Pollution, muck, stink and poison

Pollution . You can’t miss it, can you? It’s everywhere… all over our planet. It makes people, other animals and plants sick or even kills them. It’s even making the climate change. Humans are the cause and humans will have to try and stop it! Please join me in this guide as I find out what’s happening and give you ideas to try and make things better for everyone.

Scary stuff, huh? But how much do you know about pollution? If you reckon you know quite a lot, see how you rate in my Pollution quiz. And you could try my pollution crossword puzzle. Maybe better to look through my guide first. You can always do the quiz or crossword again.

Here’s something to think about…
Did you know that plastic is now one of the worst sorts of pollution? No? Then please also take a look at my guide

When you step out of your home in the morning, what do you smell? Fresh air? More likely you smell something people have made like the poisonous emissions from cars and trucks nearby, factory stinks or smoke from someone’s cigarette. Perhaps you’ve never smelt real fresh air: the sweet smell of damp earth, the scent of flowers and pine trees or of the sea. These are the breath of our lonely planet .

What do you hear? Birdsong? Nothing? More likely you hear the roar of traffic on a nearby road, an airliner overhead, someone’s TV or radio. Perhaps you’ve never been lucky enough to hear the gentle sounds of wild places: grasshoppers chirping, birds singing, the wind sighing gently in the trees, the burble of a little stream. Or just the deep stillness of a night when there’s no wind to make any sound. Everyone should be able to hear these sounds. They are the voice of our planet.

What do you see? More houses, factories, apartment blocks, streets, cars, buses and stuff. Perhaps you’ve never been to a place where everything you can see is natural with no sign of anything people have made: mountains, forests, coasts, rivers, lakes, wilderness. These are the real world; they are what remains of our natural planet and they belong to all of us because we are part of them. And if you live in a big city with lights everywhere at night, you’ve probably never seen the myriads of stars and the Milky Way which make the wonder of the night sky.

So what did you see, smell and hear?

Almost certainly some pollution… Probably lots of it.

Well, what is it? Stinky stuff? Muck? Poison? Yes, all those things… and more. Some is obvious like smoke which you can see but much of it is not obvious at all. Yet you’re eating it and drinking it and breathing it most of the time. And what is worse is that all this muck affects all other life on Earth. You can find pollution made by people just about everywhere on the planet. Even remote places like the Arctic are badly polluted by nasty chemicals made by people. The polar bears and seals there have poisonous chemicals made by people in their bodies and so do the Inuit people who live with them. These nasty things kill many animals and make others sick — including penguins in the Antarctic. They also kill people and make them ill too. There’s nowhere on the planet left with no pollution; not even the bottom of the sea or high up in the air. This is bad news and I’m very sad about it.

But I’m less sad now.


I know you kids can help. It’s not your fault. It’s grown-up people who made all this mess, often because they didn’t even realise what they were doing.Today, all grown-ups know that the climate crisis and the pollution which is causing it is their responsibility. Unfortunately for everybody else, especially the poor people who have neither money nor power, there are many people in the rich world who prefer to pretend nothing is wrong. They find the conspiracy theories that best fit what they want to believe. And so they carry on messing up the planet anyway because they are making lots of money or just don’t care. They don’t care about the future. And, hey, that’s your future!

If someone in your family smokes, you have a problem.


Because cigarette (and cigar) smoke is one of the most common forms of pollution on the planet. It’s one you’re bound to have come across even if no one in your family smokes. Smoke from cigarettes harms everyone’s health. It even harms people if they don’t smoke themselves but breathe other people’s smoke. So if someone in your family does smoke, why not see if you can help them to stop?

Smoking does no one any good. The best thing is not to start in the first place because smokers find it very hard to give up. They get hooked on stuff in tobacco called nicotine. Nicotine itself is a poison. But the real nasties in tobacco smoke are chemicals  called carcinogens. They cause cancer and loads of other diseases which kill millions of people every year, mostly smokers but also people who don’t smoke.

Why do people smoke? I don’t know; do you? None of my cool penguin friends do. It used to be trendy to smoke but in recent years, many countries have banned smoking in public buildings. The result is that smoking is finally going out of fashion — which is good news for everyone except the tobacco companies. Today, there are many ways to help smokers quit their habit. One of the most popular is called vaping : a smoker wanting to quit ‘smokes’ an e-cigarette instead. And it seems to work — for adults anyway. But there are worries that high school kids may take up vaping which could be a pathway to taking up smoking tobacco.

Click here for some scary facts about smoking

click for pic

Is vaping good or bad?

Vaping — a health guide is a useful source of info about the pros and cons of vaping.

… from factories, cars and trucks

This is the pollution everybody sees and knows about. You can’t miss it, can you? Every time you go anywhere in a car or walk in the street, you smell the stink of exhaust fumes. Sometimes the exhaust fumes get so thick they form a sort of fog. People call this ‘smog’ (‘smoke’ + ‘fog’ = smog). It’s particularly bad in cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City, Beijing and Delhi. People get sick because of it. Why? Because the smoke, fumes and gases that make up the smog are poisonous. You might even be surprised to know that smoke from barbecues, grills (you know, restaurants and fast food places) and lawnmowers is also pretty bad and makes smogs even worse.smog over city

What you don’t see in this sort of pollution are the poisonous but invisible gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ozone. Ozone is a poisonous form of the gas we animals all breathe: oxygen. CO, SO2 and NOx are also poisonous. CO2 is a special problem all of its own. This is the gas which is mostly responsible for what people call the ‘greenhouse effect‘. It is mostly this gas that is making our planet heat up (see my guide to global warming).

Another thing you don’t see so easily which comes out of factories, farms and cities is the liquid pollution. This is the stuff that
into streams,
into rivers,
into lakes and
into the seas.

Here’s the sort of stuff I mean:

  • sewage (phew!)
  • waste chemicals from factories
  • waste oils from industry, cars, road run-off, service stations
  • toxic heavy metals
    What are heavy metals? Two well known examples of heavy metals are mercury and cadmium. They are extremely toxic - even in tiny amounts
  • spills and run-off from industrial farms (pesticides, manure slurry, fertilisers)
  • blowout
    This is when the high-pressure gas and oil which the drillers want to tap overwhelms the blowout-preventer valves at the wellhead. It then blasts out into the air and often catches fire. One of the worst such accidents in recent time was the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010
  • oil from oil-drilling
  • pollution from fracking
  • dumping poisons in the river and killing the fish

I’m not saying people always do this dumping on purpose, although many do because it’s the ‘cheap’ option. Some of it is accidental and some because people don’t know any better. The ‘thinking’ (if any) goes like this:

” If I pour something nasty I want to get rid of into a river, that’s okay because it’s quickly flushed away by the flowing water… umm, isn’t it?”

Flushed away, yes, but where to? This is a huge problem for humans. Because people make so much waste, they have to dump it somewhere. Up to now, as long as no-one could see the waste (Not In My Back Yard, shortened to NIMBY), everyone thought it was okay. “Out of sight, out of mind.” The planet is only so big and people make so much mess that the whole planet gets dirty. The transport that the flowing rivers, tidal seas and ocean currents unintentionally provide for human pollution means that it really does get everywhere.

The same applies to the air which is why factories have big smoke stacks to dump smoke and fumes into the flowing wind. Then it blows away… but where to?

‘You are what you eat’, some people say. I don’t quite agree with that. I eat fish but I’m not a fish. I’m a penguin. Anyway, you get the general idea I’m sure. And if you eat rubbishy food, you can’t really expect to grow up strong and healthy. But if you eat good-quality food, you’ve a good chance of doing so. That’s just commonsense really, eating health-giving food.
So how do you know what food is good-quality? Unfortunately a lot of food that looks good really isn’t good because it contains pollution. Pollution from what?

This is all to do with how people make food: growing it on the farm, processing it in factories, storing it and making it ready for you to eat.

farmer spraying crops with chemicals to kill pests

    • most farmers spray poisonous chemicals on their crops to kill off pests or diseases. Many of these poisons remain in small quantities in the food you eat. Some people believe that this may cause cancer and other illnesses. The poisons also pollute both water and air and can kill lots of animals by accident. They also kill a lot of humans by accident every year.
    • some farmers grow genetically engineered crops (see my guide about this). Some people regard GE crops as a form of pollution because once it’s released, nothing can bring it back again. You can clean up oil spills but you can’t clean up genetics spills. Genes are part of life and make living copies of themselves, sometimes millions of them. But, to be fair, there’s no evidence that GE foods are toxic or dangerous because people have been eating them without problem since the 1990s
       farm animals belch a lot of methane
    • farm animals make lots of pollution from their waste. Some of this gets into water supplies and, because animals like cows belch and fart a lot of gas called methane, they add serious amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere which already has too much. This speeds up global warming because methane is a very strong greenhouse gas, much stronger than CO2
    • trucks and aeroplanes used by people to move food and drink around make a lot of smoke and gas (like CO2 and nitrogen oxides) pollution junk food and drink suppliesprocessed food
    • much of what you eat and drink gets messed around with in big factories to make what is called ‘processed food’.
    Often things are put into food to make it look good but which might be harmful to people: additives, colour and other yukky stuff. Some food like meat often gets contaminated with nasty bugs called bacteria which can make people very sick or kill them.
    Most things that you drink — you know, things like soda — are really just flavoured water. Every drink you gulp down comes in a can or plastic bottles which you then throw away meaning waste and more transport. Sugary drinks make you fat and spoil your teeth. Some of the flavourings and sugar substitutes may be harmful. Nobody really knows for sure.

    Don’t worry though. You and your friends and parents really can help to cut this pollution. I’ve got some great ideas for you at the end of my guide

Humans are the only animals on the planet that kill each other in large numbers. I don’t know why. All other animals live quite peacefully with each other and with the planet. Perhaps it’s because humans are so clever.

Anyway, millions of people died in wars in the 20th century alone. Quite apart from all the death and suffering, wars also create terrible pollution. Military aircraft use huge amounts of fuel. If an aeroplane (pollution) drops a bomb (more pollution) on an oil refinery, a huge fire starts (yet more pollution).

In the Second World War (1939 to 1945), some people dropped nuclear bombs on two cities in Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people and creating a new sort of pollution: radiation. In recent human wars, some armies used weapons made of a heavy poisonous metal called . depleted uraniumThese leave behind another sort of radioactive pollution.
nuclear bomb

nuclear bombs make radiation for years after

A few years ago, some people called hippies used to say ‘make love, not war’. Sadly, many people seem to prefer to make war, not love.

Some people talk a lot of rot about chemicals as if all chemicals are bad. Everything is made of chemicals. Some are ‘good’ while others are ‘bad’. Water is a chemical; so is air. Some people think that if something is ‘natural’, then that’s okay. But some natural chemicals are very poisonous: things like sulphur dioxide (that comes out of volcanoes) and ricin (a deadly chemical made by the castor oil plant). The difference between these natural chemical poisons and ones which humans have made is that life has got used to the natural poisons. It’s learned to live with them over millions of years. Some life — certain types of bacteria — even eats poisons which would kill you or me.
But humans have made thousands of new types of poisons, called toxins, which living things have never seen before. Most of these new poisons have been made with good intentions. But they have quite unintended side-effects, and pollute much of the air we all breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink (or in my case, swim in).

The best known nasties are persistent organic pollutants POPs. These include the pesticides farmers spray on food crops. POPs are very stable. They don’t go away. Almost no life can break them down and make them harmless. Instead they tend to build up inside animals’ bodies.  This can mean they can’t have babies or it can make them ill or even kill them.

Perhaps you’ve also heard of CFCs? These chemicals are not toxic but they do damage the atmosphere. They destroy a gas called ozone which shields the planet from the strong radiation of the sun. People sensibly agreed to stop making them at a meetings which came up with an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol. As a result, the ‘hole’ in the ozone shield over my home, the Antarctic, seems to have stopped getting bigger. Another hole forms over the Arctic for the same reasons. So on the whole, the Montreal Protocol has been a success but there are still some problems.

People now belong to what they call the ‘throwaway society‘. Much of what you buy quickly becomes waste – and you just throw it away. This waste means whole armies of trucks collecting and taking it away in all cities everywhere.

Some waste gets recycled (used again), but most ends up in garbage dumps so huge they’re like mountains.

To work out how much waste your family makes, click here! What a waste!
From my viewpoint, people are really wasting their ‘waste’.
When it comes to using stuff taken from the planet, humans think in straight lines:

Start >> Grab >> Make >> Use >> Trash >> Finish

Grab is mining minerals, soils, forests and fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal). These are resources. mining is taking something out and not replacing it. Make is producing stuff for people to buy: industry. Use is what people do with what they buy, like driving. Trash is what happens when the stuff is old, unwanted, broken, burned (as in fuels and garbage) or outdated.

GMUT for short.


Fewer resources, growing trash piles and pollution on a grand scale affecting the whole planet: seas, rivers, lakes, lands, air.

Recycling is natural. Every other system on our planet runs in circles – cycles. There’s no such thing as trash; no pollution. There’s no start and no finish. Everything is constantly being recycled – naturally. One creature’s waste becomes another’s food. Humans and their industries are the odd animals who don’t fit in to the way the planet’s systems work. But people are learning. More and more stuff now gets recycled. Great! But wait. What about the sky above us, space, the moon and asteroids? It’s hard to believe but people already planning to mine the moon and asteroids. Satellites in low Earth orbits now total over 800 – and then there is space junk.

Had you thought about other sorts of pollution? Can you think of any? Here’s some I’ve thought of:

  • noise – almost everyone hears noise made by people and their machines all the time. How many things that make noise can you think of? Perhaps you like noise. Some people are scared of silence.
  • mess – things people have made. What can you think of that’s ugly – eyesores? Industrial things? Roads? Waste tips?
  • a new sort of pollution is here: it is often called “fake news” which is lies. Often it is aimed at kids. Very soon, I shall have a guide for you about the growing problem of conspiracy theories and how you can tell what is true and what isn’t
  • anything else?
Okay, you can’t go out into the world and clean up the mess and stop all the damage all on your own. But you certainly can do plenty of things to help. And remember, kids like you all around the world are waking up to what’s going on – you are not alone! So here’s some ideas…

  • Tell your family, tell your friends. Talk about it with your teachers at school. Get active; join Greta Thunberg
    What is the point of learning stuff in school if you have no future because of climate change chaos which is already starting. Today's adults should be dealing with this now, but are doing nothing, she argues.
    in her Fridays for Future
  • find out more. You could start with my links section (click the link at the bottom of this page). Remember that not everything you see, read or hear will be the truth. The people who are making a lot of money out of pollution don’t want you to find out the truth. They don’t want to be stopped
  • join a group who are trying to stop pollution Again, see my links section
  • recycle as much ‘waste’ as you can. Or don’t buy stuff which becomes waste (like packaging from takeaway food). You can use real plates made of china and forks made of steel thousands of times. Plastic plates and cutlery last once and then become waste
  • if you want to go somewhere, try and walk or use a bicycle. Cars are big polluters
  • see if you can buy food which has been grown locally. Is there a local farm shop? Some farmers deliver vegetables and other foods. Buying local foods means almost no transport is needed
  • some shops and supermarkets will deliver things to your home. You can even shop online. This means your family doesn’t need to drive to pick up your food. One supermarket truck or pickup can deliver stuff to dozens of families… saving dozens of car journeys. Think about it
  • if you can, try and get organic food. Organic food does not contain any kind of pesticide or use chemicals that harm the land, air or water. Animals raised in organic farms are treated more kindly than in factory farms
  • try and avoid processed food and drink. Use fresh food whenever you can and don’t eat out so much. Cooking can be fun, you know! Have you ever tried it? Barbecues are fun but they make a lot of smoke pollution, so keep them for really special occasions
  • grow your own vegetables. Believe it or not, this can be fun too! You don’t need much space. You can even grow things in pots on the window ledge or in a sunny spot inside
  • if you have space, make compost from waste food (vegetable peelings and so on). Worms eat all this rotting stuff and make it into a sort of rich soil, very good for plants
  • don’t buy things that you don’t need or that you end up throwing away in a couple of weeks

And now, how about tackling my Pollution quiz? Or take a look at my choices of the best videos on pollution

C’mon kids, send me your ideas!!

What do you think about pollution? Have you any good ideas this about what we can do to make things better? If you do, please write to me and I’ll add your idea to my Kids Ideas to Stop Pollution page so that other kids can see too. So get thinking, get writing and get active. And yes, you can send me short videos or photos you’ve taken if they help explain your idea and I’ll post them on the same page. C’mon kids, what are you waiting for???!
A class of kids from Sudan (Africa) has started the ball rolling (June 2015) with their Pollution Solutions video.
Did you find my pollution guide useful? If you did, please tell your friends about it. Thank you and good luck with fixing the pollution problem!

Flying off to a warmer climate? – This is one of my favourites! Click the Flying off to a warmer climate link and find out how much fuel you use and pollution you create when you fly in an aeroplane

Guide to Becoming a Tree HuggerHow to be a stellar tree hugger by making greener choices every day including recycling properly, reducing water usage, cutting down on driving time, being a smarter consumer, and helping out in your community.

The Imagination Factory Use your imagination and visit this wonderful site. Find out how to make art using materials most people throw away (and check out Trashasaurus Rex, a giant dinosaur made of solid waste)

The Water Pollution Guide: Kids often ask me about water pollution. In this guide, you can find out loads more about this – and about how you can help.