Florida's Top 10 Environmental Issues
Florida is known for its clear, vibrant blue rivers, springs, and beaches that bring visitors in from around the world. Water is the most critical resource and our most threatened. Unfortunately, when it comes to water quality and waste, Florida performs poorly. Every day chemicals are released into the environment. It affects our land, air, water, and health. As a result of polluting our area may cause health effects such as respiratory problems, cancer, congenital disabilities, and in some cases, death. Not only this, but pollution affects animals and marine wildlife.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, there are 52 superfund sites, 501 brownfields, 11,689 petroleum cleanups, and more than 1,500 other sites with dry-cleaning fluids or other hazardous waste in Florida. When chemicals, industrial, pesticides, and waste gets into the water through runoff, it carries harmful chemicals to marine animals and possibly our drinking water.
Too much becomes pollution, which is why we decided to share a list of Florida's ten toxic pollution issues in no particular order:
Single-Use Plastic and Recycling
In 2018, solid waste data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection showed that Floridians generated approximately 37.4 million tons of solid waste in 2016. Increasing landfill space, cost, and contamination are a few challenges that local governments face. Plastics don't help the growing difficulties either. Recycling plastic isn't a realistic solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Items like grocery bags persist in the environment for a long time, and we presumably ingest plastic in seafood.
We, as a society, accumulate much trash, and not all are organic materials. We toss things like crumbling asbestos tiles, toxic chemicals, coal ash, and lead paint away. For instance, coal ash is a waste byproduct that contains contaminants like cadmium, arsenic, and mercury. It can seep into nearby water systems if there are poor waste management practices. There are little things that make an impact too. Rechargeable batteries contain many toxic metals and chemicals, like lead oxide, which can contaminate our soil.
The problem of garbage disposal is challenging and will continue to pose issues as the population grows and natural resources are used.
Heavy Metal and Radioactive Pollution from Phosphate Mining
There are 27 phosphate mines in Florida, covering more than 450,000 acres. These mining sites provide phosphate, a nutrient usually found in fertilizer for plant growth, and they also sell fluoride to local governments to put in your drinking water. Mining creates mountains of the waste left over from fertilizer production, known as gypstacks. Some of that waste is radon and uranium. The EPA says it's too radioactive to be buried, so it's piled in these stacks, creating a toxic wasteland. Phosphate mining is a primary industry in Florida and a significant source of pollution. It's the state's largest generator of toxic waste. Some hazardous chemicals near these sites are uranium, radium, thorium, and lead. Homeowners filed a lawsuit in central Florida after discovering their homes were built on top of old mining sites. They found Gamma rays that can penetrate the body and increase the risk of certain cancers, including lymphomas, bone cancer, and leukemias. Decaying uranium from mining also releases radon, an odorless radiative gas linked to lung cancer. Phosphate mining pollutes our air, contaminates waterways, and destroys wildlife habitats. It's the state's largest generator of toxic waste.
Phosphorus and Nitrogen Contamination
Florida's soil is naturally high in phosphorus. But if too much nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment, the air and water can become polluted. This impacts many coastal waters, lakes, rivers, and streams resulting in environmental and human health issues. Some sources of nutrient pollution are fertilizers, animal manure, soil erosion, stormwater, wastewater from our sewer systems, and certain household products like soap. Runoff from these sources can result in excessive phosphorus in nearby bodies of water.
The release of high phosphorus concentrations in the water triggers toxic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms. These blooms can produce toxins that are harmful to mammals and humans. It can also affect our drinking water. Farms, lawns, septic tank leaks, golf courses, landscaping, and even Orlando theme parks can contribute to these harmful algal blooms.
For decades runoff from farmers has resulted in heavy phosphorus fertilizers going into Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. The fertilizer runoff produces blooms that kill fish and wildlife. In 1988, the federal government sued the state of Florida over phosphorus contamination. The state established artificial wetlands called Stormwater Treatment Areas on former agricultural land to help clean it up. Excessive phosphorus and nitrogen not only threaten water quality but human health. Research has connected blue-green algae to Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) and found a toxin produced by cyanobacteria called BMAA. The neurotoxin can cause brain changes that resemble Alzheimer's.
Pesticide and Herbicide Pollution
Florida has many bugs, and some are enormous. Insects are a part of the ecosystem consumed by many animals, including bats, small reptiles, birds, and rodents. By eliminating insects, you may be throwing off the balance of the ecosystem. Pesticides make your lawns toxic, attract bad bugs, and pose a danger to pets and children. Some of these chemicals are linked to cancer and nervous system disruptions.
Pesticides are very toxic to bats and birds who eat the bugs. Many pesticides do not dissolve when it rains and run into our waterways. The drainage of chemicals can affect our fish and frogs. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) uses aquatic herbicides for invasive species management. Still, they use Glyphosate, which has known adverse effects. According to FWC data, 12,263 pounds of herbicides were used on Lake Okeechobee in 2017. Many fishermen on the lake report deformed fish with tumors and burn marks; scientists found frogs have reproductive abnormalities.
Florida's fourth-largest lake, Lake Apopka, is one of the state's most polluted lakes. Pesticides heavily sprayed farmland, and agricultural workers were exposed to pesticides through aerial spraying, inhalation, and touching plants still wet with poison. There are clusters of illnesses in the area, and one of the worst bird deaths in United States history happened here. This former agricultural land used DDT and chemicals regularly.
Mounting evidence of pesticide environmental and toxic effects began in 1970 with DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane). DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen and is known to be very persistent in the environment. Pesticides pollute water supplies, cause disease, contaminate food, kill pollinators, and threaten the health of our pets.
Sewage Spill and Sewage Sludge
Aging sewer pipes cause breaks and release toxic sewage into our streets and waterways. In Fort Lauderdale, over 200 million gallons of sewage spilled into the city's waterways within two months. This stinky mess results in fish, crab, oyster, and plankton deaths. Leaks happen across the state weekly. Raw sewage may contain bacteria, hepatitis A, and parasites. These sewage spills can disrupt ecosystems, pollute rivers and lakes, and contaminate drinking water.
Every summer, we ban fertilizer with nutrients that can feed harmful algae blooms but allow landowners to dump "Class B" waste as fertilizer. Sewage sludge contains a highly carried amount of organic chemicals, toxic metals, chemical irritants, and pathogens. There is an unknown amount of harmful toxins in these biosolids, including carcinogenic chemicals such as PFAS. A 2002 study by the University of Georgia found higher reports of ill-health symptoms and diseases near biosolids-permitted fields. Spreading sewage sludge risks decades of environmental restorations to improve water quality.
Infrastructure and Contaminated Drinking Water
Under normal circumstances, Florida’s drinking water is safe unless the water becomes contaminated. According to the EPA, polluted groundwater can reach drinking water systems and pose serious public health threats, particularly to children and young adults. Chemicals from manufacturers and microbial contaminants can quickly enter the state’s aquifer water.
When drinking water in a specific area becomes contaminated, the local government sends out “boil water notices,” where they instruct you to boil your drinking water for at least one minute before using it. Boiling kills most types of parasites, bacteria, and viruses but increases concentrations of other contaminants due to the evaporation of water. Providing clean water requires extensive infrastructure and government regulations.
Contaminated water can enter through pipe bursts when existing mains are repaired or replaced, potentially introducing contaminated soil or debris into the system. The possibility of contaminants entering the drinking water system should concern Florida residents. Aging, stressed, or poorly maintained water infrastructure can cause the quality of piped drinking water to deteriorate below standard levels and pose serious health risks.
Hazardous Waste Pollution
Hazardous waste is a significant source of water pollution, including dangerous chemicals harmful to people and the environment. Hazardous materials may cause severe health and safety problems if not handled correctly. Waste sources include dangerous byproduct materials generated by factories, farms, and construction sites. According to a report released on March 29, 2018, by the Environment Florida Research and Policy Center, industrial facilities dumped 270 times the allowed amount into Florida's waters. The tenth-worst total in the nation.
According to the Florida Department of Protection, over 2,100 permitted industrial wastewater facilities are in Florida. Many industrial facilities use freshwater to carry away waste into waterways. Wastewater is water that has been harmfully affected by outside influence and flows from an open drain. For instance, power plants are near bodies of water and discharge a significant level of metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and chromium into the water. Typical industrial waste could include PCE (perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene), asbestos, lead, mercury, nitrates, phosphates, sulfur, oils, and petrochemicals. This water ends up in an environment much more harmful to humans than irrigation water.
Since the 1960s, deep injection wells (DJW) have been used to protect the aquifer in Florida. The injection wells dispose of hazardous liquid by injecting it underground. These wells use a high-pressure pump to force toxic waste down a pipeline into the deep earth. However, waste fluids can migrate to the surface through abandoned groundwater wells. Injection wells are an invisible dumping ground for polluters. Florida has minimal enforcement and weak protections when it comes to hazardous waste. Polluters are not being held accountable for dumping chemicals that threaten our health and environment.
Polluted Beach Waters
For decades, the seas have been used to dispose of waste. Toxic pollution ends up in the ocean from sewage discharges, power plants, cruise ships, nuclear dumps, submarines, manure waste, and more. Dumping millions of gallons of waste in the ocean every year carry disease-causing pathogens and can cause bacterial infections in people swimming in the water—the waste impacts public health, coral reefs, sea creatures, and plants.
Cruise ships carry sewage, wastewater, hazardous wastes, solid waste, oil, and air pollution. A large vessel is estimated to generate over 200,000 gallons of sewage. They repeatedly visit the same Florida ports, where the impact is more significant. The cruise industry has discarded trash, fuel, and sewage directly into the ocean. Several cruise lines have been fined for dumping massive sewage into oceans, polluting our beaches, contaminating coral reefs, and destroying marine life.
High Mercury Levels
Natural sources of mercury exist in the environment. Still, in Florida, high levels of mercury in the air severely threaten human health—originating from coal-fired power plants. Mercury can travel, especially far through the air. After leaving the smokestack, mercury falls to the ground, contaminates waterways, and accumulates in fish. Eating fish is the primary source of human mercury exposure.
To contaminate the ecosystem, mercury must be converted into a neurotoxin called methylmercury. The bacteria responsible for producing methylmercury is sulfate. Mercury goes into the atmosphere from emissions and returns to the earth's surface with rain that enters our waterways.
Top-predator fish (largemouth bass, bowfin, and gar) accumulate methylmercury high enough to harm humans and wildlife. It becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food chain. There are "do not eat" fish consumption advisories throughout Florida.
Florida has recorded some of the highest levels of methylmercury in the United States. The toxic compound was found at high levels in dolphins and fish. It also affects raccoons, alligators, and wildlife that consume fish. Studies have shown mercury as a neurotoxin. Children are most at risk from mercury poisoning. It damages human health by severely damaging the brain and nervous system when in contact with or inhaling. All in all, mercury is one of the most deadly toxic pollutants in the air.
Your children may be playing on top of old dump sites. In the past, Florida's land was used as dumping grounds to bury trash and waste. Property used as dumps in the past is later turned into public parks or found by redevelopment projects. These sites have unsafe levels of contaminants. Legacy contaminants persist in the environment, bioaccumulate (build up in tissue), and settle into the soil.
Legacy pollutants include heavy metals, lead, barium, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other contaminants. The Department of Defense has such toxic sites that they began a program called the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) in 1994 to oversee cleanup projects. The space industry is also a part of the remediation program as they used to dump chemicals like TCE (trichloroethylene), a known carcinogen, into sandy soil.
Children are the most at risk of these toxic exposures because their body isn't able to break down the chemicals. Fifty-two superfund sites are being cleaned up in Florida, and for remediation not listed under the superfund list, you can find more in the Restoration Advisory Board minutes.
There are different solutions to these growing issues, like limiting pollution at its source, better laws to protect the environment, and establishing limits on pollution that protect health. We can also take action through our personal choices by looking for non-toxic solutions.
Bloomberg Law: NASA Cleaning Up Toxic Legacy
Earth Magazine: Pollutants threaten the Everglades' Future
Environmental Florida: Troubled Waters
Environmental Protection Agency: Industrial Wastewater
FDEP: Phosphate Mining
Friends of the Earth: Cruise Ship Report Card
Green Living: Effects of Ocean Pollution on Marine Life
HuffPost: Do You Swim In Sludge?: America's Most polluted Beaches Revealed
Lanier Law: Florida Phosphate Contamination
MarineBio: Ocean Pollution
Oxford Academic: Alligators and Endocrine Disrupting Contaminants
Rachel Carson: Silent Spring
Science Direct: Heavy metal pollution from phosphate rock
Science Direct: Phosphate Industry
University of Florida: Phosphorus
University of Florida: Soil Testing and Interpretation for Florida Turfgrasses
World Wide Fund for Nature: Over 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based activities