‘Pollution is the addition of any substance (solid, liquid, or gas) or any form of energy (such as heat, sound, or radioactivity) to the environment at a rate faster than it can be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form. The major kinds of pollution, usually classified by environment, are air pollution, water pollution, and land pollution. Modern society is also concerned about specific types of pollutants, such as noise pollution, light pollution, and plastic pollution. Pollutions of all kinds can have negative effects on the environment and wildlife and often impacts human health and well-being’. (Nathanson, J.A., 2018)

Today, I would like to focus on water pollution. We have documented Congressional evidence that goes back to the late 1800’s, reporting legislative policies regarding the pollution of rivers from lumber mills.  In 1898, ‘The Executive Committee of the Game and Fish Protective Association of the District of Columbia, submitted Senate Bill 2905, providing for the investigation of the pollution of rivers where the sanitary condition of the people of more than one State or Territory is affected (Pollutions of Rivers, etc., 1898).’ This bill went on to say, ‘The conditions are not only a menace to the health of the citizens directly, but indirectly, as affecting the food supply, decreasing the amount of fish, and rendering the remainder unfit for use, possibly dangerous (Pollutions of Rivers, etc., 1898).’ 

Later writings have proven that the problem not only still exists, but has increased dramatically with the increase in population. In 2018, Marcus Haward wrote, ‘Fifty years ago, Arvid Pardo, Malta’s Ambassador to the United Nations, called for concerted actions to address what he saw as the potential for uncontrolled exploitation of the world’s oceans, threatening what Pardo recognized as areas of ‘the common heritage of mankind’. Pardo’s call for action led to changes in ocean governance’. ‘In 1967, calls for a refocus on the ‘common heritage’ of the world’s seas and oceans led to concerted and revolutionary action by the world community to address concerns and challenges (Haward, M., 2018).’

Throughout history, we find case after case of groups that come together to try to eradicate pollution and to purify the water that has already been polluted. In the 1960’s, an environmental movement began to emerge that sought to stem the tide of pollutants flowing into the planet’s ecosystems. Out of this movement came events like Earth Day, and legislative victories like the Clean Water Act of 1972 (Editors, H., 2009).’ I initially approached this research from a strictly informational standpoint. I wanted to find information I could use to present a case that would stand up to argument and criticism. Little did I know, I would find horrifying evidence of water pollution of disproportionate size in my own neighborhood.  This is how my research turned into a mission. The earliest primary sources I found were legal documents, including committee reports, UN conference notes and senate investigations. What I thought was going to be dry material, turned out to be the beginning of an adventure through history.

The next phase of my research was secondary sources. This is how I planned to make my topic personal. These sources interpret historical information using primary resources. When you ask yourself, ‘What is this author trying to accomplish?’, you find that the sole purpose is to create an awareness of the problem so people can not only do their part to make changes personally, but also be aware of local and global issues. From the earliest documents that I have found, there have been just as many ideas on how to conquer this problem. Unfortunately, ‘we cannot make pollution disappear. We can only push it around.’ ’The durability of pollution is so great that it is now measured in geologic time: the Anthropocene.’ Historian and professor, Jorge Otero-Palos, has a unique perspective. He says ‘We must dare to understand pollution differently: not as the outside of culture, but rather as itself an enduring cultural object worthy of preservation; not as a non-material, but rather as a specific material; not as an ahistorical dust, but rather as microscopic matter that is a new measure of time and therefore an invitation and a key to rethinking historiography. We are, in sum, at a moment when preservation must open up to a new form of knowledge that has yet to coalesce; it cannot be learned, it must be produced. We need a new experimental preservation conceptually willing and technically able to move into realms of uncertainty (Page, M., & Miller, M. R. (2016). ‘

The history of water pollution relates step by step to the current predicament we now find ourselves in. At each point in history, we see development, both socially and technologically. However, with each new development, we see a new pollutant. For decades, it has been a vicious cycle; development, which in turn creates a new pollutant, the realization of the problem, and finally legal mandates. Unfortunately, by the time we get to the end of the cycle, the damage is done.  The difference in the current situation, as opposed to the history of pollution is both the scale of pollution and the pollutants themselves. While we may not see marine life being killed by waste from lumber mills, we are still seeing them killed with new inventions, such as plastic six-pack rings. As Jorge Otero-Palos said, we cannot make pollution disappear. We need to find new way of thinking about this issue. Instead of waiting until a new crisis evolves, we need to find a way to keep it from happening in the first place.

Historical context and inquiry can inform current and future discussions of this topic. We can look at these documents and see exactly what went wrong from start to finish. As the problem with pollution has been consistent throughout history, perhaps we can use this information to create new guidelines and processes for the future. We can no longer claim ignorance in this matter. However, if we use the past to guide us, we can create a future that is more sustainable and healthier for future generations.


Nathanson, J. A. (2018, December 21). Pollution. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/science/pollution-environment

U.S. Senate, Committee on Public Health and National Quarantine. (1898). Pollution of rivers, etc. [S. 2905 from 1st sess.]. Washington: Publisher not identified.

Haward, M. (2018, February 14). Plastic pollution of the world’s seas and oceans as a contemporary challenge in ocean governance. Retrieved April 25, 2019, from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-03104-3

Editors, H. (2009, November 06). Water and Air Pollution. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/water-and-air-pollution

Chapter 1. (1973). Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. UN Library, July 1995, UN/SA Collection.

Page, M., & Miller, M. R. (2016). Bending the future: Fifty ideas for the next fifty years of historic preservation in the United States. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. doi: https://about.jstor.org/terms