Water is the most essential component to life as mankind knows it. It should not be difficult to point out exactly how imperative it is in the daily functioning and maintenance for every type of life, whether the organism relies on water for hydration or if it is aquatic. Water pollution is one of the most serious ecological threats that mankind faces currently. Water pollution occurs when something that is considered a harmful substance, such as chemicals or various microorganisms, contaminates a stream, river, lake, ocean, aquifer or other body of water. This contamination results in the degradation of the quality of the water and leaves it toxic to humans, animals, or the environment and causes issues for the aquatic ecosystem and close-by groundwater systems. These substances can lye suspended in the water or can deposit on the bed of the body of water. Water is extremely susceptible to pollution because of its role as a universal solvent, given its ability to dissolve more substances than any other liquid on Earth(reference). Toxic substances easily dissolve into and mix with water, making it extremely difficult to reverse and causing water pollution.
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Water pollution is not confined to the contamination of drinking water and can affect all types of water sources. The most common categories of water pollution include groundwater, surface water, ocean water, point and nonpoint solution and transboundary pollution. Groundwater is stored in an aquifer, which is formed when rain falls and soaks into the Earth, filling the cracks, crevices, and porous spaces. Groundwater gets polluted when contaminants, including pesticides, fertilizers, landfill waste, or septic system runoff, infiltrate aquafers and make it unsafe for human use or consumption. Once polluted, the aquafer is unusable, possibly indefinitely, a major issue since around forty percent of Americans rely on groundwater for drinking purposes(reference).
As the largest source of water on the planet, surface water covers approximately 70 percent of the Earth. Nutrient pollution, i.e. an overabundance of nitrates and phosphates, is the top cause of contamination in freshwater sources. This overabundance is due to farm waste and fertilizer runoff and can also be attributed to the toxic dump that corporations and factories usually dump directly into these waterways. Surface water from fresh water accounts for more than 60 percent of water that is transferred in American homes. Surface water is put into two categories, ocean water and freshwater. Ocean water is generally contaminated by chemicals, nutrients, heavy metals, marine debris, oil spills, and carbon pollution. Eighty percent of ocean pollution originates on land, mostly dependent on distance from the nearest coast, as in it can occur from factories spilling waste directly into an ocean or it can be carried by streams and rivers into bays and then eventually reach the ocean.
Outside of the three largest sources of water on earth, water pollution can come from various categories called point source, nonpoint source and transboundary. Point source is when the water pollution in question originates from a single source/a specific place. It can affect miles of waterways and oceans. An example would be wastewater that is dumped by corporations, oil refineries or wastewater treatment facilities. Nonpoint source of pollution is water contamination that originates from various sources. An example of this may include agricultural debris runoff. This is the leading cause of water pollution(reference) in the United States but is not regulated as there is no single, identifiable cause. Lastly, transboundary water pollution is when one country spills its contaminated water into another. Such contamination can result from a single event/disaster or from a downriver seepage of waste.
The actual pollutants causing water contamination can vary greatly: organic, inorganic, or radioactive and can originate from varying sectors including agricultural, sewage, or oil pollution. Farming and livestock production use about 70 percent of surface water supply and is the leading cause of water pollution. It is a major cause of contamination in rivers, streams, wetlands, lakes, estuaries and groundwater. Whenever rainfall occurs, fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste wash nutrients and pathogens into near waterways. The recent increase in carbon emissions, along with elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the air, is the cause of nutrient pollution. It is the top threat to water quality across the world and creates blooms that are harmful to humans and animals, alike.
In the same realm of agricultural pollution, sewage and wastewater contaminate fresh water supplies by being run-off after heavy rainfalls. Approximately 80 percent of the world’s wastewater flows back into the environment and into waterways without being treated or reused(reference). This number increases to 95 percent for underdeveloped nations. This can be attributed to the United States’ aging and overwhelmed sewage treatment systems. Due to the large demand, these systems release approximately 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater each year(reference). The overall amount of wastewater processed daily in the United States is approximately 34 billion gallons.
The last kind of runoff that affects our waterways is oil pollution from consumers. Nearly half of the one million tons of oil that infiltrates marine environments is attributed to land-based sources such as factories, farms, cities, and oil or gasoline that drips from millions of cars every day. Oil is also released from seeps, i.e. fractures from under the ocean floor.
Every cause has an effect, and there are numerous effects from continued water pollution. On human health, the effects of water pollution are seen in the 1.8 million deaths in 2015(reference) and in the one billion people that are sickened every year by unsafe water. Those sickened are done so by the multitude of disease-causing bacteria and viruses that originate from waste. These include cholera, giardia and typhoid and are seen predominantly in underdeveloped nations where there is little to no water treatment facilities or a sufficient sewage/sewer system. Water-borne illnesses are not unheard of in developed nations either, with thousands of cases of Legionnaires’ disease reported each year in the United States, usually contracted from water sources such as cooling towers and piped water.
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Water pollution creates a multitude of problems on the environment as well as human health. When water pollution infiltrates an aquatic system, a previously healthy ecosystem that relied on a precarious relationship between animals, plants, bacteria and fungi is in danger. New nutrients, such as phosphates and nitrates, can increase plant and algae growth and therefore reduce the amount of oxygen in the water available for other organisms to breathe. This process is known as eutrophication and creates dead zones where the body of water that has been contaminated is lacking all life. Eutrophication can also produce neurotoxins that affect wildlife and other land mammals that may use this body of water as drinking water. In the instance of chemical and heavy metal water pollution, the case is usually that an organism’s life span and ability to reproduce are greatly hindered and the high levels of contaminates makes its way to those organisms that prey off of the contaminated system. Lastly, marine debris is a critical problem to aquatic ecosystems. Marine debris, i.e. plastic bags and other solid trash, can strangle or starve animals after traveling to sea through sewers and storm drains. This also results in “structures” such as the Great Pacific garbage patch.
Although the effects of water pollution may seem irreversible, but there have been many solutions on small and large scales that have been implemented in order to reverse the effects of water pollution. On a national level, acts such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 have been implemented as a form of water pollution control. The Clean Water Act aims to gain greater control of point sources of water pollution, generally factories and sewers. Some effects of this includes an improvement in technical and financial assistance for farmers, new changes in land management to create an in increased protection level of aquatic resources and watersheds, and new resources to protect coastal water regions. The Clean Water Act also requires that all wastewater treatment facilities have a discharge permit in order to reduce the amount of pollutants released into sewer systems and into the environment through wastewater. Because of this act, more than $62 billion has been awarded to wastewater treatment facilities in order to expand their operations and therefore decrease or prevent the release of pollutants in rivers, lakes and streams (reference).
As for public use, it is estimated that approximately 40 percent of public waters are too polluted for uses such as fishing or swimming. The improvements seen in the aftermath of the Clean Water Act have not been enough to keep up with the polluted runoff seen from farms, urban areas, forestry, ranching and mines. This water pollution is a detriment to the public health, and an estimated $140 billion would be needed in order to improve wastewater treatment facilities to keep up with the amount of pollution being seen currently and therefore correct water quality and public health problems(reference). The way to do so would be to replace/repair existing sewer systems, construct new sewers, treat wastewater overflows, and control nonpoint sources of pollution.
Water pollution is an unrecognized threat to the planet. Although some actions by the government have been taken, such as the Clean Water Act, the immense quantity of pollutants released into water supplies simply exceeds the rate at which management plants can filter and treat such water. With the ways in which waterways are connected, water pollution can affect groundwater, surface water, ocean water, streams, and lakes alike. This creates high levels of contaminants in main sources of drinking and can alter the equilibrium of aquatic ecosystems. Water contamination generally comes from four main sources: agricultural, sewage and wastewater, oil pollution, and radioactive substances. The agricultural sector uses about 70 percent of Earth’s surface water supplies and is therefore the leading cause of water degradation around the world. It can create various health problems through the distribution of disease-causing bacteria and spread diseases such as cholera, giardia, and typhoid. As for the environment, water contamination can impact anywhere on the food chain from animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi. From marine debris to the introduction of high levels of nitrates and phosphates, serious implications can arise from the continued rise of water contamination.
- Denchak, Melissa. “Water Pollution: Everything You Need to Know.” NRDC, 22 Apr. 2019, www.nrdc.org/stories/water-pollution-everything-you-need-know.
- “WATER POLLUTION CONTROL: 25 Years of Progress and Challenges for the New Millennium .” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Wastewater Management Sector , 1998, WATER POLLUTION CONTROL 25 years of Progress and Challenges for the New Millennium .
- “Water Pollution.” WWF, wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/teacher_resources/webfieldtrips/water_pollution/.
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