A Brief History of Environmental Engineering
With a focus on protecting citizens from environmental hazards, the study of environmental engineering equips those in the field to improve aspects of life that could directly harm people all around the world. Covering areas such as pollution, recycling, quality of water, and access to healthier alternatives, environmental engineers work tirelessly to improve the lives of those around them.
The concept of environmental engineering has been around for quite some time, as the need for access to clean water and disposal of waste and sewage is prominent in societies dating back to the earliest forms of civilization. With the Agricultural Revolution beginning around 10,000 B.C., people were then faced with the dangers of water and air pollution; another obstacles environmental engineers needed to overcome. The more advanced society became, the more these engineers had to do in order to maintain a high quality of life for all members.
It is said that the first environmental engineer known to man was Joseph Bazalgette, due to his work on London, England’s Victorian sewers. The city’s River Thames had never before seen pollution that could cause serious concern. However, there was very little consistency in terms of sewage disposal during this time, and accepted procedure for homes was to add to cesspools underneath their properties. Due to these becoming overflowed and citizens running out of places to empty them, many began draining them into sewers, which led directly to the Thames. What was once a source of clean water and domestic water supplies, Thames became a contaminated cesspool in itself.
Bazalgette was the Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works during this time, and designed a complex system that focused on waste disposal, land drainage, and the introduction of a safer water supply system. A common problem was the fact that the river is tidal, meaning that waste emptied in it would return on the ensuing tide. Bazalgette’s design included four large pumps that emptied the sewers beyond the tidal area of Thames; a solution which, at the time, was groundbreaking, though today it may be considerably frowned upon.
Today, environmental engineers apply the concepts of engineering to biology and chemistry to develop a better understanding of the environment’s role in society, and provide solutions where needed. A common problem today is the release of harmful toxins and chemicals from soils on farms, contaminants in gardening sprays, and general air pollution from cars and factories. This required the knowledge for not only engineering and biology, but industrial processes as well. Combining all of these fields allows for potential breakthroughs in environmental engineering, and stronger possibilities that existing technologies will be improved.