Sobremesa: Blooming disparities

Environmental privileges tend to blend into everyday life. Some people have the ability to walk across sprawling lawns and look out on glassy rivers, viewing nature as only a backdrop for their fast-paced lives. Unlike environmental privileges, society makes environmental disadvantages glaringly obvious. With fires ripping through California and record-breaking numbers of hurricanes funneling through the Gulf of Mexico, environmental disadvantages are being discussed widely right now.

Although the media does not prioritize its coverage and some political leaders disqualify it, climate change is looming over our society and affects all aspects of our world. But when you look through a narrower lens, there is a more subtle subdivision of climate change that adversely impacts our society right now: water pollution caused by algal blooms.

Algal blooms occur when an overabundance of nutrients infiltrates a water source, leading to an increase in algae growth. Using up a lot of oxygen, the algae create a sheet over the body of water that blocks sunlight. In time, the algae die, and the ecosystem is irreparably injured. Fish float to the surface and vegetation lies limp.

Harmful algal blooms also pose a serious risk to human health, as people can become extremely sick and even die if they consume seafood and drink water from contaminated sources. Studies show that there could be heightened effects of algal blooms in more vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly.

Economically, algal blooms are detrimental to fisheries and recreational areas. Fisheries experience considerable economic loss during algal blooms: everyone from fishermen to vendors, to consumers suffers. When algal blooms occur, recreational areas become significantly less attractive, as they often develop a repellent odor. This results in a decrease in tourism revenue, diminished property values and the gradual depletion of an area’s environmental privilege. 

These health and economic costs disproportionately affect minority and economically disadvantaged populations, as they increase the cost of drinking water purification and decrease employment opportunities. Not to mention that disparity in health insurance coverage can leave vulnerable populations sick and without proper treatment.

To some, algal blooms seem like a problem we should leave to scientists. Yet there is a lot that citizens can do to help. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), volunteering to scan water bodies for algal blooms, reporting suspected algal blooms and most importantly, advocating to prevent nutrient pollution can all help to chip away at this growing issue.

Environmental privilege shields many from facing the ever-prevalent, all-encompassing issue of climate change. While the environment is constantly transforming in every aspect, environmentally privileged groups often preserve the best aspects of the environment for themselves, including clean drinking water. Increased coverage of seemingly more minor environmental issues, like algal blooms, will help bring awareness to climate change’s astronomical impact on both environmentally privileged and disadvantaged communities. Those living in communities shielded from the direct impacts of climate change must utilize their privilege to educate themselves about the environmental impacts of their actions and fight to reduce environmental inequality in our world.