Human activity is responsible for some devastating attacks on the natural world. Many of these man made environmental disasters could have been avoided if not for human greed, negligence, and carelessness. Here are ten of the world’s worst man made environmental disasters, listed chronologically.
1. Nuclear Testing at Bikini Atoll
Bikini, or Pikinni, Atoll is an island group in the Marshall Islands chain. The man made environmental disasters on the ring of islands began in 1946 when the U.S. began testing nuclear weapons there. Twenty-three devices were exploded between 1946 and 1958 on and around the islands. As a result, 167 Marshallese residents of the islands were forced to relocate. Bikini Atoll is no longer suitable for human habitation as a result.
Residents of nearby Utrik Atoll suffered acute radiation sickness. So did the 23 fishermen and crew members aboard the Japanese vessel the Daigo Fukuryū Maru. The ship’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died as a result. Wildlife including the atoll’s coral reef were severely affected, with the effects still being present as recently as 2017. Nurse sharks are still being born with mutations caused by exposure to radiation.
2. Minamata Disease
In 1956, residents of the town of Minamata in Japan began experiencing neurological symptoms of mercury poisoning. They were exposed to toxic levels of mercury from eating the fish out of Minamata Bay, which was contaminated by industrial pollution by the Chisso Corporation. To this day, Chisso Corporation makes compensation payments to the victims. More than 2,200 people died as a result of methylmercury contamination.
3. Love Canal
Love Canal was a planned community in Niagara Falls, New York. William T. Love, the town’s eponymous planner, fell into financial difficulties, and the canal was used as a landfill and for dumping industrial waste. In the early 1950s, the dump was closed. Around the same time, the town experienced an economic and population boom. Families moved in and began having children.
Residents had long complained about unusual smells, substances, and an oily black runoff present in their yards and fields around the town, especially around the canal. Unknowingly, residents were being exposed to toxic industrial runoff, including benzene, dioxin, PCBS, toluene, and chloroform. They suffered a greater than average number of miscarriages, birth defects, neurological conditions, and abnormal white blood cell counts that can be a precursor to leukemia.
On August 7, 1978, then-president Jimmy Carter declared the site a federal health emergency. A 1979 study showed the 33 percent of Love Canal residents suffered chromosomal damage, compared to about one percent of the U.S. population as a whole.
4. The Amoco Cadiz Oil Spill
On March 16, 1978, the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz hit a rock off the coast of Brittany, France. This caused the control room to flood and led to the sinking of the ship. The shipwreck resulted in the spilling of 1.6 million barrels of light crude oil and 4,000 tons of fuel oil spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. Although the Deepwater Horizon disaster released more oil, the Cadiz disaster resulted in the greatest loss of aquatic wildlife as a result of an oil spill in human history.
5. Bhopal Disaster
On December 2, 1984, an industrial accident at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant released methyl isocyanate into the air. It caused the worst industrial disaster in the world’s history. Between 2,200 and 3,700 were killed by the gas release, an additional 558,000 were injured, and 3,900 were permanently disabled. An estimated 8,000 people died within two weeks of the release of the gas, mostly from respiratory failure. Inadequate safety equipment contributed to the disaster.
Drinking water is contaminated since pesticides from the now-abandoned plant have seeped into it. It was estimated in 2014 that 120,000 people still live with health effects of the disaster.
6. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
This floating example of man made environmental disasters was discovered some time between 1985 and 1989. The currents of the North Pacific Gyre (a marine ecosystem) trap particles of marine debris that includes chemical sludge and pelagic plastics. These particles are so small they can be hard to detect with the naked eye and can’t be seen using satellite photography. Although this makes it difficult to estimate the size of the debris field, some researchers believe it may be as large as eight percent of the total area of the Pacific Ocean.
Scientists believe the origin of these plastics is littering and improper industrial waste disposal. This includes the disposal of nets and other gear used by the fishing industry. The effects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch aren’t fully known. However, the particles that compose it are small enough to be ingested by marine wildlife which then enter the food chain. Byproducts of the breakdown of plastics include toxic molecules such as bisphenol A (BPA) and polystyrene derivatives.
7. Chernobyl Disaster
On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) experienced an uncontrolled reaction incident, resulting in a steam explosion followed by a fire. Updrafts resulting from the fire released nuclear fission materials into the atmosphere. It contaminated the environment of the western USSR and parts of Europe.
The investigation revealed this man made environmental disaster was caused by design flaws at the plant and operator errors made during a shut-down safety test. Further errors were made in trying to contain the accident. Firefighters who arrived on scene weren’t told that they were entering the scene of a nuclear accident; they thought they were responding to an electrical fire. Nor was Pripyat evacuated immediately.
Two employees of the plant died immediately at the scene, 28 more of acute radiation sickness, and 14 more died of exposure to the radiation over the next decade. Four kilometers of forest died and the water system became contaminated. Furthermore, fish in the rivers were inedible for years afterward due to radioactive contamination. It is difficult to estimate how many people died as a result of the accident since there was a systematic cover-up by the Soviet Union. However, as many as 9,000 may have died from acute radiation sickness and long-term exposure to radioactivity. This makes the Chernobyl incident among the deadliest of man made environmental disasters.
8. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
On March 24, 1989, an oil tanker ship named the Exxon Valdez struck the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. The shipwreck caused more than 10.8 million gallons of crude oil to spill into the sound.
As many as 250,000 seabirds died as a result. Sea otters, river otters, bald eagles, salmon, herring, and orcas were some of the other species whose long-term health and survival rates were affected. Additionally, the 2-butoxyethanol used in the clean-up caused health problems for the clean-up crew.
An investigation determined the cause of the shipwreck to be an insufficient number of crew members, an overworked crew, and a steering error by the third mate. At that time, Exxon Shipping Company regularly overworked and undermanned its oil tankers, a recipe for man made environmental disasters.
9. Kuwaiti Oil Fires
This man made environmental disaster was a result of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Iraqi military forces retreating from Kuwait, the country Iraq had unlawfully invaded, set fire to between 600 and 732 Kuwaiti oil wells, oil lakes, and trenches. This act of sabotage resulted in severely reduced air quality for the people and wildlife of Kuwait and the surrounding countries. More than 40 million tons of earth and sand were contaminated with oil and soot as a result of the largest oil spill in human history. Plant life was affected through 1995. Since oil from the spill continues to seep into the ground, human drinking water may continue to be affected in the future.
10. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
The largest maritime oil spill in human history, this man made environmental disaster on April 20, 2010 killed 11 people and dumped 4.9 million barrels of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Cost-cutting measures by the British Petroleum (BP) company that owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the rig’s operator Transocean, and the contractor Halliburton led to neglect of equipment and unsafe working conditions. This resulted in an explosion and subsequent oil spill. BP officials pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter. The company was also temporarily banned from contracts with the U.S. government.
The Bottom Line
These disasters remind us that not only are human beings quite fragile, but our earth is fragile as well. Wildlife and water sources can easily become contaminated due to our activity. If we want everyone on our planet, human or otherwise, to live long, healthy lives, we’ll have to be better caretakers than this.