15 Ways Humans Cause Water Pollution (Why We Blame You)

Did you know that water pollution is one of the biggest problems faced worldwide today?

Were you aware of just how widespread this issue really is?

Did you realize that polluted water might even be a problem in your own home, even if you live in a city with treated water supplies?

Unfortunately, water pollution may be closer to you than you might think. There are a lot of human activities that cause water pollution, and many of these happen close to or even in your own home. Even if you don’t purposefully intend to dump waste or otherwise cause damage to your local water, you may be doing so without even realizing it.

With so many different human causes of water pollution, it might be overwhelming to imagine where to begin educating yourself on the problem. It’s true that the problem is a very big one, and that it can seem like too daunting of a task to even think about. This is why it’s more important than ever to really get a good understanding of water pollution caused by human activities and what you can do to stop it.

In this article, you’ll be introduced to 15 types of water pollution caused by humans, as well as a few tips to help you cut back on this pollution in your home, community, and surrounding area.

How Water Pollution Happens

Water pollution is a major contributor to declining health and well-being of animals, plants, ecosystems, and even human beings in the United States and in the rest of the world. To some extent, a small amount of water pollution is natural and can’t be helped. In these instances, wild animal waste is usually the main contributor to potential water pollution. Sometimes, water sources can also be contaminated by running through rocks and soil that contain too much arsenic or lead, which can in turn poison the water. However, these types of water pollution are very small in comparison to the huge amount of contamination caused by human interference every day.

Agricultural runoff is the most common cause of water pollution. This seems counter-productive since agricultural operations require fresh, clean water in order to run properly and to continue producing their products. However, the agricultural industry is not regulated very harshly in terms of water cleanliness, and so runoff and waste disposal quickly becomes a huge problem in and around centers of agriculture.


One of the most important terms for you to keep in mind when exploring the causes of water pollution is “runoff.” This word might not make a lot of sense if you’ve never looked much into pollution before, but it’s a huge factor in many of the contaminated water situations in the United States as well as around the world.

rain water

When factories, agricultural centers, construction sites and more produce toxic materials or use them in manufacturing, those materials are often exposed to rain water. As it rains in these areas, the chemicals are then washed from these sites and into the soil or, in some instances, into nearby streams, lakes, or ponds. Because of this, stormwater runoff is one of the leading causes of water pollution, and it’s something that needs to be fixed.


Another word you’re likely to come across often in researching water pollution is “groundwater.” There are actually two different types of freshwater: groundwater and surface water. Surface water is any water you can see just by looking around. This includes creeks and streams, lakes, ponds, and rivers. Groundwater is the opposite. This term refers to water that exists underground and can’t be seen without digging for it.


When chemical pollutants and waste are washed into the soil, they can easily reach the groundwater underneath. Over time, this groundwater seeps into nearby sources of surface water, which in turn contaminates the water we use for drinking and daily life. Groundwater contamination is a very real problem that affects the whole world.

Direct Human Causes of Water Pollution

Direct causes of water pollution are those causes that change the quality of water almost immediately. There’s no “middle man” in these situations; the water doesn’t have to go through any changes before it becomes contaminated. These are some of the most common types of water pollution caused by humans, but because they’re so direct, they’re also some of the easiest to work on and correct. Keep all of these in mind when you examine the community around you as well as your household, and you’ll be better able to make more environmentally sound decisions in the future.

1. Dumping

This is probably the most common cause of direct water pollution from humans. Whether you dump your waste in the wrong places on purpose or accidentally, if you’re not following directions on how to dispose of your trash, then you may be contributing to this problem. Dumping garbage in the woods, near streams, or in ditches can quickly cause pollution in both groundwater and surface water. Always be sure to properly dispose of waste from your household, and to recycle whenever possible.

2. Industrial Runoff

water runoff

In areas where factories are present, these factories are often located near sources of water. Many are built near large bodies of water, but even if not, they’re usually not far away from creeks or streams. When it rains, chemical waste is washed away from these factories as storm water runoff. That runoff soon reaches the groundwater or sources of surface water, and pollution continues. This is doubly true of areas where power plants, especially nuclear power plants, are present. In these areas, acid rain may also occur.

3. Agricultural Runoff

Agricultural runoff

Agricultural runoff encompasses both natural and unnatural sources of contamination. For example, farms that don’t dispose properly of animal waste often contribute to the buildup of ammonia and nitrates in local water sources, as well as the potential for illness to spread through animal feces. Bacteria in these water supplies is very common. On the other hand, even if the waste is disposed of properly, many times chemicals are used without regulations in agricultural situations. When this happens, the potential for runoff pollution is very similar to the situation with factories and power plants.

4. Chemical Runoff

version of runoff pollution

This is more of a general version of runoff pollution, but it might be happening in your own home or yard. Frequent use of chemicals to treat your lawn for pests or to encourage grass to grow may seep into the soil in your yard and spread to groundwater sources. Even if you avoid these types of chemicals, you still might be contributing to this problem with the chemicals you use to wash your home or car. Disposing incorrectly of detergents, soaps, and cleaners by dumping them out in your yard can also cause a similar runoff issue. Educate yourself and your neighbors about the proper ways to use and dispose of these products.

5. Landfills


While proper disposal of garbage in landfills is an important part of taking responsibility for the environment, the sad truth is that even these landfills are causing pollution. Landfills that are hastily constructed or aren’t up to modern-day standards let garbage sit for a long time and allow it to seep into the ground around it. This can lead to runoff, groundwater pollution, and even surface water pollution if the dump is located too close to sources of surface water. In some instances, wind and heavy rain may even wash pieces of garbage into water supplies from large landfills.

6. Plastics

water pollution

In landfills as well as around the home, plastics continue to be a huge problem in terms of water pollution. Allowing plastic to sit for a long time and be exposed to rain and soil causes chemicals from the plastic to leach into the groundwater nearby. These types of chemicals can be very harsh, and they may lead to severely contaminated water over time. Be sure to never throw plastic bottles or other containers into surface water sources, and always recycle these types of materials when possible.

7. Construction Runoff

runoff contamination

Like factories and agricultural facilities, construction sites are often some of the leading causes of chemical runoff contamination. Many times, these sites are started without much thought to the surrounding environment, and it might seem like building gets underway very fast in these situations. Unfortunately, this also usually means that there haven’t been very many protections set in place to keep runoff from occurring and groundwater from becoming contaminated around the site. Construction sites make use of harsh chemicals as well as metals that can cause too much of certain minerals to build up in the water supply, and they must be regulated for water safety.

8. Batteries


You may have seen locations offering to recycle batteries for free, but did you ever stop to think about why? When batteries aren’t recycled properly, they end up in landfills, where the chemicals and acid inside are allowed to leach into the soil. This can actually poison the nearby water supply and can cause people in the area to become very sick. It’s also incredibly damaging to the fish and wildlife in the area, and in some cases, it can contribute to the possibility of wildfires. Properly disposing of batteries can make a world of difference in terms of cutting back on pollution.

Indirect Human Causes of Water Pollution

Indirect causes of water pollution have to go through a few changes before they start to affect the quality of a water supply. They are less noticeable in the world around you, and because of this, many individuals—especially in residential communities—might not recognize them as problems until they get to be very troubling. However, it’s always a good idea to keep these in mind as well, especially when you’re looking for ways to make a difference in the world around you. Be mindful of potential indirect causes of water pollution as you read through this list.

9. Domestic City Sewage

 lead to serious illness and disease

Generally speaking, city sewage systems are usually designed to properly and carefully dispose of human waste, and they’re often maintained well enough to keep leaks from forming. Even so, sometimes accidents happen, and sometimes oversights are made. In these situations, human waste can quickly contaminate the soil and water in the area and can lead to serious illness and disease. It is very important for cities and counties to keep up with regular checks on their sewage systems, and to respond quickly to any natural disasters that might cause damage to the pipes.

10. Septic Systems

risk of pollution

Unfortunately, septic systems are much more prone to accidents and leakage than city sewer systems are. Many times, septic systems are not installed correctly for their location, and they’re not kept up with regularly either. In these situations, human waste can quickly contaminate water and may lead to severe bacterial infections, dysentery, intestinal parasites, and hepatitis in people who drink the water. This can also cause death in animals and plants in the area, which means that entire ecosystems will suffer along with any humans who are exposed to this contaminated water. Septic systems can be very dangerous and should always be handled properly to reduce the risk of pollution.

11. Too Many Nutrients

nutrients in your water

You might not realize it, but sometimes you can have too many nutrients in your water supply. Especially in the case of city water systems, the water is often treated with a variety of different minerals and nutrients to make it safer to drink and, sometimes, healthier than natural water as well. However, it is very easy to go overboard with these nutrients. Fluoride is one such nutrient that is necessary for human health and wellness but may be very troublesome in larger quantities. If your city water is treated with too much fluoride, you may notice yourself or your children having dental trouble from early on.

12. Hormones and Antibiotics


Once again, agricultural facilities are usually responsible for this problem, but not always. In places where agriculture is more prevalent, especially larger factory farms, animals are often treated with hormones and antibiotics to keep them healthy or encourage growth. Unfortunately, this is very unhealthy for the humans who consume these products. Even if you don’t eat meat treated with hormones or antibiotics, these substances may be present in your drinking water if you live in an area where farm waste may be present in your water supply. Animal urine that may otherwise be filtered from water sources can still contain these substances in amounts large enough to cause illness in humans who drink this water.

13. Leaks and Spills

Oil spills

While leaks and spills never happen on purpose, they do still happen, and it’s often because of human negligence or error. Oil spills are some of the most well-known of these situations, but there are other types of leaks and spills that happen almost every day and never make it to the big news headlines. This is especially true of the oil and gasoline industries, which sometimes even experience leaks of products that are kept in storage. These leaks and spills can cause widespread damage to the environment, as well as make fresh water unpalatable for humans.

14. Fossil Fuels

fossil fuels

When fossil fuels are burned, they cause particles to enter the atmosphere which can then travel to water supplies. Over time, this can lead to surface water pollution and may even contribute to acid rain, depending on how polluted your area is. Fossil fuel runoff is also possible, especially from places where these types of fuels are stored. Groundwater contamination is also a potential problem from fossil fuels.

15. Mining

cause severe illness

Last but not least, mining often leads to contamination of water sources near the places where the mining is taking place. Although there are many other potential problems associated with mining, water pollution is one of the big ones. Mining may lead to poisonous minerals in rocks being exposed to water supplies or seeping into groundwater, which in turn can cause severe illness in any humans or animals who drink this water. Arsenic, lead, sodium and many other minerals can build up significantly in water sources near mining sites, especially when fracking takes place. Similarly, runoff from mining sites can wash chemicals used in the mining process into nearby water sources.

How Pollution Can Be Stopped

Now that you’ve learned about all the different types of pollution you might encounter—and even some you might be causing without even realizing it—you’re probably wondering more about what you can do. It’s important to remember that, while many companies and industries are starting to be more environmentally friendly and make sound decisions regarding the world around them, most are a long way from making a difference that counts. And this is where you can come in. Below are just a few ways you can work to stop pollution, as well as ways industries and communities can step up and work on this problem.

  • Start by signing up for a recycling program or making regular trips to your local recycling station, if you don’t already. Many cities offer recycling pickup for free or for a very small fee as part of your regular garbage route. Rural areas are starting to offer recycling stations more and more often.
  • Purchase food and household items that are safe for the environment and/or produced in environmentally conscious facilities. Although this might not feel like much of a difference, it can help support these facilities over time.
  • Purchase meat and produce locally from CSAs and farmer’s markets whenever possible. Be sure to choose farmers and suppliers who are conscious of their practices and don’t contribute to runoff pollution.
  • Encourage local farmers to work toward environmentally sustainable practices. Don’t be afraid to make up flyers or hand out booklets of information at your next farmer’s markets. You never knew when a farmer might just be waiting to be educated about the possibilities.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to local factories and other industries as well. Help educate them in a polite manner about the possibility of other, cleaner practices.
  • If there are concerning facilities in your area, such as nuclear power plants, talk to your local government to find out about the ordinances and regulations in place to help keep these facilities from polluting the water too much. Work to be sure no one uses the water near these locations, for safety purposes.
  • Encourage construction sites in your town to be mindful of runoff complications. Ask them to set up proper barriers and to dispose of waste properly.


Now that you understand more about what human activities cause water pollution, you can start doing more to recognize these activities in and around your own home. Within your home, you can start cutting back on the amount of waste you dispose of regularly by enrolling in a recycling program or even reusing plastic containers for more than one purpose. You can also be more careful about how you get rid of unused chemical cleaners and detergents.

Of course, outside the home, there are many types of water pollution due to human activities as well. If you feel like getting more involved in your community, you can start educating your neighbors and friends about better ways to treat their yards for pests than using harsh chemicals that can affect groundwater. More outspoken individuals might even want to call or write to government offices to encourage cities and counties to practice more environmentally-friendly ways of disposing of waste and preventing runoff from construction, industrial, and agricultural sites.

Remember that no matter where you’re located and no matter how small or large your local community might be, there’s always something you can do to make a difference. While there are a few natural causes of water pollution, humans have the largest effect on this widespread problem. Because of this, it’s always important to be aware of the environment around you and practice making some changes so you can improve the quality of the water where you live.