The industrial revolution brought about significant economic and social changes to our world and historians agree it is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.
Unfortunately, it also brought about the most catastrophic and damaging events that not only claimed the lives of millions, but also has severely damaged the earth and our environment – some of it beyond repair.
Although determining a final list of the top 10 worst disasters made by man can be difficult and controversial, the following list are incidents that have caused the most destruction to the environment and the people who live there.
The Love Canal
From 1942 to 1953, around Love Canal near Niagara Falls, New York, Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation) buried over 21,000 tons of toxic waste into a canal, using it as a dumpsite. It wasn’t until 1976 that a local newspaper reported the discovery of the dumpsite and potential health problems were raised.
A survey by the Love Canal Homeowners Association found that 56% of children born from 1974-1978 had at least one birth defect such as enlarged feet, heads, hands and legs. There was also an unusually high amount of miscarriages. Over 800 families were evacuated and rehoused with the government reimbursing them for their homes. 248 separate chemicals including 130lb of dioxin have been unearthed from the canal. The most toxic area of the site has been reburied with a thick plastic liner, clay and dirt and a 7ft 10in high barbed wire fence erected around this area.
The Great Smog of ’52
In London, December 1952, the worst air pollution event in the United Kingdom’s history occurred. A bitterly cold winter and with so many coal fireplaces burning in calm conditions mixed with an anticyclone, a dense covering of smog blanketed the air.
From Friday the 5th the air was polluted with dangerous sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and soot, until finally on Tuesday the 9th after a change in weather, it rapidly dissipated. Its harmful effects on the human respiratory system claimed over 12,000 lives and 100,000 more people fell ill. This was also the most notable air contamination incident in terms of effect on environmental study, government regulation, and public knowledge of the association between air quality and health.
Destruction of the Aral Sea
Once, what used to be one of four largest lakes in the world has now been slowly reduced to barely 10 per cent of its original size. Since the 1960’s Soviet irrigation projects diverted the rivers that fed it, creating one of the world’s worst environmental disasters. Heavily contamination has wiped out the wealthy fishing industry and replacing it with high unemployment and financial suffering. Climate conditions have changed with summers becoming hotter and drier and winters colder and longer.
Seveso Dioxin Pollution
Although no lives were lost, on the 10th July 1976, a reactor at a small Italian chemical company 9.3 miles North of Milan exploded, spilling the highest known amount of the toxic 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) into residential communities. Within days 3,300 animals were found dead and emergency massacring began to prevent TCDD from entering the food chain. By 1978 over 80,000 animals had been slaughtered. People were known to suffer from skin lesions or chloracne (an acne-like outbreak of blackheads, cysts and pustules, also known as Agent Orange in the Vietnam War).
The Three Mile Island Accident
Dauphin County, Pennsylvania was the site of the worst accident in U.S commercial nuclear power plant history, sparking the introduction of new regulations for the nuclear industry. On March 28, 1979 a partial nuclear meltdown took place and small amounts of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine leaked into the environment resulting in the evacuation of the region within a 20-mile radius within 2 days of the accident. 98% of residents returned home within 3 weeks. The reactor was deactivated and closed down for good after it was deemed too contaminated and wrecked to continue operation. Cleanup started in August 1979 and officially ended in December 1993 with a total cleanup cost of around $1 billion.
On the night of December 2nd 1984, Union Carbide Pesticide Plant in Bhopal, India began leaking poisonous methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins. Death toll numbers vary, but the official immediate death toll was put at 2,259. Another roughly 8,000 died within two weeks with another 8,000 since. One of the world’s worst industrial disasters caused 558,125 injuries and the primary effects were coughing, vomiting, extreme eye irritation and feeling of suffocation. The gas clouds remained close to ground level meaning children and shorter people inhaled higher amounts. Thousands of people fell victim to the gas by morning and mass evacuations began.
Nuclear Power Plant Explosion
26th April 1986. Widely believed to be the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, the nuclear power plan explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine sprawled radioactive particles into the atmosphere over a substantial area of Western USSR and Europe. Long-term consequences such as cancers and deformities are still being reported. Between 1986 and 2000 there were around 350,400 people evacuated from the most intensely polluted areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Sadly, the region won’t be safe for up to 200 years.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
In the Prince William Sound in Alaska on the 24th of March 1989, over 11 million gallons of crude oil was spilled into the ocean when the American oil tanker crashed into Bligh Reef. Oil ended up covering 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean in what has been noted as one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters created by man. Deaths of seabirds numbered as many as 250,000, along with at least 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals and billions of salmon and herring eggs, resulting in an overall reduction in population of ocean animals.
The Kuwait Oil Fires
Commencing in January 1991, retreating Iraqi military forcesproceeded to blow up oil wells across Kuwait. Over 600 were set alight and burned out of control with the last one finally put out in November 1991. Firefighters efforts to extinguish the blazes were hindered, as they couldn’t gain access until land mines placed around the oil wells by Iraqi soldiers had been dealt with safely. This disaster not only lead to respiratory problems in the surrounding population but resulted in widespread pollution to the soil, air and deserts. Over time, uninvited oil has carried on sinking into desert sands, with as yet unknown outcomes for Kuwait’s groundwater resources.
The Al-Mishraq Fire
24th June 2003, Mosul, Iraq. According to scientists using satellite monitoring, more gas was produced from this largest man made release of sulfur dioxide than most volcanic eruptions. After a fire thought to be lit intentionally at a sulfur plant, about 600,000 tons of sulfur dioxide was discharged into the atmosphere and burned for almost a month. Widespread respiratory problems were found in local residents and caused over $40 million of damage to community crops.
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