We all know pollution is gross — but how disgusting does it get? Look no further. The entries on this list are enough to scare anyone into a lifetime of environmental advocacy.
The Centralia Coal Fire
In 1962, the population of Centralia, Penn., numbered close to 1,400 people; according to a 2010 census, the town had 10 permanent residents. What caused the mass exodus? It may have something to do with the massive coal fire that has been burning beneath the community for more than 50 years. The Centralia Coal Fire (as it’s come to be known) started in May 1962, though the exact date has been disputed. Some believe the blaze was caused during a landfill relocation project when a pile of trash was placed inside a strip mine and incinerated; others argue the fire began one day earlier, when a trash hauler deposited burning materials into an open-air garbage pit. Whatever the cause, firefighters were unable to contain the blaze and it quickly spread throughout the local network of subterranean mining sites. So naturally, when the people of Centralia realized that their neighborhood had become a gateway to hell, they packed up and moved elsewhere. One remaining resident, Joan Girolami, told People in 1981 that the surface temperature of her backyard peaked at 626 degrees Fahrenheit. In the last two decades, most of the town has been evicted by force — though some have stubbornly refused to leave and maintain the fire poses no serious threat to their well-being (despite numerous scientific reports). “What mine fire?” 88-year-old Carl Womer asked The Huffington Post last year. “If you go up and see a fire, you come back and tell me.”
Contaminated Breast Milk
You might think that indigenous communities of Arctic Canada would be immune — or at least, less susceptible — to the ugly side effects of pollution. Not so, says Mariann Lloyd-Smith, a senior advisor to Australia’s National Toxics Network. She blames persistent organic pollutants (POPs), non-biodegradable chemical byproducts that are rendered by factories and industrial facilities. POPs are known to accumulate in whale and seal blubber, a primary food source for local native inhabitants. “The blood and breast milk of Canadian Arctic peoples are contaminated with the full suite of POPs [and other] chemicals,” said Lloyd-Smith. “One carcinogenic chemical used in the production of stain treatments and non-stick cookware, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is doubling in the Arctic environment every five years. The Arctic people are fighting for their survival against one of the worst contaminated regional hotspots.” In addition to human populations, she said that indigenous animal species are also at great risk due to their exposure to POPs.
The Door to Hell
In 1971, some geologists were drilling for gas near the village of Darvaza in central Turkmenistan. The ground collapsed beneath their feet, leaving a crater measuring 70 meters in diameter and filled with burning debris. Worried that attempting to extinguish the fire would result in a discharge of toxic gas, the crew resolved to simply let the fire burn itself out. More than 40 years later, the ‘Door to Hell’ is still going strong — and now that scientists know there is an infinite amount of natural gas beneath the crater, they’re not expecting it go out anytime soon. At night, the crater can be clearly seen from more than a mile away.
The Ganges River
There are polluted rivers, and then there is the Ganges. According to the World Health Organization, the concentration of toxins, chemicals, and bacteria in India’s longest river is 3,000 times higher than levels that are considered safe. One of the primary factors is raw sewage — 1 billion liters to be exact, an amount that has doubled in the last 20 years and is expected to double again over the next two decades. The Ganges is also a popular site for body disposal; in addition to the thousands of people whose cremated remains are released along the banks, authorities say that animal carcasses and the corpses of unwanted children are regularly dumped into the river. At last count, the levels of Colliform bacteria alone were 2,800 times higher than recommended levels. And thanks to relaxed dumping restrictions, little has been done to clean up the Ganges or prevent more waste from spilling into the river. This is decidedly terrible news for the 420 million people that depend on the river for food, water, bathing, and crop irrigation.
The Pacific Garbage Patch
Gyres are naturally occurring oceanic currents formed by wind and planetary rotation patterns. The Pacific Subtropical Gyre — located between Hawaii and California — is one of the largest gyres on the planet. And unfortunately, it is filled with garbage, most of which originates from Asia. Most of the debris is comprised of small bits of microplastic; scientists have deduced that one square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains as many as 750,000 microplastic fragments; for the record, the Pacific Subtropical Gyre covers an area of 19 million square kilometers. The presence of toxic microplastic material is bad news for virtually every living creature that swims in surrounding waters; large animals like loggerhead turtles and birds choke to death when they consume the tiny fragments, while the patch prevents sunlight from reaching plankton, algae, and other small organisms that play a crucial role in the marine food chain. But the gyre’s strong current has not prevented waste debris from reaching beaches on nearby islands, including the Hawaiian archipelago; large-scale efforts to restore ‘garbage beaches’ are common throughout the Aloha State.
Yellow Dust Storms
Every year (typically in late winter or early spring), a massive dust storm forms in the Gobi Desert and blows hundreds of miles to the east. As the maelstrom sweeps through the industrial regions of northern China, heavy metals and carcinogenic materials like dioxin hitch a ride by clinging to passing dust particles. By the time it reaches the Korean Peninsula, the dust storm has taken on an eerie, almost apocalyptic appearance; yellow, cloud-like formations enshroud the land in darkness, and copper-colored particles cling to the ground like snowflakes. Not surprisingly, the arrival of this hellish storm typically signals nationwide coughing fits throughout North and South Korea; the Korea Environment Institute estimates that the dust kills 165 South Koreans and causes roughly 5 trillion won ($5 billion) in structural damages on an annual basis. Before dispersing over the Pacific Ocean, the storm causes further damage to the prefectures of western Japan.