13 of the Biggest Water Contamination Disasters in the World

Have you ever wondered just how bad water contamination can really be?

Do you want to find out more about disasters caused by water contamination so you can better educate the people in your neighborhood about what could happen?

Are you looking for information about these terrible situations to help you understand their effects on the environment and on people too?

If so, this article can help. Below, you’ll find information about 13 of the biggest water contamination disasters that have ever happened. You’ll discover all the facts about these terrible incidents, and you’ll learn about which chemicals and contaminants were involved and how they affected the areas where these disasters took place.

The more you learn about water contamination problems, the better you’ll understand the potential problems that might arise from contamination situations in the future. When more people are educated about these instances, practices will change and policies will be enacted to be sure they don’t happen again. This, in turn, will make the world safer and ensure cleaner, healthier water for generations to come

Read on to learn more about 13 of the most serious contamination disasters in the world.

What Makes a Water Contamination Disaster?

There are a few factors that make a water contamination situation into a disaster. Although every instance of water contamination is a problem, many of these are never classified as full-blown disasters. The aspects of these events that must be considered in order to determine whether or not they are true disasters include:

  • Size of the affected area. If the problem only affects a handful of people, it’s not really a disaster. When hundreds or even thousands are harmed by contaminated water, however, then it’s a much worse situation.
  • Chemicals involved. The chemicals, heavy metals, or other contaminants that cause the disaster must be very harmful in order for it to be classified as such. Particularly when contaminants can cause cancer or fatal poisoning, these instances become disasters fast.
  • Effects of the instance. When contamination causes irreversible damage, widespread illness, or leads to a cleanup that will take decades to complete, then it’s a disaster.

1. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

water contamination disasters

What happened?

An oil tanker called Exxon Valdez accidentally struck the Bligh Reef off of Prince William Sound and wrecked, spilling oil into the surrounding ocean.

What spilled?

Up to 38 million gallons of crude oil were spilled over the course of a few days following this accident.

How did it happen?

The incident was purely accidental but may have been avoidable. The ship’s collision avoidance radar was not well-maintained and the crew was not rested, both of which contributed to the crash.

When did it happen?

The spill occurred on March 24, 1989, but as recently as 2015 it was determined that oil is still present in the ocean from this spill.

Where did it happen?

Prince William Sound in Alaska.

Who was involved?

The crew of the Exxon Valdez, owned by the Exxon Shipping Company, were directly involved. The captain of the ship, Joseph Hazelwood, took most of the blame for the disaster.

How did it affect the environment?

Crude oil spilled into the ocean for days and has still not been able to be completely cleaned up. Many groups of animals were seriously affected, and some pods of orca whales never recovered and will eventually die off completely.

What was done after the disaster?

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was enacted after the disaster. This permitted vessels that have caused spills in the past from operating in Prince William Sound, to reduce the risk of further pollution to the area.

What is the status today?

The environment is still suffering from this spill. The oil that entered the ocean may never be completely cleaned up. Alaska’s economy has largely recovered.

2. Lanzhou, China

contamination disasters

What happened?

In Lanzhou, China, over 20 times the legally safe amount of benzene has been detected in water sources.

What spilled?

Benzene, a carcinogenic chemical involved in the process of plastic making. When this chemical is breathed, ingested, or otherwise contacted by humans for an extended period of time, it can cause cancer and damage the hematopoietic system, which produces blood.

How did it happen?

Some time ago, explosions occurred at a plant that used benzene in its processes. It’s believed that this led to 34 tons of benzene being absorbed into the groundwater in the area.

When did it happen?

Initial blasts that may have led to this toxic buildup occurred as long ago as 1987 and as recently as 2002. The toxicity itself was detected in 2014.

Where did it happen?

Lanzhou in the Gansu Province of China.

Who was involved?

China National Petroleum Corp is believed to be responsible for the initial explosions.

How did it affect the environment?

Individuals have gotten sick from this exposure, and it’s believed that extended contact with the chemical will lead to environmental issues.

What was done after the disaster?

The Chinese government has not enacted any new policies or protections in light of this disaster.

What is the status today?

The government has done very little to clean up the water supply. Water was cut temporarily but has since been restored.

3. Woburn, Massachusetts Contamination

water contamination

What happened?

In the 1970s, it came to public attention that Woburn saw a very high rate of childhood leukemia in comparison to other towns. It turned out that industrial solvents were found in high quantities in the water supply for the town.

What spilled?

Trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene—TCE and PCE, respectively. These chemicals were known to lead to cancer, especially in children, after prolonged exposure.

How did it happen?

The chemicals were dumped in the soil and surface water nearby from W.R. Grace & Company and Beatrice Foods, two corporations in the area, during the 70s.

When did it happen?

The initial illegal dumping of wastewater occurred during the 1970s, but the contamination became apparent in 1979 and 1980. By 1982, a lawsuit had been filed against the corporations responsible.

Where did it happen?

Woburn, Massachusetts. The town’s Wells G and H were contaminated.

Who was involved?

W.R. Grace & Company’s subsidiary corporation Cryovac was the biggest contributor, but Beatrice Foods was part of it as well.

How did it affect the environment?

There have been no long-term effects on the environment, but several children in the town fell ill with leukemia from this contamination disaster.

What was done after the disaster?

No government policies were enacted because of this disaster. Beatrice Foods was acquitted and W.R. Grace & Company paid only a very small fine.

What is the status today?

The water in the town is clean now after Wells G and H were decommissioned.

4. Elk River, West Virginia

storage contamenation

What happened?

A leaking storage containment unit for MCHM allowed 7500 gallons of MCHM to seep into the surrounding soil and make its way to the nearby Elk River, where it washed downstream and into the water treatment facility for Charleston.

What spilled?

Crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, otherwise known as MCHM. This is a chemical largely used to wash and clean coal from impurities. It’s intended to keep air pollution from occurring as coal combusts, but may cause cancer as well as stomach upset and skin rashes.

How did it happen?

Freedom Industries, the company from which the spill originated, was not properly examined and kept up to code. This lead to a leak that went unreported for some time before it finally caused problems for people in the nearby city.

When did it happen?

The initial spill occurred on January 9, 2014. The water was cleaned up enough for human consumption by January 13, 2014. Another spill occurred in the same place on June 12 of the same year.

Where did it happen?

West Virginia. The affected communities were part of Charleston and included the counties of Boone, Jackson, Clay, Roane, Putnam, Logan, Kanawha, and Lincoln.

Who was involved?

Freedom Industries was responsible for the spill, but the United States government quickly became involved in the cleanup.

How did it affect the environment?

There has been no known effect on the environment as of yet. Exposure to MCHM caused nausea and vomiting, dizziness, headache, and rashes in humans.

What was done after the disaster?

Stricter assessments of storage facilities were put in place for the Kanawha Valley industries, including Freedom Industries. The company faced several lawsuits and filed for bankruptcy.

What is the status today?

Some trace chemical presence can still be found in tap water in the city of Charleston, but for the most part, it has been removed.

5. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

 petroleum oil spill

What happened?

The largest accidental marine petroleum oil spill took place after a large explosion occurred on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig. As the rig sank, it released oil into the ocean that spread very quickly throughout the area.

What spilled?

210 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the ocean and continue to leak slightly even today.

How did it happen?

The spill was triggered by an explosion that came from methane gas entering the oil rig. It’s widely believed the explosion could have been prevented through stricter regulations. Cement used during the drilling process was not thick enough, valves failed, and the gas alarm on the rig was not in operation at the time of the explosion.

When did it happen?

The explosion occurred on April 20, 2010, but the spill was not discovered until two days later. The leak continued to spill into the ocean for 87 days.

Where did it happen?

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was stationed in the Gulf of Mexico at the time of the explosion.

Who was involved?

BP (British Petroleum) was responsible for the oil rig, and therefore responsible for this spill. The United States government became almost immediately involved with the disaster.

How did it affect the environment?

The spill has had a terrible effect on the environment. Coral, fish, dolphins, and birds that called the Gulf of Mexico home have seen dwindling numbers ever since. As recently as April 2016 studies have shown baby dolphin deaths on the rise in the area.

What was done after the disaster?

Offshore drilling was temporarily suspended in the United States following the disaster. BP was not allowed to bid for gas and oil leases again until 2014. Three new safety Bureaus were established in the wake of the spill.

What is the status today?

The environment continues to suffer and the oil has not been cleaned up. Environmental protection groups are unsure if the oil will ever be completely removed from the Gulf.

6. Ghana, West Africa

environment  cleaned up

What happened?

In the western part of Ghana, people were exposed to water contaminated with cyanide following a terrible spill from a nearby mine.

What spilled?

Wastewater used in the mining process. This wastewater was heavily laced with cyanide as well as other heavy metals.

How did it happen?

A dam used to hold back tailings (mining wastewater) was not installed correctly in the mine, causing it to become dislodged during a period of heavy rain. This allowed the wastewater to rush into the nearby River Asuman.

When did it happen?

The spill happened on October 16, 2001, and continued to leak for some time following this.

Where did it happen?

The disaster took place at a mine in the Wassa West district of Ghana in South Africa.

Who was involved?

The mine was operated by Goldfields Ltd., a company managed by Richard Graeme. Graeme has not been held responsible for the incident, and South Africa’s Environmental Protection Agency has not gotten involved.

How did it affect the environment?

Fish exposed to cyanide poisoning of this magnitude die very quickly. People who drink water laced with cyanide are more likely to develop cancer, nervous system disorders, and birth defects, and may become poisoned with cyanide as well.

What was done after the disaster?

While residents of the area and the country hoped for stricter operations policies to be enacted following the spill, for the most part, very little was done.

What is the status today?

The country continues to see cyanide spills from mines that aren’t well regulated.

7. Yamuna River, India

body of water

What happened?

The Yamuna River is widely considered the most polluted river in the world. This body of water, which provides 70% of drinking water to the country, is heavily polluted with 500 million gallons of sewage dumped into it every day.

What spilled?

Sewage, garbage, and chemicals. This river is polluted with just about everything imaginable.

How did it happen?

The capital city of New Delhi dumps over half of its daily waste directly into the river, and many other cities and towns along the river do the same.

When did it happen?

This has been going on for decades. In 1909 the water of the river was described in writing as clear and crystal blue. Unfortunately, since then, pollution has built up so much that the river is unrecognizable.

Where did it happen?

The river flows through much of India, but the bulk of the pollution originates from New Delhi.

Who was involved?

The entire population of India is responsible for this terrible contamination. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has contributed money to cleanup efforts, but they have been largely unsuccessful.

How did it affect the environment?

Humans, animals, and plants that rely on water from the Yamuna River have seriously suffered over the decades. The river’s pollution has led to widespread illness and disease throughout the country.

What was done after the disaster?

This is a contamination disaster that’s still ongoing. Although plans have been put into place to start cleaning up the river, they have a long way to go.

What is the status today?

As recently as 2009, new plans have begun to restore portions of the river.

​8. Mutare, Zimbabwe

diamond mining processes

What happened?

Residents of the area began developing illnesses such as cholera and typhoid as well as terrible rashes all over their bodies. Following several tests, it was determined that nearby diamond mining processes may be to blame for this.

What spilled?

Heavy metals such as chromium and nickel as well as several types of dangerous bacteria were present in drinking water samples tested in 2012.

How did it happen?

Wastewater from mining processes is dumped, either legally or illegally, into surface drinking water sources in Mutare. Since water treatment facilities are unavailable in this part of the world, the water isn’t filtered and therefore is unsafe to drink.

When did it happen?

These tests were run in 2012, but dumping has been going on for some time already and continues to happen today.

Where did it happen?

Mutare, Zimbabwe, in Africa.

Who was involved?

Several mines in the area are to blame, but the government has not stepped in and no one is taking full responsibility for the pollution.

How did it affect the environment?

It’s unknown how severely this may affect the environment in the future, but for now, fish have been dying off and people have been feeling the effects of serious heavy metal poisoning. The risk for cancer is much greater in people who regularly drink this water.

What was done after the disaster?

So far, nothing has been done to clean up the water in this area.

What is the status today?

Mining wastewater continues to be dumped in drinking water sources throughout Africa.

​9. Flint, Michigan

contamination of water

What happened?

A large-scale danger to public health and wellness occurred when water in Flint was proven to contain very high levels of lead. Legionnaire’s disease and high blood lead levels are both on the rise in the city of Flint following this contamination.

What spilled?

This contamination wasn’t because of a spill, but because of lead leaching into the drinking water supply through old, corroded pipes.

How did it happen?

The city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River without first checking on the status of the river’s pipelines. These pipes were badly corroded and hadn’t been maintained in a long time, and they quickly contaminated the water with lead.

When did it happen?

The water source switch was made in April of 2014, and by August of the same year, boil water advisories were in effect in Flint.

Where did it happen?

Flint, Michigan is the only city affected by this contamination disaster.

Who was involved?

The city of Flint and the governor of Michigan were both involved in the decision to change the water source for the city. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was largely responsible for handling the disaster. None of these individuals or groups moved very quickly in solving the problem.

How did it affect the environment?

Since the problem lies largely in pipes used for drinking water supplies, the pollution hasn’t affected the environment as much as it has the people in Flint. Illness and lead poisoning are both showing up more and more in residents.

What was done after the disaster?

No new legislation has been introduced following the disaster. Many people believe the local and federal government were lacking in their responses to the situation, as nothing was done for two years.

What is the status today?

The city of Flint has returned to using other sources of water instead of the Flint River. However, it will take some time before the full extent of the damage done is known.

10. Hinkley Contamination

wastewater was contaminated

What happened?

Groundwater in California was seriously contaminated with a carcinogenic heavy metal that still has not been completely eradicated from the environment or from the people who drank the water.

What spilled?

Wastewater from a nearby factory was dumped into wastewater ponds that eventually led to the contamination of groundwater in the area. This wastewater was contaminated with chromium-6.

How did it happen?

The contaminated chromium-laced wastewater was being stored in holding ponds that basically allowed it to sit, stew, and seep into groundwater in and around the town of Hinkley.

When did it happen?

The storage of the chromium wastewater occurred between 1952 and 1966. A 1996 lawsuit led to a 2000 movie that brought worldwide attention to the problem. As of 2013, the chromium plume is still present in groundwater in the area.

Where did it happen?

In and around Hinkley, California.

Who was involved?

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) was responsible for the wastewater storage that led to the contamination.

How did it affect the environment?

The environment has not been as seriously affected as human health in the area has been. Cancer is on the rise and birth defects have increased significantly in areas affected by this contamination.

What was done after the disaster?

No legislation was introduced because of this disaster. In California, chromium levels are monitored carefully in water statewide. Cancer incidences are required to be reported throughout the state as part of a long-term effort to monitor the outcome of this contamination.

What is the status today?

As of 2013, 54 acres of land and water have been cleaned up, but it may take decades for the rest of the chromium-6 contamination to be taken care of.

11. Camp Lejeune

the contaminated water

What happened?

Water contamination at the Camp Lejeune base over the course of many years led to a greatly increased risk of cancer, ALS, and kidney disease in people who had been exposed to the contaminated water.

What spilled?

PCE and TCE are known as the top two contaminants of the Camp Lejeune water supply, but over 70 types of contaminants were reported in one of the final water studies performed there.

How did it happen?

Several sources contributed to the contamination of groundwater in the area, which eventually reached water storage wells used for the camp’s drinking water. Off-base dry cleaning and on-base cleaning and storage leaks are some of the factors that led to this contamination.

When did it happen?

The earliest known report of contamination occurred in 1953. The problem was not fully addressed until 1985.

Where did it happen?

Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Who was involved?

The United States government is largely responsible due to its inaction and even illegally placing the contaminated wells back in service during the 80s.

How did it affect the environment?

The environment was not affected, but people have become seriously ill with cancer and other ailments.

What was done after the disaster?

The Janey Ensminger Act was instated to provide healthcare to anyone who was affected by this contamination.

What is the status today?

Water in the area continues to be tested regularly, and some litigation is still pending against the government for health issues caused by this contamination.

12. Walkerton, Ontario Contamination

effective environment

What happened?

Thousands of people fell ill from E. coli contamination found in the water supply of Walkerton, Ontario, Canada. Seven people died from this illness.

What spilled?

This was not a contamination spill, but instead, an E. coli bacteria outbreak that could be traced to the water supply.

How did it happen?

Nearby agricultural runoff carried water that had been exposed to high levels of bacteria from fertilizer and animal waste into the drinking water supply for the town. E. coli was present in this runoff.

When did it happen?

The outbreak happened in May of 2000, although it’s unknown when the bacteria was first introduced to the water.

Where did it happen?

The town of Walkerton in Ontario was affected by this contamination.

Who was involved?

The Walkerton Public Utilities Commission claimed the water supply was okay even though they found E. coli present in samples. Stan and Frank Koebel, brothers in charge of the facility, were found guilty of falsifying these reports.

How did it affect the environment?

The environment was not affected, but nearly three thousand people became sick and seven died from this event.

What was done after the disaster?

Regulations were put in place to protect source water and require more thorough water testing and reporting on the quality of drinking water.

What is the status today?

The drinking water in the town of Walkerton was cleaned up, but outbreaks like this continue to occur.

13. Minneapolis TCE Contamination

industrial processes

What happened?

In 2013, statements were released by the state of Minnesota explaining that vapor from TCE could be present in the soil, water, and even in homes throughout Minneapolis. This led to the widespread testing of individuals as well as soil and water sources.

What spilled?

Trichloroethylene, or TCE, has been found in the soil and groundwater in the Como neighborhood of Minneapolis. This is a solvent used in many industrial processes, and it has been known to lead to cancer and birth defects after extended exposure.

How did it happen?

TCE was used largely during the 1940s and 1950s in many industrial processes. At the time, dumping it in water and on land was not considered unsafe, so it happened often.

When did it happen?

The initial dumping took place during the 1950s, but the first statement about potential TCE toxicity was released in 2013. TCE is still turning up throughout the city.

Where did it happen?

Minneapolis, Minnesota—specifically the Como neighborhood.

Who was involved?

General Mills was responsible for the use of TCE and for dumping it in soil and water throughout the city. They have taken responsibility for the cleanup as well.

How did it affect the environment?

Although the environment hasn’t shown any signs of this contamination, it can lead to increased rates of cancer and birth defects in individuals. It’s very difficult to remove TCE from soil and water.

What was done after the disaster?

General Mills was sued for the initial dumping and continues to monitor homes and individuals for potential problems.

What is the status today?

This situation is still ongoing today. Cleanup is underway and monitoring is still going strong.

Conclusion

By now, you should know a lot more about the biggest water contamination disasters that have taken place throughout history. You might even be surprised by how incredibly recent some of these disasters are, and how seriously some of them are still affecting the environment today. Understanding as much as you can about these disasters and their effects on health as well as on pollution-related policies can make a big difference in helping you make changes for the future.

If you’re interested in reaching out and helping clean up water contamination disasters that have already happened preventing those that might, there are plenty of ways you can get involved. Look for nonprofit organizations in your area that provide relief to areas affected by these disasters. If you can’t find anything like that, start by making some changes at home to ensure you aren’t contributing to potential contamination problems in your own neighborhood. For example, the fewer harsh chemicals you use in your own home and yard, the less of a chance you have of experiencing a buildup of these chemicals in your water supply.

Water contamination disasters can be a thing of the past if we all work a little harder toward keeping our water sources clean and safe.

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