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of Independents felt this way (Pew Research Center, 2011). [22]


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