The earth is currently facing a massive environmental crisis, and water pollution is one of the many issues that our society faces today. Nearly all causes of water contamination involve humans.
Rivers, lakes, and oceans worldwide are polluted with chemicals, plastics, human waste, and other contaminants like pharmaceuticals. Since the pandemic, the increased usage of face masks and other PPE has introduced even more man-made waste to our waters in recent years.
Water contamination puts everyone and everything at risk, including humans, wildlife, and the environment. Contaminants kill animals, destroy habitats, and disrupt ecological processes.
As a result, humans suffer from limited food production, water scarcity, and hindered economic growth.
In other words, water contamination directly translates into environmental and socioeconomic problems. To understand how to address these issues, here is an overview of water pollution, what causes it, and how we can prevent it.
What is Water Pollution?
Water pollution occurs when harmful substances, such as toxic chemicals or human waste, infiltrate a river, lake, ocean, or other body of water. It lowers water quality and renders the water harmful to the environment and unsafe for human consumption.
Water Contamination Facts Around the World
Knowing the extent of water contamination can help us understand why it is such as pressing issue, especially with the looming threat of permanent climate change from global warming that will bring about further problems.
Most recent data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) show some alarming facts:
- One in nine people across the globe uses drinking water from unsafe sources
- 90% of untreated water in developing countries is discharged directly into water bodies
- Two million tons of sewage and other effluents end up in the world’s water daily
- Industrial waste accounts for approximately 300 to 400 megatons of waste discharged into water bodies annually
- 80% of ocean pollution originates on land
- Lack of sanitation is one of the most significant forms of water pollution forms; around 2.4 billion people worldwide live without any sanitation
- Pollution of water resources and aquatic resources results in an estimated one-third reduction of the world’s biodiversity
Water Contamination in the US
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), almost half of rivers and streams and over one-third of lakes are polluted. These polluted water bodies are considered unfit for swimming, drinking, and fishing.
Worldwide Causes of Water Contamination
Water pollution comes in several forms, including:
- Ground Water Contamination: Groundwater is rainwater that seeps into the earth and fills an aquifer’s cracks and porous spaces (a body of rock or sediment that holds groundwater). Water wells and pumps can extract groundwater from aquifers for human use. When contaminants seep into an aquifer, the groundwater source becomes unsafe. Removing pollution from groundwater, including trichloroethylene, is often challenging and sometimes impossible, and a polluted aquifer may remain unusable for decades.
- Surface Water Pollution: Surface water is what fills streams, rivers, lakes, and other freshwater water bodies, covering 71% of the Earth’s surface. This contamination is often caused by pathogens, nutrients, plastics, and chemicals, such as heavy metals, antibiotics, and pesticides. It can also stem from carbon pollution from the air. Without proper treatment, consuming surface water can lead to hazardous effects on human health.
- Marine Pollution: Ocean water pollution, also known as marine pollution, occurs when contaminants on land make their way to the sea. The pollutants involved in ocean pollution are similar to those in surface water pollution, with the addition of oil spills. Ocean pollution is a significant threat to marine life and the fishery industry.
- Point Source Pollution: Water contamination from a single source is called point source pollution, such as when a wastewater treatment facility illegally disposes wastewater into rivers, lakes, or oceans.
- Nonpoint Source Pollution: When water contamination comes from diffuse sources, it is called non-point source water pollution. Common water contamination sources include agricultural or stormwater runoff that enters waterways from land. Nonpoint source pollution is the leading cause of US water pollution.
- Transboundary Pollution: Contaminated water can spill from one country to another, such as in an oil spill or downriver wastewater stream from industrial sources. When this happens, the contamination is called transboundary pollution.
What are the Major Causes of Water Contamination?
The following are the most common causes of water pollution worldwide:
The agriculture sector is the biggest consumer of freshwater resources. However, it is also a significant polluter of fresh water and groundwater sources, especially in rural areas. When it rains, pesticide, animal waste, and fertilizer runoff can flow into waterways.
The nutrients and pathogens in these contaminants can decrease water quality, putting animal and human health at risk.
Nutrient pollution, resulting from excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air, can cause algal blooms (the proliferation of blue-green algae that can be toxic to humans and animals).
Inadequate Treatment of Sewage and Wastewater
Wastewater is used water from sinks, showers, and toilets. It also includes stormwater runoff, which occurs when rain washes grease, chemicals, oil, and debris blown down storm drains and waterways.
According to UNESCO, over 80% of the world’s wastewater returns to the environment without treatment or reuse.
In the US, water treatment facilities process wastewater to remove pathogens, chemicals, and other harmful substances before returning to the waterways. However, the EPA states that the country’s degrading and easily overburdened treatment plants release over 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater yearly.
Disposal of Toxic Chemicals into Drains
Certain substances don’t belong in the drain. These include biohazardous waste (e.g., medical specimens), controlled substances, corrosive waste, and hazardous chemical waste.
Unfortunately, some households, businesses, and industries do not comply with proper disposal rules, causing water contamination in their localities.
Water Contamination from Leaking Septic Systems
Leaks from septic systems and sewer lines also significantly cause water contamination. The bacteria, viruses, and other harmful microorganisms from sewage water can cause detrimental health effects on humans, such as diarrhea and infections.
Oil Spills and Pollution
Big oil spills from tankers are not the only causes of oil pollution in our waters. Sources also include wastewater from agricultural, industrial, or municipal discharge.
Specifically, oil-laden sewage can come from a factory, oil refinery, or water treatment plant.
Mining is the process of extracting coal and other minerals from the ground and involves water use in processing ores. The waste produced can contain heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and other pollutants that can cause severe pollution damage to surrounding waters and farmland.
Contamination from mining operations can also seep into groundwater sources and affect the drinking water supply.
Improper disposal of solid waste is one of the most significant causes of ocean water pollution. Plastics, aluminum, rubber, glass, and other artificial materials can take decades to decompose.
These things can kill marine life and destroy natural habitats when they enter the sea.
Marine pollution caused by garbage is a culminated consequence of illegal dumping of industrial waste and littering by the general population.
Even garbage we properly dump into landfills can contaminate our waters. When it rains, the chemicals and other contaminants from the trash can seep into groundwater, polluting drinking water supplies.
During natural disasters, such as hurricanes or floods, garbage from landfills can wash away into rivers, lakes, or oceans.
Burning fossil fuels produce a significant amount of carbon dioxide and ash that contain toxic chemicals, such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. When these chemicals mix with water vapor, it can cause acid rain, affecting freshwater, trees, and man-made structures.
Radioactive pollution is any waste that emits radiation beyond what the environment naturally releases. It can come from many sources, such as military weapon testing, nuclear power plants, academic research that involves radioactive materials, and uranium mining (a highly toxic chemical).
Radioactive waste can remain in the environment for thousands of years, making safe disposal a significant challenge. Usually, radioactive waste is put in storage containers and surrounded by multiple protective layers to prevent it from leaking into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, accidents happen, and radioactive materials can end up in the environment, causing severe genetic damage to animals and plants.
Consider the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011, which resulted in three nuclear cores melting after a major earthquake and tsunami. The accident caused the release of iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137 into the atmosphere and ocean.
As the population grows, so does the need for food, water, housing, power, cloth, and other necessities. The production of these resources results in increased water pollution due to improper disposal of industrial waste and the creation of harmful byproducts.
Mining and logging industries must also process more natural resources to meet growing demands. Mining wastewater can contaminate surrounding waters, while excessive logging can generate organic residue, which becomes a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
Furthermore, more people means more garbage that may end up in our waters, soil erosion caused by deforestation, wastewater that processing plants may not be able to treat appropriately, and more.
Rising temperatures can result in stronger bursts of precipitation due to increased water evaporation into the atmosphere. As a result, natural disasters are more catastrophic, endangering lives, crops, homes, and economies.
Furthermore, floods, landslides, and rainstorms can wash debris, nutrients, farm waste, and harmful chemicals into water sources. Global warming will worsen these natural disasters even further.
Another effect of global warming is the increased risk of eutrophication or excess algal growth, which can harm animals and humans due to toxins.
Effects of Water Pollution
Contaminated water is a danger to humans, animals, and the environment, causing harm in many ways, such as:
Drinking Water Contamination
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), two billion people lack safe drinking water at home. Many of these people either lack water services or drink polluted water.
Consuming water pollutants result in millions of deaths yearly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that every year:
- There are 1.7 billion cases of diarrhea among children under five years
- Approximately 446,000 children under five years die from diarrhea, primarily in low and middle-income nations
- There are 3 million cholera cases and an estimated 95,000 cholera fatalities
- There are 11 million cases of typhoid fever and approximately 129,000 typhoid fever deaths
Even relatively safe water activities like swimming can become dangerous when contaminated with harmful chemicals or toxic waste. According to the EPA, over 3.5 million Americans contract health problems like pinkeye, respiratory infections, and hepatitis from sewage-contaminated coastal waters.
Reduced Aquatic Life and Biodiversity
Marine dumping and oil leaks destroy natural habitats and kill marine life. In addition, the ocean absorbs carbon emissions from human activities.
The resulting reduction in ocean life risks the livelihood of those in the fishing industry, potentially forcing some fishing companies to resort to drastic measures that can further harm the environment.
Scientists also expect some marine species to go extinct with global warming. And due to the volume of marine debris, humans are already eating microplastics in their seafood.
Contaminants in the water supply can disrupt the food chain by causing disease and genetic damage to animals and crops. The effects of these changes include food scarcity, food-borne illness, and further spreading of contamination.
Polluted waters can impact commercial fishing, tourism, recreational businesses, and even real estate. Furthermore, governments must allot more money to treat wastewater, increasing potable water costs.
How You Can Help Reduce Water Pollution
Everyone owes a duty to care for the environment. You can do your part in reducing water pollution by following these simple tips:
- Pick Up After Your Pet: Animal waste in storm drains could pollute underground water.
- Watch What You Flush: The only things you should flush into the toilet are toilet paper and human waste. Also, opt against non-organic toilet cleaners to avoid strong chemicals in your water system
- Check Your Septic Tank: Have a professional check your septic system every three years to determine if it needs pumping or repairs. Doing so can prevent a disastrous septic tank leak
- Reduce Your Plastic Consumption: Choose materials that easily biodegrade, such as paper. Use reusable or recyclable plastic whenever possible
- Maintain Your Car: Maintaining your car will help prevent antifreeze, coolant, and oil leaks. It can also reduce your carbon emissions, helping decrease air pollution
- Avoid Yard Chemicals: Avoid using pesticides and herbicides. When you do use chemicals, blow them back onto the grass to prevent them from washing into drains
- Pick Up Litter: Trash can clog drains and end up in waterways. Aside from avoiding littering yourself, pick up litter whenever you see it. Consider bringing a trash bag when you visit the beach to pick up the garbage and prevent it from making its way to the sea
- Speak Up: Reach out to agencies or movements that aim to hold significant polluters accountable, including industrial waste industries and large corporations. See what you can do to help create or improve regulations for these entities. Moreover, you can urge your local officials to support water protection programs and investments to address the causes of water pollution in your locality.
Causes of Water Contamination: Conclusion
As you can see, water pollution has detrimental effects on everything in the ecosystem. It harms humans, kills wildlife, destroys nature, and, on top of it all–causes significant socioeconomic challenges.
Knowing the basics of water pollution and its causes is the first step to making a change. Apart from the minor adjustments you can make to your life to help reduce water pollution, it’s also crucial to urge action on the community and national levels.
Leaders have the power to address the long-standing issues our waters are facing, and you can help make more extensive changes by using your voice.
- UNESCO – International Initiative on Water Quality (IIWQ)
- University of San Diego – Sewer Disposal: What Can Go Down the Drain?
- Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. – Water Pollution: Everything You Need to Know
- World Nuclear Association – Fukushima Daiichi Accident
- Columbia Climate School – How Climate Change Impacts Our Water
- CDC – Global WASH Fast Facts
- Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Lawsuit