The Troubles of Pollution: Environmental Impact of Industrialization

Rapid industrialization led to severe pollution and exploitation of natural resources, causing long-term damage to the environment.

Nov 11, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
textile mills smog industrialization
Textile mills billowing smoke into the atmosphere in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910, via National Park Service


There were many positive impacts that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. One of the biggest negatives, however, was the toll that industrialization had on the environment. Natural resources were exploited, industrial city air was polluted with thick smog, and the American waterways were heavily polluted with oil and debris. As industrialization continued, even after the Industrial Revolution, the signs of environmental damage became more apparent. Several environmental disasters occurred as a result of rapid urbanization and the pollution that industrialization brought upon the Earth.


Industrialization Created a Heavily Polluted Earth

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Heavy smog obscuring one’s view of the George Washington Bridge looking toward the New Jersey side of the Hudson River by Chester Higgins, 1973, via National Archives Catalog


Beginning in the mid-18th century, the first Industrial Revolution introduced new technology to the world that led to faster production and consumption of materials. The second Industrial Revolution arrived a century later in the United States and various parts of the world, solidifying a new way of living for many. One of the biggest environmental impacts of the Industrial Revolution was the number of pollutants it released into the environment.


The overcrowding of cities led to unhealthy living conditions and filth in the streets. Factory emissions caused by the coal-powered steam engine were released into the atmosphere. Waterways were polluted with oil and debris from improper industrial practices that led to disastrous events. The amount of carbon dioxide released into the Earth’s atmosphere steadily increased at the start of the Industrial Revolution and has been rising ever since. Upon increased industrialization, the demand for fossil fuels started an upward trend in harmful human emissions.


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Polluted water of the Cuyahoga River entering Lake Erie courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections, 1966, via Cleveland State University Center for Public History and Digital Humanities


The effects of these emissions were not immediately realized in the beginning stages of the Industrial Revolution. Many signs of industrialization deteriorating the Earth didn’t come until decades after the second Industrial Revolution. Depletion of the ozone layer, the Earth’s natural protection against harmful ultraviolet light, was realized by scientists in the 1980s. Air pollution caused thick blankets of smog caused by factories to cover industrial cities. This posed health risks, such as respiratory illnesses, to residents and harmed wildlife.

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Water quality issues began to rise as waterways were affected by industrialization. Improper disposal of sewage, debris, oil, and other waste drained into waterways. The first signs of water quality issues began in the late 19th century. Harmful pollutants draining into rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans caused diseases and other illness outbreaks. Waterways are a part of fragile ecosystems that support and house a wide variety of wildlife. Oil spills and pollutants entering these waters led to widespread losses of wildlife.


Depletion of Natural Resources

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Coal miners exiting Clover Gap Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky by Russell Lee, 1946, via The National Archives


One of the most important natural resources for industrialization was coal. Other means to heat homes, make iron, and power factories were quickly replaced when the commercial coal mining industry took off in the early 19th century. Wood was previously used to heat homes and to run water-powered factories, and charcoal was used to make iron. As the coal mining industry expanded, these resources were replaced by coal.


The steam engine was a key contribution to the Industrial Revolution. Scottish inventor James Watt set out to improve an earlier model of the steam engine created by Thomas Newcomen in the 1700s. It made the steam engine efficient enough to be able to power factories. Coal was used to make iron for steam engines, and it also helped power them. As industrialization continued to expand, so did the need for coal.


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Retouched photograph of Edwin Drake (right) standing in front of the first oil well drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, 1890, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, oil and natural gas were added to the mix of natural resource exploitation. The first oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. This led to the coal era, and entrepreneurs scrambled to gain on the business. Regulations to control natural resource extraction were later enacted in an attempt to preserve the Earth’s non-renewable resources. The depletion of natural resources led to the destruction of land and wildlife habitats, which decreased biodiversity. It’s also led to some non-renewables being given a shorter timeline of exhaustion, several of which are projected to run out by 2100.


The increased demand for coal and other natural resources led to the exploitation and depletion of these non-renewable resources. It also contributed to copious amounts of air pollution due to its use in factories and homes in industrial cities. Improper mining practices also led to toxic pollutants running off into waterways. It started a trend of wastefulness and overconsumption that would continue to affect the environment for decades.


Urbanization Consumed Delicate Ecosystems

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Deforestation in San Juan County, Colorado due to early mining practices by Russell Lee, 1940, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


As people began traveling throughout the nation and settling down in new territory, human activity in these altered areas affected the land and habitats of wildlife. Territorial expansion was one of the main goals for America as a new, independent nation. While most land remained untouched prior to the 19th century, industrialization led to increased urbanization. People were moving around more during the American Industrial Revolution. Cities, neighborhoods, and suburbs quickly formed as the population increased rapidly. In 1800, the entire US population was about 5.3 million people. That number swelled to 76.2 million by 1900.


Human development, directly and indirectly, causes habitat deterioration and destruction. Some animal populations declined significantly due to excessive hunting. Other populations decreased due to pollution and loss of habitat. The first endangered species list was compiled and released in 1967. The list comprised more than 70 species, including birds, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. The Endangered Species Act was established a year prior in 1966 to help protect endangered animals and their habitats from further exploitation.


Environmental Disasters Caused by the Industrial Revolution

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A blanket of smog coating London, England, via Columbia University Irving Medical Center


As a result of industrialization, several environmental disasters occurred across the US and the world in industrial cities. These events were clear signs that harmful pollutants released into the atmosphere and waterways were deteriorating the environment. A spur of environmental disasters peaked in the mid-20th century, about 100 years after the second Industrial Revolution began.


The Great Smog of 1952 was an eye-opening disaster that caused a thick blanket of smog to cover the entire city of London, England. Between December 5 and December 9, 1952, smog consumed the streets of London due to copious amounts of smoke boiling from the chimneys of houses and factories. The smog built up due to a combination of coal burning and an anticyclone weather event that caused air to be warmed and pushed downwards, trapping the smoke in the lower part of the atmosphere. It’s estimated that 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles and 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted each day while the event lasted. Many people suffered from respiratory issues, and approximately 4,000 people died as a result. In direct response to the smog event, the Clean Air Act of 1956 was passed in the United Kingdom.


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Cleveland firefighters spraying water on the last of the Cuyahoga River Fire courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, 1969, via National Park Service


Several major rivers and waterways in the United States experienced heavy pollution due to improper waste and sewage disposal. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was one of the most polluted rivers in the entire country by the mid-1900s. Several fires ensued on the river as a result of its pollution with oily debris and waste. In 1912, the river caught fire, which resulted in five deaths. One of the most costly fires on the river occurred in 1952, which resulted in $1.3 million in damages.


The most well-documented case occurred in 1969. The river caught fire due to a build-up of oily debris under wooden trestles located below train tracks. It’s thought that the fire started due to sparks created by a train passing through the area. The event became known as the Cuyahoga River Fire. The flames managed to grow up to five stories tall in a matter of 20 minutes and caused approximately $50,000 in damages.


The Cuyahoga River Fire caused the people of America to become alarmed at the state of the waterways. It encouraged Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) the following year, in 1970. The act was a major step toward environmental protection that led to several other environmental regulations being created in an effort to manage sanitation and air and water pollution.


Conservation Efforts to Draw Back Detrimental Effects of Industrialization

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A crowd of environmental activists marching on Earth Day in New York City, 1970, via NYC Department of Records & Information Services


The state of the environment by the 1960s and ‘70s concerned many Americans. The impacts of industrialization were becoming more apparent as environmental disasters worsened. In an effort to combat the deteriorating environment, laws and programs were implemented to decrease pollution, preserve natural resources, and protect land and wildlife from being destroyed. The success of the first Earth Day in April 1970 exemplified the importance of environmental health to the public. Earth Day saw a resurgence in 1990, which brought 200 million people from across the world together to support environmental health. It also helped bring recycling programs to light. The environmental movement was able to gain support in a time that focused on more progressive ideas.


The series of laws implemented throughout the environmental movement made a huge impact by controlling human activities that posed a massive threat to human and environmental health. Several land and water cleanup programs were established to maintain the quality of the nation’s lands and waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regularly studies and monitors various environmental health risks to determine the best course of action that allows humans and the environment to live in harmony.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.