much of the global freshwater supply is getting polluted more and more. Water pollutants can come in a variety of forms, including organic, inorganic, and radioactive¹. Such pollution is harmful for aquatic ecosystems and can pollute groundwater, including the water that we drink.
Did you know?
- Globally, 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water and 2.4 billion people do not have proper sanitation².
- 70% of all industrial waste is dumped into water bodies in developing countries³.
- Each day, 2 million tons (1.8 billion kg) of sewage is disposed of into water bodies globally³.
- Many water bodies around the world lack sufficient basic protections, leaving them vulnerable to industrial and agricultural pollution⁴.
The following table shows many of the causes of water pollution and their effects:
|Cause of Water Pollution||Effects|
|Sewage and Wastewater⁵
*Untreated sewage water is problematic in developing countries with insufficient sanitation.
*In developed countries, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals are flushed down the toilet and sink.
*Raw sewage in water causes environmental contamination and human illnesses like diarrhea.
*Chemicals and pharmaceuticals are harmful to the environment, wildlife, and humans.
*Many industrial plants worldwide use fresh water to dispose of their waste, polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans.
|*Industrial chemicals can travel for many miles and result in biomagnification at progressively higher levels within the food chain. This effect especially impacts top-level predators and humans, causing illness and death.|
*Litter is disposed of in the ocean and on beaches.
*Some litter items such as plastic six-pack rings do not readily degrade and may injure or kill animals.
*Litter may contain toxic chemicals that pollute the marine environment.
*Litter can persist for many years and accumulate in large patches and wash up on coastal areas.
*Produced during industrial, medical, and scientific processes, and through the mining and refining of nuclear fuels like uranium and thorium.
*Nuclear processing plants give off wastes that can pollute the marine environment.
*Harmful to marine life and human health.
*Large oil spill events account for only 12% of total ocean oil pollution. The remaining oil pollution is through routine shipping, land run-off, and intentional oil dumping.
*Devastating to local marine life like birds, fish, and marine mammals.
*Does not dissolve in water but gathers together as a thick sludge.
*Can cause fish to suffocate.
*Marine birds’ feathers can get coated with oil, preventing their ability to fly.
*Marine mammals can also get coated with oil.
*Oil can block sunlight and prevent aquatic plants from undergoing photosynthesis.
*Acid Rain is created when water molecules in the atmosphere combine with particles of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels to form a mildly acidic pollutant that can be present in rain.
*Stresses and harms fish and other aquatic life at low levels. Can kill aquatic life at higher concentrations
*Occurs when ocean waters and other aquatic habitats are enriched with excess nutrients, such as phosphates and nitrogenous compounds caused by agricultural runoff.
*Excess nutrients feed algae and can cause algal blooms in the ocean and in lakes and other freshwater bodies.
*The excessive algae use up all of the dissolved oxygen in the water, leaving little left for other organisms like fish. This process can lead to the creation of “dead zones,” where fish cannot survive.
*Algal blooms may block sunlight from aquatic plants.
*Algae may produce toxins that are poisonous to aquatic life and humans, and can potentially lead to death.
|Run-off from many different sources (non-point source pollution)⁶
*Rainfall and snowmelt can wash natural and human-made pollutants from human development into rivers, lakes, wetlands, and coastal waters.
*Harmful to aquatic life and ecosystems, and human health.
*Agricultural pollutants include: excessive nutrients, ammonia and nitrates, pathogens, antibiotics and hormones, and heavy metals and salts.
*Manure, animal bedding, wasted feed, soil, dust, hair and feathers can be mixed together and can end up in waterways.
*Water pollutants can harm or poison both aquatic life and humans.
*Excessive organic matter in water bodies can lead to eutrophication issues.
*Private wells can become polluted from toxins from factory farm operations.
|Hydraulic Fracturing (“Fracking”) Fluid⁸,⁹
*Fluid is used for obtaining natural gas from shale in the earth.
*Found to contain many toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, acetic acids, citric acids, and boric acid, among many others.
*Ground water resources and well water can potentially become polluted from fracking processes and when wells are incorrectly constructed.
*Fracking activities pollute local fresh water and then removes it from local water cycles by keeping it in storage tanks and in oil and gas waste wells.
*Some fracking chemicals are known to be carcinogenic, and others and can cause harm to the human body such as by negatively affecting the skin, eyes, respiratory and gastrointestinal system, brain and nervous system.
|CO2 Greenhouse Gases¹⁰
*Carbon dioxide gas is produced through the burning of fossil fuels.
*These gases are absorbed by the ocean.
*As increased carbon dioxide is released around the globe, the increased levels that are being absorbed by the ocean are making the ocean waters more acidic.
*These acidic waters are inhospitable to many types of marine life, particularly organisms with a calcium-based shell or skeleton, such as coral reefs.
Solutions for Water Pollution
Because fresh and clean water is necessary for the health of everyone and for the environment, it is crucial that we create and maintain solutions to prevent and mitigate water pollution.
There are a number of solutions available that could go a long way in helping to reduce water pollution around the world. The following are just a few of the ways that we can make progress on this important issue.
- Create and enforce water quality regulations and create public policies around the world that protect water resources, especially concerning pollution from industrial and agricultural sources. Concentrate educational efforts to these sectors globally to increase awareness of the impacts of water pollution on the environment and human health. Encourage collaboration among stakeholders in these industries to innovate and create sustainable ways of doing business that do not negatively impact the environment.
- Increase public education and awareness around the world concerning the causes and impacts of water pollution.
- Dramatically reduce the burning of fossil fuels around the world to reduce the acidification of the world’s oceans, and the production of other associated pollution such as oil spills and groundwater pollution from fracking liquid. Embrace and invest in sustainable energy technologies that are non-polluting and will meet our energy needs.
- Institute regulations and best practices for watershed management, wastewater management, vessel sewage discharge, and stormwater source pollution. Where appropriate, such as in smaller communities, low-tech wastewater treatment through the use of wetlands should be considered, and will provide valuable wildlife habitat.
- All new developments should be “green” to help prevent stormwater runoff in urban areas and capture rainwater through the use of trees, bioswales, and natural areas, and the use of structures such as permeable pavements, green roofs and rain gardens¹¹,¹²,¹³,¹⁴,¹⁵. Natural areas should be conserved to help capture stormwater, especially near lakes, rivers, and streams.
- Agricultural policies should encourage the use of ecological and organic farming methods that use few to no toxic chemicals and protect water bodies from pollution. Policies should include the proper management of livestock and organic land policies through practices such as conservation tillage and buffer strips near waterways.
- Governments should collaborate with charitable organizations and international aid and relief organizations to bring proper sanitation and fresh water access to those who need them in developing nations.
For information about how you can help to prevent water pollution, check out our post on How to Stop Water Pollution.