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Top Ten Worst Environmental Disasters Caused by Humans

In honor of Earth Day, we celebrate the bounty and beauty this planet provides. We must also remember how precious this planet is and how powerful our actions are on its ecosystem. It’s no secret that humans have left an indelible mark in our relatively short time on Earth compared to its age. With great ingenuity and will, we humans have utilized the earth’s many great resources—but we have also caused much destruction through our insatiable quest for our own needs. As such, here’s a list of environmental disasters that were caused by humans on this planet, so that maybe we can learn from these errors and prevent repeating them.

1. Three Mile Island meltdown

Environmental Disasters Three Mile Island Jimmy Carter

English: President Jimmy Carter leaving Three Mile Island for Middletown, Pennsylvania. 04/01/1979 CC, Wikimedia Commons By President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On March 28, 1979, Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin, Pennsylvania was the scene of the most significant accident in the history of American nuclear power. A partial core meltdown was caused by a failure in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck valve that released radioactive gases. Human error, related to poor training and understanding of the machinery at hand, was also seen as a major factor. Cleanup started in August 1979, and officially ended in December 1993, with a total cleanup cost of about $1 billion. Experts concluded that the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere was too small to result in health problems, and allegedly no one died from exposure. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later disclosed it did not know how much radiation had been released.

2. London’s Killer Fog

London was at the center of the industrial revolution during its peak in the mid-nineteenth century. During this time, there was an onslaught of energy utilization, especially the use of coal. Subsequently, this released pollutants that made fog and heavily polluted air the norm for the major metropolitan city. By 1952, this pollution became disastrous. Winter was particularly cold that year, causing residents to burn more coal than they usually did to keep warm. As a result, the excess smoke combined with nitrogen oxides, soot, and sulfur dioxide reached high levels and covering the entire city of London in a black cloud with almost complete darkness, a phenomenon that killed over 12,000 people.

3. The Nuclear Power Plant Explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine

Chernboyl Environmental Disasters

Wikimedia Commons: The nuclear reactor after the disaster. Reactor 4 (centre). Turbine building (lower left). Reactor 3 (centre right).


On April 26, 1986, a reactor shutdown was experienced at the Chernobyl Nuclear Facility near the now-abandoned town of Pripyat, in northern Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Soviet Union. A runaway nuclear reaction resulted in a horrific fire and explosion, claiming the lives of 50 personnel instantly and expelling more than 400 times the radiation released during the Hiroshima atom bomb. More than 4000 cancer deaths have been linked with the extensive spread of radioactive substances. Belarus was heavily affected and radioactive contamination was detected as far as the British Isles. Radiation levels at the site are still high and the amount of nuclear materials buried under the debris remains unknown.

4. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a reef in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska, causing 11 of its cargo tanks to rupture and dump 10.8 million gallons of crude that eventually covered 11,000 miles of ocean. It was one of the most destructive human-caused environmental disasters with both long-term and short-term effects. The instant outcome included the deaths of 100,000 to 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, and unidentified numbers of salmon and herring. Cleanup began immediately, but despite thousands of personnel helping over the years, the spill still wouldn’t be fully cleaned up even decades later.

5. British Petroleum Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico

BP Oil Spill Environmental Disasters

Anchor handling tugs and platform supply vessels combat the fire on the Deepwater Horizon while the U.S. Coast Guard searches for missing crew.

Considered the worst oil spill in U.S. history, on April 20, 2010, a deepwater horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil rig was leased and controlled by British Petroleum (BP), and was about 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven employees died as a result of the explosion. The explosion also released about 60 million barrels of mixed-grade oil from the disconnected well, which went on for more than four months. Over 34,000 birds (including egrets and blue heron), hundreds of sea turtles, about 72 dolphins and other marine vertebrates and invertebrates were poisoned, suffocated and died in the floating oil.

6. Jilin Chemical Plant Explosions

On November 13, 2005, a series of explosions caused by blockage occurred at the Jilin chemical plant in Jilin City, Jilin Province, China. The plant created chemicals like benzene, nitrobenzene, and anline—all used to make plastic. The explosions that day claimed the life of six employees and left numerous people injured creating the need for evacuating tens of thousands of neighboring residents. What’s more, the explosions adversely polluted the Songhua River with approximately 100 tons of pollutants containing nitrobenzene and benzene, whose exposure diminish white blood cell count and is linked to leukemia. Inaccurate news reports and slow government reaction made this disaster much worse than it could have been.

7. Tisza/Baia Mare Cyanide Spill

On January 30, 2000, one of the worst environmental disasters in Europe occurred.  The disaster was a result of a cyanide spill in Baia Mare, Romania. 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-contaminated waste burst from a broken dam, sending out an estimated 100 tons of cyanide into the Somes, Tisza and Danube rivers. There was an enormous loss of aquatic life. Abundant amounts of aquatic plants and fish died and up to about 100 people were admitted into hospital for poisoning-related cases after consuming contaminated fish. Tests found cyanide levels between 300 and 700 times beyond pollution standards.

8. E-waste in Guiyu, China

The town of Guiyu, China is considered as possibly the biggest electronic waste site on the planet. The town receives shipments of toxic e-waste (discarded electronics and associated materials), both from domestic sources and from other countries via Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Nanhai. The dumping of these obsolete electronics in the area is extraordinarily large, resulting in high toxicity levels of heavy metals and chemicals in the region’s soils and water systems. Consequently, about 88% of the children in the province suffer from lead poisoning and there is higher than normal rates of miscarriages.  The province is thus labeled as the world’s “electronic graveyard”.

9. Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York

Love Canal Environmental Disasters

Protest about the Love Canal contamination by a resident, ca. 1978 or so.

In the early 1950s, it was discovered that a neighborhood called Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, had 21,000 tons of toxic waste buried beneath it. The area was once a dumping ground in the 1920s after an abandoned attempt to dig a canal. In the 1940s, Hooker Chemical began dumping industrial waste in the canal and covering it with dirt. In 1953, the company sold the land to the local school board and a school was built. Two years later a 25-foot area crumbled, exposing toxic chemical drums that filled with rainwater and created puddles that children played in. Love Canal residents reported exploding rocks, strange odors and blue goo that bubbled up into basements, but it was the high rates of asthma, miscarriages, mental disabilities and other health problems that brought Love Canal into national headlines in 1978. More than 80 toxins had seeped from the canal, and a survey found that 56 percent of the children born from 1974-1978 had birth defects. The federal government relocated area families and declared Love Canal the first federal disaster area due to man-made causes. The event started the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program.


10. Union Carbide Cyanide Gas Leak, Bhopal, India

On December 3, 1984, the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, accidentally released over 30 tons of a highly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate, as well as a number of other poisonous gases. The pesticide plant was surrounded by shanty towns full of people. Estimates of the death toll vary from as few as 3,800 to as many as 16,000, but government figures now refer to an estimate of 15,000 killed over the years. More than 50,000 people went through treatment due to exposure to the gas, with reports saying that 500,000 more people were also exposed. It is regarded as the worst industrial chemical disaster ever. Human rights groups say that thousands of tons of hazardous waste remain buried underground, and the government has conceded the area is contaminated.

Sadly, the reality is there are many more man-made disasters than can fit on a top ten list. What would you add to the list?

Canary in the Coal Pond


1 Comment

  1. Facts March 1, 2019

    Terrible list. 3 Mile Island is on this list when nobody died, but Chernobyl is not on the list when thousands died and tens of thousands more were sickened? No mention of the USSR turning land the size of a small country into a useless pesticide desert? Or the USSR dumping so much nuclear waste into a river that it is currently the most radioactively polluted place in the world?


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