A discarded cigarette butt on the sidewalk. An oil spill out at sea. A coal-fired power plant belching clouds of smoke into the atmosphere. What do all these things have in common? They’re all examples of pollution—harmful substances being introduced into the environment. Pollution can affect any part of the environment: air, water, or land.
Some pollution is natural, like ash and smoke from wildfires or volcanoes. However, most pollutants are waste products created by people, such as sewage, hazardous chemicals, and emissions from fossil fuels. Pollution can directly sicken or even kill plants and animals, including humans. And it damages the air, water, and soil all living things rely on to survive.
Pollution occurs all over the world. Though in general, it’s worse in urban areas. The more people there are in one place, the more waste they produce. And New Jersey, as the most densely populated state in the U.S., is one of the hardest hit. In rankings published by U.S. News and World Report, New Jersey is rated the thirteenth most polluted state.
Every year, the American Lung Association (ALA) rates air quality across the U.S. in its State of the Air report. It focuses mainly on two types of pollution: fine particles called particulates and ozone, the main component of smog. Both of these can cause serious health problems, including asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease.
According to the 2023 ALA report, there’s good news and bad news about air pollution in the Garden State. Every New Jersey county that monitors its air quality gets a grade of A or B for particulate pollution. But when it comes to ozone, it’s a different story. Out of 15 counties monitored, only one gets an A and six get an F.
And this report doesn’t even consider one major form of air pollution: greenhouse gases. This type of pollution doesn’t directly make the air less breathable, but it causes even bigger problems in the long term. It’s the main cause of worldwide climate change that poses a catastrophic threat to people everywhere.
According to a 2022 Environmental Integrity Project report, New Jersey has some of the most polluted water in the nation. Only 5% of its river miles are safe for all their designated uses—drinking, recreation, aquatic life, and fish consumption. Only 3% of its lake, bay, and harbor areas are safe for those same uses. The most polluted river in New Jersey is the Passaic, where industrial pollution was dumped for decades. It’s on a list of 20 urban bodies of water the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is targeting for cleanup.
In many New Jersey towns, pollution makes drinking water unsafe. Even when reservoirs are clean, harmful substances can enter the water supply from other sources. For instance, some urban water systems have old pipes that contain toxic lead. According to the Environmental Working Group, 30 NJ water utilities are in violation of EPA safety standards.
Many pollutants that affect water supplies can also contaminate soil. For instance, lead can enter soil from old paint, residues of lead gasoline, and possibly sewage sludge used as fertilizer. Other harmful chemicals leak into soil from industrial facilities, such as chemical plants.
Sites where large amounts of toxic chemicals have been released can be contaminated for decades. In 1980, the EPA established Superfund to identify and clean up these damaged sites. New Jersey has over 150 Superfund sites, more than any other state. Many of these have already been cleaned up, but they still need to be monitored for possible problems.
The biggest individual sources of pollution in New Jersey are point sources. Point source pollution is a lot of pollution emitted in a single location. But while these sources are large, they’re not responsible for most of New Jersey’s overall pollution. The vast majority of it is nonpoint source pollution: multiple small sources that add up.
The Garden State has more than its share of large polluters. The EPA requires major producers of certain pollutants to report their emissions on the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). In 2020, New Jersey had the 8th-highest number of TRI sites in the nation. The biggest one, the Philips Bayway refinery in Linden, produced over 2.8 million pounds of water and air pollution.
Another type of point source pollution in New Jersey is power plants that burn fossil fuels. These produce both toxic emissions and climate-damaging carbon emissions.
Nonpoint source pollution includes any pollution that isn’t concentrated in one spot. Examples include:
Pollution doesn’t affect all parts of New Jersey equally. The areas closest to point sources and major highways suffer the greatest effects. For instance, the ALA report shows that ozone pollution is worst in Bergen, Camden, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, and Ocean Counties. By contrast, Monmouth County has the state’s cleanest air.
Water and soil pollution are also worse in some parts of the state than in others. New Jersey’s right-to-know law requires companies that release toxic chemicals into the air, water, or land to disclose it. In 2015, the biggest toxin releases by far were in Linden and Deepwater: over 2 million pounds each. At the other end of the scale, towns like Irvington, Fords, and Eatontown had less than one pound apiece.
Pollution in many parts of NJ is bad enough to cause health problems for residents. Smog can trigger asthma attacks and contribute to other lung diseases, including lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Pollutants in drinking water can cause kidney damage, reproductive health problems, and many types of cancer.
Pollution also causes harm in many less direct ways. Air pollution can lead to acid rain, which harms wildlife and damages buildings. Pollutants in water can kill fish and, indirectly, harm humans who catch and eat fish. Chemical contaminants in soil can make crops grown in that soil unsafe to eat. And climate change caused by greenhouse gas pollution is already making heat waves and floods in New Jersey more frequent and more severe. These problems will only grow worse as the climate continues to heat up.
People who live in the most polluted parts of New Jersey are more exposed to these harmful effects. People in these areas are at higher risk for all the health problems linked to pollution. They’re more likely to suffer from asthma, cancer, heart disease, developmental disorders, and lead poisoning.
People living in these highly polluted regions tend to be low-income people and people of color, sometimes suffering from energy poverty as well. These groups are sometimes called overburdened communities, or OBCs. The ALA report found that nearly half the people at risk from air pollution in New Jersey are people of color. Nearly one in ten have incomes below the poverty line. A mapping tool created by the government shows where in New Jersey OBCs live and what pollution risks they face.
As bad as pollution in NJ is, it’s better than it used to be. As recently as 2007, many NJ counties got failing grades for particulate pollution in the ALA report. Today, no county gets a grade lower than a B. And while many counties still get failing grades for ozone pollution, they all have much lower levels than they did 20 or 30 years ago.
This is just one example of how environmental cleanup efforts are making the Garden State a safer place to live. Other examples include:
As a Garden State resident, you can be part of New Jersey’s efforts to combat pollution. Some small steps to start with:
One big step you can take is switching to community solar. New Jersey currently relies on natural gas, a polluting fossil fuel, for nearly half its electric generation. By joining a community solar project, you support clean solar energy and reduce the demand for fossil fuels. And, as a bonus, you save money on your electric bill at the same time. That makes community solar a healthy choice for both the planet and your bank balance.