Reducing the environmental impact of industry isn’t just about saving the planet and stopping climate change, although, of course, that’s important. It could also improve people’s health, both in the short-term and long-term. As our climate’s health deteriorates, so will many people’s. The environmental harm caused by industrial processes can also have acute health impacts.

While necessary for economic well-being, industry is also responsible for 21 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming. It can also reduce air and water quality and contribute to pollution. We need to learn to balance economic growth with health — both that of our planet and our own.

Air Pollution

Industrial processes release pollutants — such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — into the air. Although these are natural substances, when released in high concentrations, they can cause environmental and health problems.

Factories can also release manmade substances, such as gases that contain fluorine. When these and other industrial byproducts combine with nitrous oxide and sunlight, they create ozone, which can be harmful to human health if it stays close to the ground.

Ozone can irritate the eyes, nose, ears and respiratory system and worsen asthma and bronchitis symptoms. They can also increase the risk of heart attack. Smog that hangs over cities and blocks out sunlight is the most apparent form of pollution. But it can even appear in less visible forms and have more long-term impacts that can be harder to detect.

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and water vapor (H2O), trap radiation in the form of heat. As our society industrialized, we burned more fossil fuels, which released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the last 150 years, carbon dioxide levels rose from 280 parts per million to around 400 parts per million. Most climate scientists believe this has caused global temperatures to rise.

Governments and business have been working to limit air pollution in the face of climate change and health risks. Governments have created limits on pollution, and the Paris agreement represents a global commitment to reducing emissions. Many businesses have also started using more renewable energy and working to conserve energy in general to reduce fossil fuel use.

Reduced Water Quality

Industry also plays a role in the reduction of water quality. Pollutants that enter the water harm both marine life and people that come into contact with the water.

Eutrophication, which is caused in part by industrial waste, is a significant problem in water sources around the world. This phenomenon results from the presence of excessive nutrients in the water. This causes higher-than-normal levels of algae growth, which can deplete the oxygen levels of water. This lack of oxygen harms marine life.

Pollutants that enter water due to industrial processes include sulfur, asbestos, nitrates, phosphates and oils. Massive oil spills cause more extensive acute damage to marine life, aquatic environments and coastal economies.

Poor water quality is a major human health concern. More people die each year from unsafe water than violence of any kind, including even war. Water that contains bacteria, such as Legionella, and pollutants can cause diseases such as Legionnaire’s Disease and Pontiac Fever. The scarcity of drinking water is already a problem as the human population continues to grow. The more water becomes polluted, the less is available for drinking.

Treating wastewater before it enters water sources helps reduce pollution. Most wastewater does not get treatment, though. Governments may need to step in to encourage companies to treat their wastewater and minimize water pollution. Consumers can help as well by supporting businesses that reduce their water pollution over those that don’t.

Dealing With Waste

Physical waste such as debris and excess materials cause environmental and health impacts as well. Reducing waste by only purchasing and manufacturing necessary items can decrease these impacts. Everything that companies manufacture requires resources. Materials, such as wood and plastics, take a toll on the environment. Transporting these products also requires the burning of fossil fuels.

Recycling industrial materials also reduces their impact. They may be able to be used for other purposes or made it into new resources. Companies can even make profits from recycling their waste material. General Motors, for example, recycles paint sludge into plastic containers sturdy enough to hold engine parts.

Factories can also recycle other forms of waste, including heat. Industrial processes use a lot of energy, which produces heat. In fact, estimates show that 20 to 50 percent of industrial energy use is released as excess heat. Companies can reroute this heat to keep their facilities at a comfortable temperature and save on their heating and cooling bills.

Changing our individual habits and lifestyles can help to reduce climate change and other forms of environmental damage as well as the associated human health risks. Industry may play an even more significant role, however, because its impacts occur on such a large scale. Reducing the environmental impact of industry will improve both the health of the planet and the people who depend on it for survival.

Megan Ray Nichols
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Copyright 2017 The Moderate Voice