It's easy to think that water pollution is "somewhere else" because you have access to clean drinking water. Maybe you're even sipping a glass of water while you read this. But while a large portion of Americans have access to clean drinking water, not everyone does. Harmful contaminants like arsenic, copper, and lead, have been found in tap water all over America.
Causes of Water Pollution
The most common pollutants found in water are bacteria, viruses, parasites, fertilizers, pesticides, plastics, fecal matter, nitrates, phosphates, pharmaceutical products, and radioactive substances. Water that's polluted may change color, but it could look exactly the same as it did before, making pollution hard to spot.
There are natural causes of water pollution, but the most common and pervasive causes of water pollution are human activities.
- Deforestation can exhaust water supplies and create breeding grounds for harmful bacteria.
- Factory farming sprays harmful pesticides that can contaminate groundwater that many people rely on as their primary source of water.
- Other industries also can dump chemicals into the water that are harmful to humans and aquatic creatures that rely on that water to survive.
- Garbage and sewage can find their way into water sources due to inadequate water treatment infrastructure.
- The United Nations says that 80% of the world's wastewater (including water contaminated by industrial runoff and/or human waste products) is not properly treated before being released into the ecosystem.
- Maritime traffic, including fishing boats, tankers, and cargo shipping, is the biggest source of plastic pollution in the ocean.
- Fuel spills and leaks often find their way into water sources.
Effects of Water Pollution
Water pollution can cause serious risks for people and animals alike, to the point that it can even kill you! According to a study published in The Lancet, more than 1.8 million people died because of water pollution just in 2015 alone. Unsafe water carries bacteria and viruses from fecal matter and garbage, which can cause diseases like cholera, giardia, Legionnaire's disease, and typhoid. Swimming in polluted water can also cause health issues such as rashes, pink eye, respiratory infections, and ear, nose, and throat infections as well as hepatitis. The EPA estimates that every year, 3.5 million Americans will deal with these health issues after swimming in sewage-laden coastal waters.
Water pollution doesn't just affect people, though; it affects the ecosystem as well. A healthy ecosystem relies on animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi to interact with one another directly and indirectly to thrive. When any of the pieces of this complex puzzle are missing, it can put entire ecosystems at risk. Pollution can reduce organisms' life spans, reduce their ability to reproduce, or create dead zones in the water where oxygen levels are so reduced that nothing can grow or thrive there.
How Can I Help?
As with most types of pollution, the biggest offenders are big corporations that pollute our water. They aren't the only ones responsible for contaminating the water, though; we can all do our part to prevent water contamination.
- Reduce your plastic consumption, and recycle when you can.
- Properly dispose of any chemicals you use around your home, such as cleaners, oils, and paints, to ensure that none of these items go down the drain and pollute waterways.
- Wash vehicles where the water can flow to a gravel or grassy area instead of into a street, and keep them properly maintained so they don't leak oil or coolant. Take used motor oil to the nearest auto parts store for disposal; don't pour it down the drain.
- Don't clean up spills by getting out the hose; use kitty litter or sand to soak them up, then sweep up the waste and discard it in a garbage can.
- Pick up any litter you see outside.
- If you have a dog, make sure you dispose of its waste properly instead of letting it sit on the ground.