Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into an environment that causes instability, disorder, harm or discomfort to the physical systems or living organisms they are in. Pollution can take the form of chemical substances, or energy, such as noise, heat, or light energy. Pollutants, the elements of pollution, can be foreign substances or energies, or naturally occurring; when naturally occurring, they are considered contaminants when they exceed natural levels. Pollution is often classed as point source or nonpoint source pollution.
Humankind has had some effect upon the environment since the Paleolithic era during which the ability to generate fire was acquired. In the Iron Age, the use of tooling led to the practice of metal grinding on a small scale and resulted in minor accumulations of discarded material probably easily dispersed without too much impact. Human wastes would have polluted rivers or water sources to some degree. However, these effects could be expected predominantly to be dwarfed by the natural world.
The first advanced civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Persia, Greece and Rome increased the use of water for their manufacture of goods, increasingly forged metal and created fires of wood and peat for more elaborate purposes (for example, bathing, heating). The forging of metals appears to be a key turning point in the creation of significant air pollution levels. Core samples of glaciers in Greenland indicate increases in air pollution associated with Greek, Roman and Chinese metal production. Still, at this time the scale of higher activity probably did not disrupt ecosystems.
The European Dark Ages during the early Middle Ages probably saw a reprieve in wide spread pollution, in that industrial activity fell, and population levels did not grow rapidly. Toward the end of the Middle Ages populations grew and concentrated more within cities, creating pockets of readily evident contamination. In certain places air pollution levels were recognizable as health issues, and water pollution in population centers was a serious medium for disease transmission from untreated human waste.
Since travel and widespread information were less common, there did not exist a more general context than that of local consequences in which to consider pollution. Foul air would have been considered a nuissance and wood, or eventually, coal burning produced smoke, which in sufficient concentrations could be a health hazard in proximity to living quarters. Septic contamination or poisoning of a clean drinking water source was very easily fatal to those who depended on it, especially if such a resource was rare. Superstitions predominated and the extent of such concerns would probably have been little more than a sense of moderation and an avoidance of obvious extremes.
But gradually increasing populations and the proliferation of basic industrial processes saw the emergence of a civilization that began to have a much greater collective impact on its surroundings. It was to be expected that the beginnings of environmental awareness would occur in the more developed cultures, particularly in the densest urban centers. The first medium warranting official policy measures in the emerging western world would be the most basic: the air we breathe.
The earliest known writings concerned with pollution were Arabic medical treatises written between the 9th and 13th centuries, by physicians such as al-Kindi (Alkindus), Qusta ibn Luqa (Costa ben Luca), Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi (Rhazes), Ibn Al-Jazzar, al-Tamimi, al-Masihi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ali ibn Ridwan, Ibn Jumay, Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, Abd-el-latif, Ibn al-Quff, and Ibn al-Nafis. Their works covered a number of subjects related to pollution such as air contamination, water contamination, soil contamination, solid waste mishandling, and environmental assessments of certain localities.
King Edward I of England banned the burning of sea-coal by proclamation in London in 1272, after its smoke had become a problem. But 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. Air pollution would continue to be a problem there, especially later during the industrial revolution, and extending into the recent past with the Great Smog of 1952. This same city also recorded one of the earlier extreme cases of water quality problems with the Great Stink on the Thames of 1858, which led to construction of the London sewerage system soon afterward.
It was the industrial revolution that gave birth to environmental pollution as we know it today. The emergence of great factories and consumption of immense quantities of coal and other fossil fuels 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. 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.
Early Soviet poster, before the modern awareness: "The smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia"
Pollution became a popular issue after WW2, when the aftermath of atomic warfare and testing made evident the perils of radioactive fallout. Then a conventional catastrophic event The Great Smog of 1952 in London killed at least 8000 people. This massive event 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.
Bad bouts of local pollution helped increase consciousness. PCB dumping in the Hudson River resulted in a ban by the EPA on consumption of its fish in 1974. Long-term dioxin contamination at Love Canal starting in 1947 became a national news story in 1978 and led to the Superfund legislation of 1980. Legal proceedings in the 1990s helped bring to light Chromium-6 releases in California--the champions of whose victims became famous. The pollution of industrial land gave rise to the name brownfield, a term now common in city planning. DDT was banned in most of the developed world after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
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 thoroughout the 1950s and 1960s. Second place may go to the to the area of Chelyabinsk U.S.S.R. (see reference below) as the "Most polluted place on the planet".
Nuclear weapons continued to be tested in the Cold War, sometimes near inhabited areas, especially in the earlier stages of their development. The toll on the worst-affected populations and the growth since then in understanding about the critical threat to human health posed by radioactivity has also been a prohibitive complication associated with nuclear power. Though extreme care is practiced in that industry, the potential for disaster suggested by incidents such as those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl pose a lingering specter of public mistrust. One legacy of nuclear testing before most forms were banned has been significantly raised levels of background radiation.
International catastrophes such as the wreck of the Amoco Cadiz oil tanker off the coast of Brittany in 1978 and the Bhopal disaster in 1984 have demonstrated the universality of such events and the scale on which efforts to address them needed to engage. The borderless nature of atmosphere and oceans inevitably resulted in the implication of pollution on a planetary level with the issue of global warming. Most recently the term persistent organic pollutant (POP) has come to describe a group of chemicals such as 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.
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