Environmental Pollution and Control by Jeffrey J. Peirce, P Aarne Vesilind, and Ruth Weiner by Jeffrey J. Peirce, P Aarne Vesilind, and Ruth Weiner - Read Online

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Environmental Pollution and Control - Jeffrey J. Peirce

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Since this book was first published in 1972, several generations of students have become environmentally aware and conscious of their responsibilities to planet earth. Many of these environmental pioneers are now teaching in colleges and universities, and have students with the same sense of dedication and resolve that they themselves brought to the discipline. In those days, it was sometimes difficult to explain what environmental science or engineering was, and why the development of these fields was so important to the future of the earth and to human civilization. Today there is no question that the human species has the capability of destroying its home and that we have taken major steps toward doing exactly that.

And yet, while much has changed in a generation, much has not. We still have air pollution; we still contaminate our water supplies; we still dispose of hazardous materials improperly; we still destroy natural habitats as if no other species mattered. And, worst of all, we still populate the earth at an alarming rate. The need for this book, and for the college and university courses that use it as a text, continues; it is perhaps more acute now than it was several decades ago.

Although the battle to preserve the environment is still raging, some of the rules have changed. Now we must take into account risk to humans and be able to manipulate concepts of risk management. With increasing population, and fewer alternatives to waste disposal, this problem has intensified. Environmental laws have changed and will no doubt continue to evolve. The economic cost of preservation and environmental restoration continues to increase. Attitudes toward the environment are often couched in what has become known as the environmental ethic. Finally, the environmental movement has become politically powerful, and environmentalism sometimes can be made to serve a political agenda.

In revising this book, we incorporate the evolving nature of environmental sciences and engineering by adding chapters as necessary and eliminating material that is less germane to today’s students. We have nevertheless maintained the essential feature of this book—the packaging of the more important aspects of environmental engineering science and technology in an organized manner and the presentation of this mainly technical material to a nonengineering audience.

This book has been used as a text in courses that require no prerequisites, although a high school knowledge of chemistry is important. A knowledge of college-level algebra is also useful, but calculus is not required for an understanding of the technical and scientific concepts.

We do not intend this book to be scientifically and technically complete. In fact, many complex environmental problems have been simplified to the threshold of pain for many engineers and scientists. Our objective, however, is not to impress nontechnical students with the rigors and complexities of pollution control technology but rather to make some of the language and ideas of environmental engineering and science more understandable.

J. Jeffrey Peirce

Ruth F. Weiner

P. Aarne Vesilind

Chapter 1

Pollution and Environmental Ethics

Lewis Carroll

If seven maids with seven mops Swept it for half a year, Do you suppose, the Walrus said, That they could get it clear? ! doubt it, said the Carpenter, And shed a bitter tear.

Could the Walrus and the Carpenter have been talking about our earth? And is the situation really this grim? Is it time to start shedding bitter tears, or is there something we can do to control environmental pollution?

The objective of this book is to at least begin to answer these questions. As the title suggests, this book focuses first on the problems of environmental pollution, but then concentrates on methods of control—what we humans can do to prevent and control the pollution of our planet.

We define environmental pollution as the contamination of air, water, or food in such a manner as to cause real or potential harm to human health or well-being, or to damage or harm nonhuman nature without justification. The question of when harm to nonhuman nature is justified is a sticky one and is addressed below in the discussion on ethics.

In this first chapter we begin by asking why we seem to have such problems with environmental pollution. Where do these problems originate, and what or who is to blame for what many consider to be the sorry state of the world? Next we discuss our environmental problems within the framework of ethics. We begin by showing how the most basic concepts of environmental pollution that reflect public health concerns are really ethical issues. We then discuss how these ethics have been used to extend the concerns with pollution beyond public health to include the despoliation of the planet, including the extinction of species and destruction of places. All of these problems are still within the context of harm to humans. Finally, we discuss issues that have nothing to do with public health or human well-being, but nevertheless are important to us in terms of environmental quality.

FIGURE 1-1 Human excreta disposal, from an old woodcut. [Source: Reyburn, W., Flushed with Pride, London: McDonald (1969).]


Much of the history of Western civilizations has been characterized as exploitation, destruction, and noncaring for the environment. Why are we such a destructive species? Various arguments have been advanced to explain the roots of our environmentally destructive tendencies, including our religions, our social and economic structure, and our acceptance of technology.

Religion. In the first chapter of Genesis, people are commanded by God to subdue nature, to procreate, and to have dominion over all living things. This anthropocentric view of nature runs through the Judaeo-Christian doctrine, placing humans at the pinnacle of development and encouraging humans to use nature as we see fit.

In his essay, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White argues that those who embrace the Judaeo-Christian religions are taught to treat nature as an enemy and that natural resources are to be used to meet the goals of human survival and propagation. From this dogma (so goes the argument) have developed technology and capitalistic economy, and, ultimately, environmental degradation.

Because the Judaeo-Christian traditions are most prominent in the United States, we often forget that this is not a majority religious tradition in the world. Billions of people embrace very different deities and dogmas, and yet they also live in capitalistic economies with perhaps even greater destruction of environmental quality. So it cannot be just the Judaeo-Christian religions that are to blame.

Remember also that Christianity and Islam both developed at a time when there were a number of competing religions from which to choose. For many, the Christian ideas and ethics derived from the Judaic traditions seemed to fit most comfortably with their existing ethics and value systems, while others chose Islam over other religions. It seems quite obvious that Christianity was not the reason for the development of science, capitalism, and democracy, but simply provided an ethical environment in which they flourished (at least in Europe). It seems farfetched, therefore, to blame our environmental problems on our religions.

Social and Economic Structures. Perhaps it is our social structures that are responsible for environmental degradation. Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons illustrates this proposition with the following story:¹

A village has a common green for the grazing of cattle, and the green is surrounded by farmhouses. Initially, each farmer has one cow, and the green can easily support the herd. Each farmer realizes, however, that if he or she gets another cow, the cost of the additional cow to the farmer is negligible because the cost of maintaining the green is shared, but the profits are the farmer’s alone. So one farmer gets more cows and reaps more profits, until the common green can no longer support anyone’s cows, and the system collapses.

Hardin presents this as a parable for overpopulation of the earth and consequent resource depletion. The social structure in the parable is capitalism—the individual ownership of wealth—and the use of that wealth to serve selfish interests. Does that mean that noncapitalist economies (the totally and partially planned economies) do a better job of environmental protection, natural resource preservation, and population control?

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 afforded the world a glimpse of the almost total absence of environmental protection in the most prominent socialist nation in the developed world. Environmental devastation in the Commonwealth of Independent States (the former USSR) is substantially more serious than in the West. In the highly structured and centrally controlled communist system, production was the single goal and environmental degradation became unimportant. Also, there was no such thing as public opinion, of course, and hence nobody spoke up for the environment. When production in a centrally controlled economy is the goal, all life, including human life, is cheap and expendable.²

Some less industrialized societies, such as some Native American tribes, the Finno-Ugric people of northern Europe, and the Pennsylvania Amish in the United States, have developed a quasi–steady-state condition. These sociopolitical systems incorporate animistic religion, holding that nature contains spirits that are powerful, sometimes friendly, and with whom bargains can be struck. The old Estonians and Finns, for example, explained to the spirit of the tree why cutting it down was necessary.³ As another example, Estonians began the wheat harvest by putting aside a shaft of wheat for the field mice. This mouse-shaft (hiirevihk) did not appear to have religious significance; it was explained as a means of assuring the mice of their share of the harvest.⁴

These societies were not all environmentally stable, however, nor did they deliberately act to protect their environment. Those that are still in existence coexist with the industrialized societies that have not achieved a steady state, use the products and marketing mechanisms of those states, and lose their young people to societies where there is wider opportunity. Society is the reflection of the needs and aspirations of the people who establish and maintain it. Re-establishment of a nonindustrialized society would be doomed to failure, because such societies have already demonstrated that they do not meet people’s needs.

The democratic societies of the developed world have in fact moved consciously toward environmental and resource protection more rapidly than either totally planned economies or the less developed nations. The United States has the oldest national park system in the world, and pollution control in the United States predates that of other developed nations, even Canada, by about 15 years.

So much for blaming capitalism.

Science and Technology. Perhaps the problem is with science and technology. It has become fashionable to blame environmental ills on increased knowledge of nature (science) and the ability to put that knowledge to work (engineering). During the industrial revolution the Luddite movement in England violently resisted the change from cottage industries to centralized factories; in the 1970s a pseudo-Luddite back-to-nature movement purported to reject technology altogether. However, the adherents of this movement made considerable use of the fruits of the technology they eschewed, like used vans and buses, synthetic fabrics, and, for that matter, jobs and money.

People who blame science and technology for environmental problems forget that those who alerted us early to the environmental crisis, like Rachel Carson in Silent Spring,⁵ Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac,⁶ and Barry Commoner in The Closing Circle,⁷ were scientists, sounding the environmental alarm as a result of scientific observation. Had we not observed and been able to quantify phenomena like species endangerment and destruction, the effect of herbicides and pesticides on wildlife, the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer, and fish kills due to water pollution, we would not even have realized what was happening to the world. Our very knowledge of nature is precisely what alerted us to the threats posed by environmental degradation.

If knowledge is value-free, is technology to blame? If so, less technologically advanced societies must have fewer environmental problems. But they do not. The Maori in New Zealand exterminated the moa, a large flightless bird; there is considerable overgrazing in Africa and on the tribal reservations in the American Southwest; the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians destroyed forests and created deserts by diverting water. Modern technology, however, not only provides water and air treatment systems, but continues to develop ways in which to use a dwindling natural resource base more conservatively. For example, efficiency of thermal electric generation has doubled since World War II, food preservation techniques stretch the world’s food supply, and modern communications frequently obviate the need for energy-consuming travel, and computer use has markedly decreased the use of paper.

If technology is not to blame, does it have the wrong values, or is it value-free? Is knowledge itself, without an application, right or wrong, ethical or unethical? J. Robert Oppenheimer faced this precise dilemma in his lack of enthusiasm about developing a nuclear fusion bomb.⁸ Oppenheimer considered such a weapon evil in itself. Edward Teller, usually credited with its development, considered the H-bomb itself neither good nor evil, but wished to keep it out of the hands of those with evil intent (or what he perceived to be evil intent). The developers of the atomic bomb, although defending the position that the bomb itself was value-free, nonetheless enthusiastically promoted the peaceful uses of atomic energy as a balance to their development of a weapon of destruction. The ethics of technology is so closely entwined with the ethics of the uses of that technology that the question of inherent ethical value is moot. On balance, technology can be used to both good and evil ends, depending on the ethics of the users.

Assessment of the ethics of the use of any technology depends on our knowledge and understanding of that technology. For example, at this writing, scientists are investigating whether or not proximity to the electric and magnetic fields associated with electric power transmission increases cancer risk. Clearly, the ethics associated with transmission line location depends on the outcome of these investigations. Acceptance or rejection of any technology on ethical grounds must depend on an understanding of that technology. The weakness of the Luddite argument lay in the Luddites’ ignorance of what they were fighting.

We seem to be left with little to blame for environmental pollution and destruction except ourselves. That is, if we are to reverse the trend in environmental degradation, we need to change the way we live, the way we treat each other and our nonhuman environment. Such ideas can be connected by what has become known as environmental ethics. Environmental ethics is a complex term and requires some explanation. First, we need to understand what we mean by ethics and what justification we have for wishing that everyone be ethical.


Ethics is the systematic analysis of morality. Morality, in turn, is the perceptions we have of what is right and wrong, good or bad, or just or unjust. We all live by various moral values such as truth and honesty. Some, for example, find it very easy to tell lies, while others will almost always tell the truth. If all life situations required nothing more than deciding when to tell the truth or when to lie, there would be no need for ethics. Very often, however, we find ourselves in situations when some of our moral values conflict. Do we tell our friend the truth, and risk hurting his feelings, or do we lie and be disloyal? How do we decide what to do? Ethics makes it possible to analyze such moral conflicts, and people whose actions are governed by reflective ethical reasoning, taking into account moral values, are said to be ethical people.

We generally agree among ourselves to be ethical (that is, to use reflective and rational analysis of how we ought to treat each other) because to do so results in a better world. If we did not bother with morality and ethics, the world would be a sorry place, indeed. Imagine living in an environment where nobody could be trusted, where everything could be stolen, and where physically hurting each other at every opportunity would be normal. While some societies on this globe might indeed be like that, we must agree that we would not want to live under such conditions. So we agree to get along and treat each other with fairness, justice, and caring, and to make laws to govern those issues of greatest import and concern.

The most important point relative to the discussion that follows is that ethics only makes sense if we assume reciprocity—the ability of others to make rational ethical decisions. You don’t lie to your friend, for example, because you don’t want him or her to lie to you. To start lying to each other would destroy the caring and trust you both value. Truth-telling therefore makes sense because of the social contract we have with others, and we expect others to participate. If they do not, we do not associate with them, or if the breach of the contract is great enough, we send them to jail and remove them from society.

Environmental ethics is a subcategory of ethics. Its definition can be approached from three historical perspectives: environmental ethics as public health, environmental ethics as conservation and preservation, and environmental ethics as caring for nonhumans.


During the middle of the nineteenth century, medical knowledge was still comparatively primitive, and public health measures were inadequate and often counter-productive. The germ theory of disease was not as yet appreciated, and great epidemics swept periodically over the major cities of the world. Some intuitive public health measures did, however, have a positive effect. Removal of corpses during epidemics and appeals for cleanliness undoubtedly helped the public health.

We in modern-day America have difficulty imagining what it must have been like in cities and farms not too many years ago.

Life in cities during the Middle Ages, and through the Industrial Revolution, was difficult, sad, and usually short. In 1842, the Report from the Poor Law Commissioners on an Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain described the sanitary conditions in this manner:

Many dwellings of the poor are arranged around narrow courts having no other opening to the main street than a narrow covered passage. In these courts there are several occupants, each of whom accumulated a heap. In some cases, each of these heaps is piled up separately in the court, with a general receptacle in the middle for drainage. In others, a plot is dug in the middle of the court for the general use of all the occupants. In some the whole courts up to the very doors of the houses were covered with filth.

The 1850s witnessed what is now called the Great Sanitary Awakening. Led by tireless public health advocates like Sir Edwin Chadwick in England and Ludwig Semmelweiss in Austria, proper and effective measures began to evolve. John Snow’s classic epidemiological study of the 1849 cholera epidemic in London stands as a seminal investigation of a public health problem. By using a map of the area and thereon identifying the residences of those who contracted the disease, Snow was able to pinpoint the source of the epidemic as the water from a public pump on Broad Street. Removal of the handle from the Broad Street pump eliminated the source of the cholera pathogen, and the epidemic subsided.⁹ Ever since, waterborne diseases have become one of the major concerns of the public health. The reduction of such diseases by providing safe and pleasing water to the public has been one of the dramatic successes of the public health profession.

Public health has historically been associated with the supply of water to human communities. Permanent settlements and the development of agricultural skills were among the first human activities to create a cooperative social fabric. As farming efficiency increased, a division of labor became possible and communities began to build public and private structures. Water supply and wastewater drainage were among the public facilities that became necessary for human survival in communities, and the availability of water has always been a critical component of civilizations.¹⁰ Some ancient cities developed intricate and amazingly effective systems, even by modern engineering standards. Ancient Rome, for example, had water supplied by nine different aqueducts up to 80 km (50 mi) long, with cross-sections from 2 to 15 m (7 ft to 50 ft). The purpose of the aqueducts was to carry spring water, which even the Romans knew was better to drink than Tiber River water.

As cities grew, the demand for water increased dramatically. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the poorer residents of European cities lived under abominable conditions, with water supplies that were grossly polluted, expensive, or nonexistent. In London, the water supply was controlled by nine different private companies, and water was sold to the public. People who could not afford to pay often begged for or stole their water. During epidemics, the privation was so great that many drank water from furrows and depressions in plowed fields. Droughts caused water supplies to be curtailed, and great crowds formed to wait their turn at the public pumps.

In the New World, the first public water supply system consisted of wooden pipes, bored and charred, with metal rings shrunk on the ends to prevent splitting. The first such pipes were installed in 1652, and the first citywide system was constructed in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1776. The first American water works was built in the Moravian settlement of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A wooden water wheel, driven by the flow of Monocacy Creek, powered wooden pumps that lifted spring water to a hilltop wooden reservoir from which it was distributed by gravity. One of the first major water supply undertakings in the United States was the Croton Aqueduct, started in 1835 and completed six years later, that brought clear water to Manhattan Island, which had an inadequate supply of groundwater.

Although municipal water systems might have provided adequate quantities of water, the water quality was often suspect. As one writer described it, tongue firmly in cheek:¹¹

The appearance and quality of the public water supply were such that the poor used it for soup, the middle class dyed their clothes in it, and the very rich used it for top-dressing their lawns. Those who drank it filtered it through a ladder, disinfected it with chloride of lime, then lifted out the dangerous germs which survived and killed them with a club in the back yard.

Water filtration became commonplace toward the middle of the nineteenth century with the first successful water supply filter constructed in Parsley, Scotland, in 1804. Many less successful attempts at filtration followed, a notable one being the New Orleans system for filtering water from the Mississippi River. In this case the water proved to be so muddy that the filters clogged too fast for the system to be workable. The problem with muddy water was not alleviated until aluminum sulfate (alum) began to be used as a pretreatment to filtration in 1885. Disinfection of water with chlorine began in Belgium in 1902 and in America, in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1908. Between 1900 and 1920 deaths from infectious disease dropped dramatically, owing in part to the effect of cleaner water supplies.

Human waste disposal in early cities was both a nuisance and a serious health problem. Often the method of disposal consisted of nothing more than flinging the contents of chamberpots out the window. Around 1550, King Henri II repeatedly tried to get the Parliament of Paris to build sewers, but neither the king nor Parliament proposed to pay for them. The famous Paris sewer system was finally built under Napoleon III, in the nineteenth century.

Stormwater was considered the main drainage problem, and it was in fact illegal in many cities to discharge wastes into the ditches and storm sewers. Eventually, as water supplies developed,¹² the storm sewers were used for both sanitary waste and stormwater. Such combined sewers exist in some of our major cities even today.

The first system for urban drainage in America was constructed in Boston around 1700. There was surprising resistance to the construction of sewers for waste disposal. Most American cities had cesspools or vaults, even at the end of the nineteenth century, and the most economical means of waste disposal was to pump these out at regular intervals and cart the waste to a disposal site outside the town. Engineers argued that although sanitary sewer construction was capital intensive, sewers provided the best means of wastewater disposal in the long run. Their argument prevailed, and there was a remarkable period of sewer construction between 1890 and 1900.

The first separate sewerage systems in America were built in the 1880s in Memphis, Tennessee, and Pullman, Illinois. The Memphis system was a complete failure because it consisted of small-diameter pipes, intended to be flushed periodically. No manholes were constructed, and because the small pipes clogged, cleanout became a major problem. The system was later removed and larger pipes, with manholes, were installed.¹³

Wastewater treatment first consisted only of screening for removal of the large floatables to protect sewage pumps. Screens had to be cleaned manually, and wastes were buried or incinerated. The first complete treatment systems were operational by the turn of the century, with land spraying of the effluent being a popular method of final wastewater disposal.

The quest for public health also drives the concern with the extinction of species. Not too many years ago the public would have agreed with a paper mill executive when he said, "It probably won’t hurt mankind a hell of a whole lot in the long run if a whooping crane doesn’t quite make it.¹⁴ The opposing view, that preservation of species and species diversity is at least as important as economic development, is now recognized as having significant public health import. Once a species is extinct, its unique chemical components will no longer be available to us for making medicines or other products. Because of this concern, the extinction of species has been codified as the federal Endangered Species Act and numerous state laws. Note that the driving force in these laws is not the value of the species itself but its potential value to human beings.

In summary, the first form of the environmental ethic makes the destruction of resources and despoliation of our environment unethical because doing so might cause other humans to suffer from diseases. Our unwillingness to clean up after ourselves is unethical because such actions could make other people sick or prevent them from being cured of disease. Because ethics involves a social contract, the rationale for the environmental ethic in this case is that we do not want to hurt other people by polluting the environment.


A second form of the environmental ethic recognizes that nonhuman nature has value to humans above and beyond our concern for public health. We realize that the destruction or despoliation of the environment would be taking something from others—not much different from stealing. A river, for example, has value to others as a place to fish, and contaminating it takes something from those people. Cutting down old growth forests prevents us and our progeny from enjoying such wilderness, and such actions are therefore unethical.

The concept that nature has value is a fairly modern one. Until the mid-nineteenth century, nature was thought of as something to fight against—to destroy or be destroyed by. The value in nature was first expressed by several farsighted writers, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson. He argued that nature had instrumental value to people, in terms of material wealth, recreation potential, and aesthetic beauty. Instrumental value can usually be translated into economic terms, and the resulting environmental ethic (from this argument) requires us to respect that value and not to destroy what others may need or enjoy. The concern of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot about the destruction of American forests¹⁵ was not because they believed that somehow the forests had a right to survive but because they felt that these resources should be conserved and managed for the benefit of all. Such an environmental ethic can be thought of as conservation environmental ethics because its main aim is to conserve the resources for our eventual long-term benefit.

A modified form of the conservation environmental ethic evolved during this time, championed by John Muir, the founder of The Sierra Club and an advocate for the preservation of wilderness. This preservation environmental ethic held that some areas should be left alone and not developed or spoiled because of their beauty or significance to people. Muir often clashed with Pinchot and the other conservationists because Muir wanted to preserve wilderness while Pinchot wanted to use it wisely. Often this distinction can be fuzzy. When President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, speaking of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, said, "Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it,¹⁶ he was being both a conservationist and a