Pollution: A Sensory Overload

Illustrations by Kaiya Moultrie

When you think of pollution, air or water pollution may be the first to come to mind. Pollutants, however, go far beyond carbon emissions or waste found in the ocean.

Have you tried stargazing recently? Or been somewhere where it seemed so quiet, even though nothing was going on back home for you? These phenomena you experience are caused by lesser-discussed pollutants. Some are non-permanent, such as visual and noise pollutants, whereas others are more dangerous, like food waste, thermal pollution and e-waste.

Visual Pollutants

A commonly overlooked pollutant is visual pollution. Whereas light pollution depends on the sky to be dark, visual pollution can happen anywhere at any time.

Visual pollution is more of an aesthetic classification, being objects that may obscure your view of a location. The scenic views of an area are interrupted by common sights such as power lines, billboards, neon signs and more.

The absence of stars in big cities is caused by light pollution, another form of visual pollution.

Light pollution is “the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light,” according to the International Dark Sky Association. Light pollution is caused by artificial lights extruding into the environment in large masses. Sources that contribute to this pollutant include large advertisement billboards, exterior lights on buildings, sporting venues and street lights, to name a few. College campuses such as RIT are also huge light pollutants.

These dense areas of light not only affect the population in not having the luxury of witnessing the grand night sky, but it also affects astronomers who study the sky.

Stacey Davis, a principal lecturer at NTID and adjunct professor for the School of Physics and Astronomy, weighed in on this.

“In the astrophotography world, it’s harder to get pretty pictures when you’re dealing with ambient city lights,” Davis explained.

Light pollution on RIT campus — and in the city of Rochester — makes it difficult for astronomy students to use the RIT Observatory.

“On campus, you can look north and see the nice orangish-pink glow of the city of Rochester,” Davis said. “From the RIT Observatory, you look west and you see the obnoxious lights of the lacrosse field and the tennis courts.”

Light pollution isn't limited to the effects of city lights in the sky; satellites in orbit are also causing light pollution problems. 

In an article written by Christopher Ingraham for the Washington Post, "Each individual object in orbit ... reflects a commensurate amount of sunlight back toward the Earth. Multiplied by the tens of millions, the collective amounts to a 10 percent increase in illumination across the night sky." 

With the increase of satellites being added to the atmosphere – many due to the Starlink project by SpaceX – the study and exploration of the universe is becoming much harder to accomplish and will continue to follow that trend. 

Noise Pollution

Having a quiet place to think is always beneficial. However, finding one can be difficult if you live in a big metropolitan area.

Noise pollution is defined as “regular exposure to elevated sound levels that may lead to adverse effects in humans or other living organisms,” in an article by Environmental Pollution Centers.

Common noise pollutants often go unnoticed by regular people due to the adaptation of hearing them in daily life. These common noise pollutants often include trains, airplanes, traffic and construction, but the list continues on.

According to National Geographic, high-level noise pollution can cause illnesses in people who are exposed to it for long periods of time.

“The most common health problem it causes is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss,” National Geographicstated. “Exposure to loud noise can also cause high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep disturbances and stress.”

Thermal Pollution

Although thermal pollution doesn’t affect humans directly, there are major indirect impacts it makes.

"When an industry or other human-made organization takes in water from a natural source and either cools it down or heats it up,” a piece written for Conserve Energy Future –an energy conservation movement – detailing thermal pollution, wrote. “They then eject that water back into the natural resource."

Warmer waters entering our aquatic ecosystems cause less oxygen to be circulated throughout the water.

Abby Rabinowitz is the associate director for STEM Writing and Clinical Associate Professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.  She addressed this issue in an article written for the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

“The lack of oxygen kills fish and other aquatic species, while at the same time promoting anaerobic conditions that enable bacteria to thrive,” Rabinowitz wrote.

The effects of thermal pollution can make their way to humans through their impact on aquatic animals. Although there aren’t any direct effects yet, thermal pollution is still something that should be on the radar of potentially becoming even more harmful.

Food Waste

Food waste is a much bigger problem than society tends to consider it. The majority of the population throws food straight into the trash, not thinking about what happens next.

Callie Babbitt, a professor of Sustainability at RIT, reflected on the issue. 

“About 40 percent of the food we produce is never consumed,” Babbitt explained.

“About 40 percent of the food we produce is never consumed.”

Where food is consumed, there will always be excessive food waste that ends up in our landfills. Some places that struggle with excessive food waste include restaurants, grocery stores and college campus dining areas.

Landfills make for terrible environments for food to break down in due to the lack of oxygen.

“In that oxygen-free environment, food waste actually breaks down into methane — a greenhouse gas — which is about 30 percent more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its impact on climate change,” Babbitt said.

Composting allows for food waste to break down into carbon dioxide, thus having a significantly less impact on global warming than sending food waste into a landfill.


Electronic waste, or e-waste, has become a significant problem in modern-day society than it used to be. E-waste can contribute to pollution itself, but more significant are the resources that go into making it.

“[Electronics] take a lot of energy to manufacture,” Babbitt said. “They rely on a lot of valuable and scarce materials that are mined around the world.”

Discarding e-waste can be as simple as taking the electronics to the nearest recycling hub.

“Electronics aren’t as likely to cause pollution when they’re discarded properly. You’re just losing these valuable resources and energy put into making it,” Babbitt explained. “[But] if electronics are managed informally, then they can lead to a lot of pollution.”

“If electronics are managed informally, then they can lead to a lot of pollution.”

Informal forms of waste-removal can include unethical recycling practitioners or just tossing it into landfills, making access to important resources almost impossible.

It is important to talk about all these different forms of pollutants, especially since the majority of them go unmentioned. Although some cause less harm than others, each pollutant has a negative impact on the environment — from astronomers not being able to extract important data, to immense amounts of methane gas being released into the atmosphere.