for many around the world today, access to clean water is very difficult. Increasingly, our global freshwater supply is becoming more polluted by chemicals and through filthy conditions that spread diseases, and these pollutants are making the very water that everyone needs to be healthy and well increasingly more difficult to access. The pollution of surface or groundwater can cause disease and decreases the availability of clean and drinkable water.
Water pollution can affect us directly, such as through the consumption of polluted water or bathing in water that is polluted, or indirectly, such as by consuming animal or plant foods that have been raised or living in polluted water¹.
There are many ways that water can become polluted. Some of the most common ways include: direct disposal of waste into water bodies, contamination from land sources where the pollutants leak into groundwater, runoff from agricultural and urban landscapes, animal waste that harbors pathogens, and through acid rain (air pollutants such as mercury precipitate down into water bodies when it rains)¹.
Water-polluting chemicals can be natural or manmade. Even if they are not obviously detected by our senses, they may still be present in water. Common chemical pollutants include pesticides, chlorinated solvents, petroleum chemicals, mercury, PCBs, dioxins, persistent organic pollutants, and many other industrial chemicals¹.
Water pollution can also be caused by living organisms. Pathogenic organisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, and intestinal worms can originate from animal or human waste¹.
Certain types of algae can produce toxins and can reproduce in the presence of nitrates and phosphorous (such as from agricultural-sourced runoff) in water, producing “red tides” and “brown tides” that can harm and kill organisms such as fish, birds, and humans. When water is polluted with these toxic algae, the oxygen content is depleted, and has been known to kill fish. The toxins produced by these algae can also become airborne, and drift by the air and negatively affect the health of people who are living near the beach¹.
Water pollutants can cause illness, as well as death in many cases. It has been estimated, for example, that polluted water leads to 80% of infectious diseases worldwide, and that the four billion cases of diarrhea each year (over 90% of which are children) lead to 1.8 billion deaths annually¹,².
The following table gives examples of diseases that can occur from water pollution¹,²,³:
|Disease or Condition||Cause||Effects||Source|
|I. Waterborne diseases, including cholera, typhoid, and dysentery|
|Drinking contaminated water that contains pathogens from human or animal waste|
|Guinea Worm Disease (Dracunculiasis)||Parasitic worm||Debilitating ulcers||Contaminated drinking water can contain larvae.|
|Infects the intestinal tract, leading to severe diarrhea, dehydration, and sometimes death.||Consuming and washing in contaminated water, and food washed with contaminated water.|
|Typhoid||Bacteria||Symptoms include: headaches, nausea, and a loss of appetite. Affects about 12 million globally each year.||Ingesting contaminated food or water.|
|Diarrhea||Viruses, bacteria, protozoans||Loss of electrolytes and water, dehydration, and in some cases, death|
|Drinking contaminated water that contains pathogens from human or animal waste.|
|II. Water-washed diseases, such as skin and eye infections||–||–||Lack of clean water for washing|
|Gastroenteritis, diarrhea, encephalitis, stomach cramps and ulcers, vomiting, hepatitis, respiratory infections||–||–||Polluted beach water|
|Rashes, earaches, and pink eye||–||–||Bathing or swimming in polluted or contaminated water|
|III. Chemical Pollutants|
|Arsenicosis||Arsenic||Cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder, and kidneys. Potentially affecting millions worldwide that rely on water contaminated with arsenic.||Arsenic poisoning occurs through long-term exposure to drinking water with low concentrations of naturally-occurring arsenic contamination.|
|Fluorosis||Fluoride||Negatively impacts the health of bones and teeth. Endemic in more than 25 countries worldwide, and affects more than tens of millions of people.||Consuming high concentrations of Fluoride that naturally occur in groundwater.|
|Liver damage||Chemicals such as chlorinated solvents, MTBE||–||–|
|Cancer||Chemicals such as chlorinated solvents, MTBE||DNA damage||–|
|Neurological problems||Chemicals, pesticides such as DDT||–||–|
|Reproductive and endocrine damage||Chemicals, including endocrine disruptors||Negatively impacts sexual development, reproduction, the immune system, fertility and can increase the risks of certain cancers.||–|
|Thyroid disorders||Perchlorate||–||Contaminates large water bodies|
|IV. Water-based disease, such as the human parasite schistosomiasis.||Water-developing pathogenic organisms||–||Spread through contaminated water and eating undercooked fish|
|Schistosomiasis||Parasitic worms||Penetrates skin of those in contaminated water and can cause damage to the liver, intestines, and bladder. Affects an estimated 200 million worldwide.||Worms and eggs live in some types of freshwater snails, and fresh water for 48 hours, and in humans.|
|Malaria and Dengue Fever|
|Water-related vectors, such as mosquitoes act as hosts for parasites causing these diseases.||Malaria kills an estimated 1.2-2.7 million people per year||Mosquitoes and other water-related vectors reproduce in or near water, spreading these diseases. Not related to water supply or quality.|
|V. Other Water-Related Diseases/Conditions|
|HIV/AIDS||Increased infections associated with HIV/AIDS.|
|Infections negatively impact the quality of life and health of HIV/AIDS patients. AIDS patients are more susceptible to water-related diseases and can become sicker due to compromised immune systems.||Improper hygiene and sanitation can lead to increased infections for these vulnerable individuals.|
|Trachoma||Bacteria||An eye infection that can lead to blindness. About 6 million people globally are blind today because of trachoma. Women and children are the most vulnerable populations.||Spread through poor hygiene due to inadequate water supply and sanitation|
Scientists are researching how water-related diseases behave and are spread³. As we learn more about pollutants, we can continue to create solutions to effectively prevent water pollution problems.
Much of the water pollution disease in developing countries could be prevented through adequate sanitation facilities, safe water supplies, and improved hygiene practices such as simply washing hands with soap and clean water⁴. Disinfection should also be provided at the point-of-use⁵.
For chemical pollutants, there must be sufficient corporate responsibility and accountability, and industry regulation and enforcement globally to prevent water pollution, and all efforts possible should be made to create environmentally-friendly industrial alternatives that make toxic chemicals unnecessary, or at least are significantly reduced. We must begin to pattern all of our business practices after nature and cease the production of toxic waste.
In the same spirit, we must also seek to use the safest, and the most ecologically-friendly products in our own homes and lives, and we must properly dispose of any toxic household chemicals at hazardous waste collection facilities.
We must also choose to support only those companies who support sustainability with their business practices and advocate for the legal protection of our water resources from pollution.