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What makes Industrial Pollution an Ethical Problem?

Maria E. Silva

Montgomery College Germantown Campus


What makes Industrial Pollution an Ethical Problem?

The industrial pollution problem has gained importance in the last years creating

controversy between big companies and governments. Trying to blame others as an excuse for

polluting is a real issue between big industries and the governments that create more issues than

solutions. Nevertheless, the biggest concern should be the consequences of pollution that

humanity is facing. Accepting that polluting is wrong and dangerous for the environment is the

first step to address the industrial pollution problem. The information above brings back over the

table the questioning about industrial pollution as an ethical problem. Industrial pollution is an

ethical problem because it violates four fundamental ethical principles: beneficence, justice,

human dignity, and non-maleficence. Industrial pollution violates the principle of beneficence

because humanity had a late reaction to prevent industrial pollution. Having a late awareness

about what industrial pollution can cause led to the principle of human dignity which in terms of

this topic refers to society respecting life of all forms of beings including plants. Industrial

pollution also neglects the principle of justice because industries affect the lives of people who

lived near industrial areas while other groups do not face direct consequences of pollution. The

last principle invokes to the principle of non-maleficence because society has the responsibility

of minimize the levels of pollution in order to avoid harmful consequences to the environment.

In general, industrial pollution is not only a juridical problem but an ethical one because of the

severe consequences that involves regarding the world well-being.

Industrial pollution has increased in the last decades causing severe damage to all forms

of living including plants. The diverse pollutants in the atmosphere as in the water have been

contaminating ecosystems for years. For example, some pollutants contaminated aquifers,

Freeze and Cherry (1979) pointed out that in the 1950s and 1960s the land disposal of sewage

by septic systems occurred in the form of alkyl benzene sulphonate ( quoted in Khesari and

Palmar, 2005). The quote demonstrated that industrial pollution was not a current problem

indeed is a problem from the past. Another consequence of industrial pollution relates to the

humans mental health. Research conducted by Downey and Van Willingen (2005) showed a

relation between industrial areas near to communities and the well-being of people who lived in

these communities. The authors informed that people who lived near industrial areas were

susceptible to have powerlessness feelings and depression. Industrial pollution not only has

affected ecosystems but also the way people live and interact with themselves and with each


The carbon emission problem around the world comes from the industrial revolution

times. Society has not known how to deal with the increasing carbon emission. By creating

different regulations that differ from country to country, the carbon emission problem just has

worsen. The problem of having different regulations between state to state created juridical gaps

for industries to keep polluting. Lackner and Wilson (2008) addressed the problem of regulations

based on research of the agreement in California in 2006 for reducing greenhouse gasses. The

authors believed that society was changing their way of seeing industrial pollution as a problem

from city to city to give it a global perspective. From the article, inferring that state to state

regulations were not as accurate as expected is plausible. Therefore, the authors mentioned that a

worldwide regulation would be more efficient because all countries would follow the same basis

to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Knowledge about the carbon emission problem is crucial to

prevent pollution.

Another problem that contributed to industrial pollution for several years is the corporate

limitations to restore their equipment and to regulate their pollutants. In their research, Prechel

and Zheng (2012) found two main factors that lead to industrial pollution: management problems

and usage of subsidiaries to elude law. The management team cannot prevent subsidiaries from

polluting. Large industries faced organizational problems to control subsidiaries. Companies that

own many facilities beard difficulties in monitoring all their subsidiaries. However, having many

subsidiaries should not be a major problem for companies because they possess resources to

install better technology that controls the pollution. On the other hand, large corporations use

their subsidiaries as resources to escape the law. According to Prechel and Zheng (2012), This

social structure protects parent companies and their managers from lawsuits for social and

ecological damages caused by toxic emissions (p.18). The quote above showed that large

corporations have found in their subsidiaries a way to avoid regulations. Moreover, large

companies continue using process that pollute the environment, violating then the principle of


Pollution started when humans discovered fire. With the fire discovery, pollution has only

increased throughout the years. In the Roman Empire, metal exploitation produced pollution.

(Pollution, 2009). Humans thought that pollution, especially air pollution, meant development.

However, pollution only caused harmful consequences in the environment. For example,

London, which had suffered from smog for centuries, experienced a severe episode of air

pollution in 1952 that killed thousands of people in a few days (Pollution, 2009). The quote was

a good example to show that pollution is dangerous for humans. Therefore, people should be

aware of the consequences of pollution since ancient times in our environment.

The principle of human dignity is necessary to peoples coexistence

between each other and with other beings including plants, animals, and the

environment. Therefore, industrial pollution is an ethical problem because


polluting just damages the environment. The damage from polluting causes

severe consequences in humans. In research about air pollution, for

example, the authors found from a dermatological point of view, air

pollution can be linked to a lengthy list of pathological skin manifestations

and disorders. This includes different allergic reactions, rashes, eczema,

acne (Zegarska et al., 2017). According to this quote, polluting has been

producing several and harmful problems in human's health. To prevent more

people from getting ill, industries need to regulate pollutants to improve

people's daily life. On the other side, industrial pollution has also affected

animals and plants. In the 1996 book Our Stolen Future, , Theo Colborn and her

coauthors claimed that many of these toxins are endocrine disruptors, interfering with the

delicate hormonal system of animals and causing species losses, damaged eggs, skewed sex

ratios, disturbed mating practices, and abnormal development (Elliot, 2009). The quote above

support the idea of industrial pollution as unethical because industries are violating the principle

of humanity by polluting the environment so that damaging ecosystems. Industrial pollution did

not pay attention to protect all forms of living; therefore, industries broke the ethical principle of


Humans deeds for evolution in the eyes of industrialization has violated the principle of

natural beneficence which refers to every action must have a positive effect in life. However, the

side effect of industrialization is a high level of pollution in the environment. Society needs to

look to enhance the beneficence principle since reducing pollution will embrace a better social

environment. If industries keep polluting humanity is in danger. In the Shrader-Frechettes

research (1991), the author explained that any action that does irreversible or serious damage to

the environment will also harm humans. If specie go extinct, for example, then human health and

agricultural, aesthetic, and economic interests will be harmed (p. 320). Based on the authors

explanation about the harmful effect of humans action, industrial management need to enhance

the principle of beneficence by changing their remote process that pollute into a green process

that does not harm the environment. People must realize that their greed in terms of advance

industrialization had harm the environment over the years.

In the same way, governments have an obligation to provide people the same safe

environment where to live. Ironically, there are many people who are affected more than others

by industrial pollution. Therefore, industrial pollution is an ethical problem because it violates

the principle of justice. The dilemma of people who have low-income or are uneducated

particularly focusses on what place choose to live in. According to Morenoff, House, and Mero

(2009) people with low wages and uneducated are more likely to live in industrial areas in the

United States than high-income families. This research showed the problem of disparities in

families around the United States where people close to industrial areas did not have other option

to live than communities close to industries. To illustrate the problem of living near industrial

areas, research conducted by Downey and Van Willingen (2005) mentioned that individuals

who move into industrial neighborhoods have fewer residential choices than those who do not

and, therefore, that free choice should not be assumed. (p. 302) By this information, the

violation of the principle of justice is demonstrated because people do not have same living

options, and industries do not care about the harm produced to surrounded communities.

From the ethical perspective, industrial pollution does not obey the principle of no

maleficence which refers to preventing harm or minimizing it as a responsibility for humans. For

example, the Air Quality Index Website, on April 13, 2017 revealed that the city of Potawatomi,

Wisconsin had one of the worst air quality in the U.S. with a score of 824. The score is based on

a measurement between 0 to 300+ where 0 refers to good air quality, and 300+ means that the

level of pollution in the air is hazardous. The poor air quality in Potawami took global attention

due to the protest the Dakota Access pipeline. In an interview conducted by Bagley (2016), Kyle

Powys Whyte affirmed that What the protectors are doing is saying no to the continuation of the

development and maintenance of fossil fuel industries, for the sake of indigenous survival

who are experiencing climate change impacts right now that pose threats of the highest severity.

The statement above is proof that not all the communities face the same problems, and therefore,

they were obligated to take action for their safety because regulations do not protect them. As a

matter of fact, industries are not preventing harm but increasing it by their greed of conquering

new zones to build their manufacture plants. Therefore, communities are forced to step up

against industries to preserve their environment and their health. Breaking the non-maleficence

principle brings the industrial pollution issue into another perspective because industries harm

the environment without preventing or protecting humans from the severe consequences of


On the other side of the story, some experts are refusing to believe in industrial pollution as

an ethical problem because humans need certain products and chemicals to use in their daily life.

The author Sanderson (2011) stated that even after decades of research, green solvents are not

always more efficient than the widely used chlorinated solvents. Nor have chemists completely

eliminated the need for catalysts containing precious or toxic metals (p. 19). Therefore, despite

alternative chemicals, there are certain toxic chemicals that are still necessary in the industries

process. The dilemma is if people need to find alternative chemicals to create the products or

consumers need to stop buying these products. If consumers are aware of the damage cause by

these products, then they should look for a replacement for these products instead of wasting

money in research to find alternative chemicals.

There are some difficulties regarding changing from an unaware society to a concerning

one. Some people do not care enough about industrial pollution as to look for information.

According to Thomas (2013) there is a type of unawareness known as deliberate unawareness

because people do not find an environmental topic to be important, and thus do not seek out

more information on the problem. Even when the problem started to become a topic of interest,

people purposefully set aside the facts. Changing peoples behavior is hard in terms of

informing about certain products that are hazardous for the environment, especially when they

deny the problem as a real issue. Lacking interest is a significant problem that plays against the

industrial pollution problem.

From the corporations point of view, there are pros and cons of becoming a sustainable

industry. Being a green corporation is not cheap but expensive because some corporations are

based on the profit-production plan. Therefore, these industries do not have money to invest in

new technology; particularly for small corporations that do not have enough profit to acquire

new enginery. For example, Prechel and Zheng (2012) affirmed that capital dependence in the

form of higher debt and lower profits is associated with higher rates of environmental pollution

(p. 964). From this quote, some corporations face monetary problems even when they want to

change into a sustainable industry. As presented before, there are many companies that hide the

highest level of pollution under their subsidiaries in other countries, especially in developing

ones. From Prechel and Zheng (2012) research, corporations organized as the multilayer-

subsidiary form with taller subsidiary hierarchies pollute at higher rates is important because the

majority of the largest U.S. corporations, which produce a large portion of the total

environmental pollution, are organized with this corporate form (p. 964). The problem with

these corporations is that they are well-structured so it is difficult for them to realize the damage

they produce. These corporations focus on their profits and let their subsidiaries pollute.

Preventing industrial pollution does not make a difference. Some pollutants are still being

in the atmosphere for years besides programs to regulate pollution. Research showed that trying

to regulate industrial pollution would not stop contamination since many pollutants take years to

dissolve once they are discharged into the environment. According to Lackner and Wilson (2008)

most oil and coal brought to the surface are burnt within months or years creating carbon

dioxide which is emitted to the atmosphere (p. 574). In other words, industries pollute when

they extract oil and coal, and then when they burn these products.

By seeing the current consequences on the environment, people need to realize that

industrial pollution is an unethical problem. Industrial pollution is by far more than a legal

problem because there are some ethical principles that industries violated throughout the years.

There are four main principles that industrial pollution dishonored. The first one, called the

principle of beneficence indicates that preventing industrial pollution is a human work. The

principle of justice, the second ethical principle, makes a connection with industrial pollution

because of the problem of disparities regarding living close to industrial zones. The third one is

the principle of human dignity which is related to the severe consequences of industrial pollution

not only in humans but also in animals and plants. The last principle, non-maleficence, means

that humans have an obligation not to harm others. Likewise, society has the responsibility of

minimizing the levels of pollution in order to avoid harmful consequences to the environment.

The violation of all these principles lead to think about what humans are doing wrong respect

industrial processes. Therefore, governments and industries need to work together to provide

better living conditions to people in general not just to the wealthy ones. In fact, the levels of

pollution produced is a real problem to address. Human beings need to start working together to

prevent industrial pollution because the consequences are not more assumptions, they are a real

issue. The twentieth first century must be the era of the change and unity for a common goal:

recover our environment from pollution.



Bagley, K. (2016). At standing rock, a battle over fossil fuels and land. [Interview]. e360.

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M. (2017). Air pollution, UV irradiation and skin carcinogenesis: what we know, where we

stand and what is likely to happen in the future?. Advances In Dermatology & Allergology