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Environment and Society, Emerging Problems

Times Beach, polar ice caps, Prince William Sound, Superfund, skin cancer

During the 1970s and 1980s, research on the environment expanded and a number of previously unsuspected environmental issues emerged. The dangers of chemical waste disposal came to the forefront of public attention with incidents in communities such as Love Canal near Niagara Falls, New York, in 1979 and Times Beach, Missouri, in 1983. Developers built the communities on contaminated land that had once served as hazardous-waste disposal sites. After complaints by residents, the government declared both communities uninhabitable. In 1980 the government established what came to be known as a Superfund to clean up areas where hazardous waste had been dumped. By 1998 the Superfund had financed 500 emergency hazardous-waste cleanups at sites that presented urgent danger to public health.

Scientists also discovered acid rain, which results when pollutants combine with the moisture in the air to form acid. Winds can carry the acid clouds far from the source of the pollution before it is eventually deposited by rain. The acid rain can destroy plants and make streams and lakes unable to support aquatic life.

Other human-generated hazards have disrupted life in the United States. An oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska, when the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef in 1989, alerted the public to how fragile the northern environments are. Oil spills from offshore rigs have also polluted beaches and wetlands along the Gulf Coast. There have been problems in the nuclear energy industry as well. An accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania in 1979 released small amounts of radioactive gas. The accident almost resulted in a meltdown, in which radioactive fuel overheats and explodes, releasing dangerous levels of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Environmental contamination in industrialized countries such as the United States can affect conditions around the world. In 1985 scientists observed a serious deterioration of the ozone gas layer in the earthís atmosphere. The ozone layer forms a shield against hazardous ultraviolet radiation. The cause of ozone depletion seems to be the release into the atmosphere of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals once used heavily in industrial nations as refrigerants and aerosols. A thinning or disappearing of the ozone layer could damage the environment and cause medical problems for humans, particularly skin cancer.

Another potential problem surrounds global warming. Industrial development has led to increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. These gases are referred to as greenhouse gases, because they trap heat radiated by the earth, causing the atmosphere to warm. The warming of the planetís atmosphere could have cataclysmic results. For example, accelerated melting of the polar ice caps could cause sea level to rise, increasing erosion and flooding in coastal cities, and disrupting the world economy.

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