Facts About Water Pollution – Everything You Need To Know
What is Water pollution?
Water pollution is the contamination of water bodies, such as rivers, lakes and oceans, with harmful substances that impact biological diversity in aquatic ecosystems.
What causes water pollution?
There are many sources of water pollution. Contaminants can be introduced into the environment through airborne deposition such as acid rain; by direct discharge from point sources including sewage treatment plants; or by runoff of erosion from agricultural landscapes containing chemicals and fertilizers.
However, water can also be polluted in a much more indirect way. For example, as China’s economic growth has exploded over the last few decades, so too has its demand for resources like coal which it burns to produce electricity. Coal is a very dirty fuel and when burned produces large quantities of fine matter (coal ash) that ends up in rivers, lakes and soil. This is called “downstream water pollution” and it has many additional impacts on the environment.
Water pollution affects its surroundings in many ways, depending on how naturally clean the water was to begin with. For example:
Once polluted, some water bodies can be cleaned up, but only by removing or reducing the contaminant present.
Water pollution is an issue that persists throughout the world. The negative impact of human activity on natural systems began relatively recently and is only increasing.
There are many documented cases of water pollution. Here are just a few examples:
In the case of the Citarum River in Indonesia, the water pollution was mostly due to small-scale waste disposal from nearby households. The result is that fish and shrimp populations have been greatly reduced.
In the case of the Mississippi River, pesticides applied to crops in agricultural areas flowing into the river caused an increase in human health issues as well as adverse impacts to ecosystems. In fact, this was such a notable problem that there are many efforts being made today to remove these toxins from the river system before they reach coastal waters.
The North Sea is being threatened by water pollution, particularly oil spills and other chemicals leaking from land into rivers that flow into it.
The excessive amounts of agricultural runoff that affects water quality has been a major point of contention for many years with the media often reporting on the negative impacts. This is because these chemicals can drain into nearby waterways causing all sorts of damage.
The list goes on and on, but what these examples show is that water pollution is a real concern for many parts of the world. The good news is that solutions are being found to control and/or eliminate these problems.
However, it’s also important to realize that there are some very environmentally damaging forces at work out there that we as human beings just can’t slow down or stop.
Sewage and wastewater
In many industries, wastewater is simply flushed into the environment or otherwise released untreated. Sewage contamination of waterways and coastal zones is a common phenomenon. The construction of wastewater treatment facilities in developed countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has dramatically reduced water pollution through sewage disposal.
In the United States alone, over 100 billion gallons of treated wastewater are dumped into rivers each day (around 82% of which is deliberately released). This includes sewage effluent, urban runoff, and water from industrial and manufacturing processes. Excessive levels of nutrients in effluents stimulate excessive algal growth in receiving waters. Excessive nutrient levels also cause long-term changes to lake ecology that are harmful to ecosystems.
In agriculture, many pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are routinely flushed into waterways after application to fields. Pesticide concentrations often spike immediately after application because of the rapid movement of surface runoff toward streams.
The industrial process of mining results in large quantities of water pollution from mine drainage. The metal sulfides present in the ore body of a mine rapidly combine with the oxygen and water present in air and surface water to form sulfuric acid upon oxidation. This highly acidic drainage can result in the acidification and contamination of nearby lakes and rivers as well as cause heavy metal poisoning when washed into the soil.
Commercial fish farming is widely practiced in Asia where most of the farmed species are carnivorous and feed on other fish. The result is a disease-prone industry that can poison waterways with agricultural chemicals and uneaten food, as well as infectious wastes (such as blood, excrement, mucus, and uneaten prey). Fish waste also contains substantial amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. In addition to pollution from farms, runoff from land-based animal operations – which produce a disproportionate amount of America’s meat – also contributes significant pollution to waterways via manure. Poultry litter is more than 50 percent ammonia, which can contribute to acid rain.
Radioactive materials, such as radon gas, are generated by the decay of uranium and thorium. Radioactive materials are not easily contained and they spread easily through the water. Radioactive contamination from nuclear power plants pollutes the groundwater near nuclear power facilities.
Surface water bodies around industrialized areas often contain heavy metals–lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc–from sources as diverse as combustion of fossil fuels, industrial pollution and mining operations. These heavy metals can persist in surface waters as long-lived insoluble complexes and high concentrations can be found in sediment. These compounds can accumulate to high levels in aquatic organisms causing both acute and chronic toxicity from acute ingestion or inhalation.
Tankers, barges, and pipelines can readily leak oil into rivers and coastal waters. In the United States alone, more than 1,000 oil spills occur each year. Spills often have disastrous ecological consequences. Oil degrades slowly in water and most forms of it are difficult to clean up.
Water pollution by industries
In a naturally opaque environment where there is a lack of oxygen, many organic materials settle down causing water pollution by industries. Hydrophobic organic compounds are resistant to biodegradation in water, forming anoxic conditions that limit the creation of new biomass and hinder the decomposition of pre-existing organic matter. As a consequence dissolved organic carbon concentrations increase significantly (up to 10–100 times). This can have multiple consequences:
The water becomes more acidic as a result of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption into the water, which in turn hinders the growth of aquatic plants. The reduction in light penetration may also cause bleaching or other damage to the aquatic ecosystem. This has an impact on fish health and their ability to reproduce.
Pesticides are among the most common type of water pollution. Garden chemicals, used in lawns, golf courses and parks, have polluted many freshwater systems. Research has shown that pesticides such as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T in Europe are capable of causing cancer in humans when ingested. These chemicals were introduced into the marketplace in the 1940s and 50s as war chemicals. They were used to clear areas for military use or destroy crops belonging to opposing armies. The use of these chemicals was eventually stopped after they were found to be carcinogenic.
How to prevent water pollution
The best way to prevent water pollution is to prevent the release of pollutants into the environment. One way is to have at least a basic treatment plant in place before you create a problem. This will help to give you some time to get yourself ready for actually changing your living habits and using safe alternatives where possible.
Another way is not to dump industrial waste products directly into waterways, such as those used for drinking water.
Sealing up old oil wells, oil tank farms, toxic Superfund sites or even abandoned buildings where waste materials are disposed of can help to prevent future exposure to pollutants and thus reduce the need for treatment.
A final way is to be proactive and think ahead. In some cases, you can create an effective water purification system which you can use in emergencies when standards suddenly change.
Be heard loud and clear
In order to make a difference, you first have to show the world that it is needed. If you use social media, post stories about how polluted drinking water has affected your life or the lives of those around you and if possible give solutions on how this issue can be fixed.