Cleaning Up Europe

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE In January 2000, a gold mine in Romania released cyanide into local streams. The cyanide, a deadly poison, flowed into the Tisza River in Hungary. Before the accident, the river held some of Europe's rarest fish. The poison killed an estimated 80 percent of the fish in the Tisza. Balazs Meszaros, whose family has commercially fished the Tisza for generations, said, “Now I don't know how I am going to live.” Even worse than the loss of jobs was the threat to health. Experts feared that the poison would seep into wells and contaminate crops and livestock. The damage will take years to undo.

Pollution is a complex example of human-environment interaction. People damage the environment, which in turn affects human lives. For instance, pollution is thought to cause 1 out of every 17 deaths in Hungary. Because cleaning up pollution is time-consuming, difficult, and costly, it remains a serious issue in Europe—and around the world.

Saving Europe's Water

As the story of the Tisza demonstrates, pollution rarely remains at its point of origin but often spreads to neighboring regions. As a result, water pollution is a problem that concerns almost all of Europe.


Mines and factories create much of Europe's water pollution. Industries often discharge chemicals into streams and rivers. Factories sometimes bury solid waste. Poisons from this waste seep into ground water and contaminate wells and rivers. And, as you read in Chapter 12, the burning of coal and other fuels causes acid rain. Acid rain changes the chemistry of lakes and rivers, often killing fish.

The link between industry and pollution creates a dilemma. Most countries want to develop industry, and some accept environmental damage as the price they must pay for progress. Other nations force industry to use pollution controls, but these are usually expensive.

Industry is not the only source of water pollution. Other sources include the following:

  • Sewage Ideally, cities should have treatment plants that remove harmful substances from sewage before it is released into bodies of water. But in Poland, for example, from 1988 to 1990, 44 percent of the cities had no sewage treatment plants. The water in most of Poland's rivers is unsafe to drink. It has also contaminated the soil so that some crops are toxic.
  • Chemical fertilizers Rain washes fertilizers from fields into bodies of water, where they cause algae and plants to grow faster than fish can eat them. The plants and algae die and decay, a process that uses up oxygen. The lack of oxygen kills fish—which then decay, using more oxygen. In time, these bodies of water can no longer support life.
  • Oil spills For example, in December 1999, a tanker sank off the west coast of France and spilled 10,000 tons of oil that spread along 250 miles of coastline. The oil killed tens of thousands of shorebirds.


Because water pollution spreads so easily, nations must cooperate to solve the problem. For example, pollution levels in the Rhine River rose sharply in the mid-1900s. To correct this, representatives from France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland formed the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. Since it began meeting in 1950, the commission has recommended programs such as the treatment of sewage before it enters the Rhine. As a result, pollution of the Rhine has decreased.

In addition, the European Union has passed environmental laws that its member nations must obey. The EU also set up the European Environmental Agency, which provides the EU with reliable information about the environment. Improving Europe's

Air Quality

Although they are often considered separately, the different types of pollution are connected. For example, water pollution can be caused by air pollution—because rain washes chemicals out of dirty air and into bodies of water.


Air pollution is made up of harmful gases and particulates, very small particles of liquid or solid matter. Many human activities create air pollution by expelling these gases and particulates into the atmosphere.

  • Using fossil fuels The burning of petroleum, gas, and coal causes much air pollution. It contributes to the formation of smog—a brown haze that occurs when the gases released by burning fossil fuels react with sunlight to create hundreds of harmful chemicals. One such chemical is ozone, a form of oxygen that causes health problems.
  • Fires Forest fires caused by careless human behavior and the burning of garbage release smoke and particulates into the atmosphere.
  • Chemical use Dry cleaning, refrigeration, air conditioning, and the spraying of pesticides are among the human activities that release harmful chemicals into the air.
  • Industry Factories discharge chemicals such as sulfur into the air. The factories of former Communist countries have been especially heavy polluters. Because of this, air pollution levels are much higher in the former East Germany than in the United States.


Breathing polluted air can contribute to respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Air pollution is also suspected to be one of the causes of lung cancer. In addition, air pollution harms livestock and stunts plant growth. It also causes acid rain, which kills forests and damages buildings, such as the famous Parthenon in Athens, Greece.


Individual European countries are passing laws to make their air safer to breathe. France, for example, now requires improved thermal insulation of new buildings. This reduces the need to burn fossil fuels for heat. Other European governments are also passing laws to protect the air.

Nations are also cooperating to clean the air. For example, in 1998, the members of the European Union agreed that, starting in 2000, they would require reduced emissions from cars and vans. As that example indicates, a leader in the effort to restore Europe's environment will be the European Union—which is discussed in the following Case Study.