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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

Pollution: an introduction

Pollution from industry, households, vehicles and farms causes health problems for people and for animals. It can affect both the air and the quality of water in rivers, lakes and seas.

Climate change

Climate change tops the list of problems caused by pollution, largely as a result of energy use, transport and industrial processes.

Types of pollution

Report pollution incidents by ringing the 24-hour hotline on 0800 807060

The effects of pollution are felt in waters where pesticides can cause harm to fish and to plant life. In the air, fine particles can affect people with breathing problems, and nitrogen dioxide can cause acid rain.

In general there are two types of pollution:

Point source pollution
Pollution that comes from a particular factory or outlet is called point source pollution.

Diffuse pollution
Pollution that comes from a number of sources, across large areas, is called diffuse pollution. For example:

  • pesticides used on farms, verges, leisure areas (eg golf courses and parks) or gardens - these can end up in water
  • vehicle exhaust fumes which contain fine particles and nitrogen dioxide
  • fire retardants used on items like clothing and furniture
  • household substances that go down the drain, like cleaning products
  • exhaust residues in the water you use to wash your car
  • metals dissolved from old lead pipes
  • hormones from the contraceptive pill

Pollution from industrial sites

The Environment Agency regulates pollution from larger factories and waste sites. All these industrial sites must estimate the substances they expect to emit each year and show where these estimates have been exceeded.

Regulation takes into account what effect these emissions have on the environment and human health. The Environment Agency keeps a record of releases of pollutants, which can be viewed by the public.

Local authorities regulate pollution from all other factories. You can find out more by contacting your local council.

Pollution incidents

Pollution events like oil spills or the accidental release of raw sewage can harm the environment. These events can kill fish and other waterlife and can threaten human health. Other events, such as fly-tipping, degrade neighbourhoods and spoil the countryside.

In 2005, there were almost 1,000 pollution incidents. These had a serious impact on the environment in England and Wales, and over 100 of these caused major environmental damage.

In 2005, sewage and waste materials - like asbestos, household rubbish and vehicle parts - were the most common pollutants. Chemicals (mainly hazardous chemicals) were the commonest causes of pollution in the most serious incidents. Over half the cases of domestic pollution involved hazardous pollutants.

Reporting pollution incidents

You should report any pollution incidents you see to your council or the Environment Agency, depending on how serious they are. 'Reporting polluted land, air and water' explains how to do this.

Companies that cause serious pollution incidents are prosecuted. In 2005, the Environment Agency prosecuted 317 businesses, resulting in total fines of over £2.7 million. In addition to fines, polluters can be sent to jail or given other penalties.

Air pollution

There are around 150 serious cases of pollution a year that have a serious impact on air quality. The waste industry causes over half of these, often by burning waste which produces smoke. Odours from landfill sites and other waste facilities are also common.

One of the other main contributors to air pollution and climate change is transport. The increasing number of car journeys is having consequences for the environment.

Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks and is thought to cause a rising number of hospital admissions and early deaths. You can help improve the air you breathe by making small changes to the way you travel.

Read more on the 'air pollution' page.

Deciding which substances are safe

International bodies like the European Union and the United Nations assess the risks from polluting substances. There are laws and international treaties in place to ban or severely restrict many of the most dangerous substances.

The environment in your area

Contact your local council to find out about the quality of rivers, beaches and the air where you live.

What you can do

You will find many ideas in the environment and greener living section to help you reduce pollution. You can choose greener transport options, buy a greener car or make sure you dispose of hazardous waste properly.

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