You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about water pollution and contamination, but did you know that water contamination can come from a lot of places you might not have ever realized before?
Were you aware that some of the potential causes of water contamination could be coming from your own home or community?
Do you worry a lot about what could be influencing the quality of your water?
In this article, you’ll find out about the most common sources of water contamination and where they come from. You’ll be able to figure out easily which ones you might be facing in your daily life, and which ones you can even potentially do something about. While not all of these problems will affect everyone in every location, you’d be surprised by how many occur every day and how many you might even be contributing to.
If you’re a little confused on what water contamination is and how it happens, there’s plenty of information within this article to help you understand the problem, too. You’ll learn about how much of an impact this problem makes around the world and you’ll discover just how it takes place, too. With this information to back you up, you’ll be able to understand potential contamination sources even better.
The more you understand about water contamination the better you’ll be able to fight back against it. Read on to educate yourself on this serious worldwide problem and the water contamination sources that face all of us regularly.
Sources of Water Contamination
In this section, you’ll be introduced to the ten most common contamination of water sources around the world. While there are certainly other ways water contamination can find its way into fresh and marine water sources, these are by far the most likely ones you might encounter in your life. Once you read through this section, take a look around you. Take note of any potential problem areas you might see in your neighborhood or while driving around your city. If you see something you don’t like the looks of, get in touch with your water company for more information. Even if they can’t answer all your questions, they can likely point you in the direction of someone who can.
You probably already know leaks are a major cause for concern when it comes to pollution, but they can do a lot of damage in terms of contamination as well. The leaks you hear about are often related to oil spills out in the ocean, and these are definitely something you should be concerned about. However, chemical and wastewater storage containers cause leaks on a much more frequent basis, and these often go unnoticed by the general public. These containers are usually placed underground, where they’re considered out of sight, out of mind by the companies that put them there. They aren’t maintained well, and they are barely inspected. Over time, they develop strains that turn into cracks, and the chemicals or waste stored within seep out slowly into the surrounding groundwater. Contamination isn’t far behind.
Sewage is a lot like those underground storage containers, but it’s not exactly the same. Sewage contamination can come from just about anywhere, and it might even be coming from your own home. When you’re part of the city’s sewage system, you’re generally at the mercy of the local government in terms of regular pipe maintenance. This means your pipes might be becoming worn out without you even realizing it. This can lead to leaks and seepage as well, and septic systems are no different. However, if you have your own septic tank on your property, you can do your part and have it regularly examined by a trustworthy technician to prevent this problem.
3. Urban Runoff
Urban runoff refers to storm water that comes from cities and residential communities. Even if you live in a smaller town, you may fall victim to contamination from urban runoff, but cities are much more likely to cause this problem. People who use a lot of chemicals, oil, gasoline and other types of contaminants in their daily lives contribute to a buildup of these substances in cities and neighborhoods. When it rains, these are carried into nearby surface water sources or into the ground, where they percolate into groundwater. If you use harsh cleaning chemicals in your home, you might be contributing to this problem.
Landfills also cause toxic runoff, much like urban locations do. However, landfills usually contribute to this problem on a much larger scale. One of the biggest problems in landfills is the presence of substances that shouldn’t be there. This comes from people who throw away toxic or harmful items instead of disposing of them properly, whether on purpose or because they don’t know any better. Plastics are a huge factor in this type of contamination, but so are printer ink and battery acid. When these items sit for a long time in a landfill, their runoff builds up and enters groundwater in the surrounding area.
The mining industry causes potential contamination issues in a couple of ways. The most common way is through the use of tailings. This is basically wastewater that comes from regular mining operations, and it’s usually packed full of contamination from heavy metals like lead and arsenic. This is often stored in dams, but sometimes the walls holding back the tailings break and allow this contaminated water to spill into nearby rivers. Fracking from the mining industry also leads to contamination problems, although the long-term effects of fracking on drinking water have yet to be completely proven.
This is the most common source of water contamination around the world. Even in developing countries that don’t have access to a lot of agricultural technology, pesticide use still causes a ton of problems in drinking water every year. This also causes contamination in water used for agricultural purposes, as discussed in the previous section. Pesticides are washed away from agricultural sites as runoff that contaminates groundwater and surface water both. These chemicals can cause cancer, birth defects, organ damage, and even death when present in drinking water.
7. Industrial Waste
Industrial waste refers to any waste that comes from a factory, company, or similar location. It also includes construction sites. Like agriculture and urban locations, these types of industries lead to a toxic and contaminated runoff. However, they may also contribute to the problem of water contamination through dumping. Dumping wastewater into rivers is often illegal, especially if it hasn’t been treated first, but it continues to occur in locations throughout the United States and around the world, too. Some industries do so unknowingly, but many contaminate freshwater sources fully aware of what they’re doing.
8. Radioactive Waste
Some industrial sites contribute to water contamination through the production of radioactive waste. In some instances, this comes from factories that create radioactive by-products as part of their regular processes. Otherwise, it comes from nuclear power plants that store and sometimes dump their waste products. Radioactive waste in water is usually in the form of radon gas, which can be filtered out through normal water treatment processes. However, if it finds its way into the water after it’s been sent to a facility, it can end up being used in homes, factories, and more. When water is polluted with radiation, it kills off fish almost immediately and seriously affects fishing in the area.
9. Animal Waste/Fertilizers
Animal waste is common in natural sources of water. When water is present out in the woods, it’s a given that some animals are going to urinate and defecate in it. When this happens, it temporarily raises ammonia levels, but they tend to even back out again. This can also be removed from water through regular treatment. However, when fertilizers are used in agricultural sites, the buildup of ammonia and nitrates from these substances tends to get too high, especially in groundwater. This can lead to nutrient pollution which, in turn, is responsible for a lot of the destruction of the wetlands.
10. Human Waste
Human waste isn’t as much of a problem in developed countries, but there are some developing countries where public defecation is still widely practiced and accepted. This is, unfortunately, a very unsanitary condition that can lead to the spread of bacteria, viruses, parasites and more through contamination. Although some governmental changes have been made to reduce the frequency of this habit in developing countries, it still takes place much more often than you might think. Human waste contamination can also occur when sewage and septic systems fail.
Identifying Potential Sources of Water Contamination
In the above section, you learned about the most common sources of water contamination you might face regularly, as well as a few that continue to plague different countries around the world. However, there are still more areas of concern that might need to be considered, and this list certainly doesn’t cover every individual situation that could arise.
A recent study has put the potential sources of contamination of water into a new light and suggested a new way to identify them, isolate them, and work to get them under control. Below are some of the main points from this important report.
- This study was performed particularly with upstream drinking water sources in mind. It was designed to help determine new ways to identify sources of contamination before they get out of hand. It also incorporated a new design for the visualization of analytical information about these places. Basically, it made it easier to tell which locations could be potential contributors to contamination in rivers.
- This study helped to list specific locations in order of priority for further water testing. Different sites along various rivers were studied and those that had the highest risk were put at the top of the list. They will be managed more closely than those that don’t pose as great of a risk.
- The study also helped improve warning systems that could help identify contamination events almost as soon as they occur. In the same vein, it worked to improve detection processes that could tell when contaminants in a given source of water were getting too out of hand.
- As part of this project, many people involved in drinking water processes were brought together to help determine more accurate water quality control from start to finish. This included several different industries that worked together to improve the quality of drinking water across the board.
- The plan also specific a more frequent and much more intricate system of water data analysis, prioritization, response to events, and risk assessments. These are all very important steps involved in the management and cleanup of contaminated water sources. The more often water is tested and the more thorough those tests are, the better off the water will be in the long run.
- The plan allowed for drills and practices to help keep response teams up to date on how to handle contamination issues. When response teams are kept current on their practices and procedures, contamination events are more likely to be handled well before they reach a critical point.
Studies like this one are important in improving the quality of water around the United States. As more of these practices are put into place, water quality will improve in different sectors, and water habits will become cleaner and safer, too.
The Problem of Water Contamination
Water contamination is a major issue in the world today. While cases of water pollution are usually the ones that make the headlines, water contamination is present in almost every body of fresh water in the world to at least some small degree. Natural bodies of water are contaminated with animal waste and naturally occurring minerals that can be found in rocks and soil. When put through a water treatment facility, they may be purified, but even the water that has been treated can easily become contaminated once again by the common sources of contamination that affect water around the world. There are many opportunities for water contamination to occur by the time the water reaches its final purpose.
So what’s the difference between water pollution and water contamination, and why is contamination such a huge problem? Basically, water pollution is a type of contamination. When contaminants get out of hand and build up to levels that are unsafe for humans, animals, or the environment, that water is designated as polluted. Sometimes, even trace amounts of a contaminant can be very dangerous to humans too. When these are present in water, this is also known as pollution. Contamination can lead to huge problems that can be very hard to deal with.
In order to understand just how serious the problem of contamination really is, check out these statistics and facts. You might be surprised at just how much damage this seemingly small problem can really cause.
- It’s estimated that every year, 1500 cubic kilometers of wastewater is produced worldwide. This is more water than can be found in all of the world’s rivers put together
- .2.5 billion people around the world don’t have access to good sanitation conditions. This is a major contributing factor to water pollution, especially in developing countries.
- Around the world, 12% of birds and 24% of mammals that live in and around inland bodies of freshwater are currently threatened. Fish that live in freshwater sources face extinction on a widespread basis.
- In a 2009 study, 97% of groundwater samples tested from areas throughout France were not up to the standards of nitrate contamination for that country. This just goes to show that even developed countries face water contamination problems they might not even know about.
- 70% of wastewater produced by developing countries is dumped into freshwater sources such as rivers without any sort of treatment beforehand. This contaminates and pollutes the water almost immediately.
- 80% of wastewater produced around the world is not treated at all before it’s dumped. This is a very unsafe practice. If wastewater is treated before being dumped into freshwater sources, it reduces the threat of contamination to almost nothing. Even in the United States, however, untreated wastewater continues to be dumped on a daily basis.
- Over two thousand children a day under the age of five die from diarrhea caused by waterborne illness. Around the world, a massive 88% of deaths associated with diarrhea and vomiting are caused by waterborne illness.
How does Water Contamination Happen?
Now that you know just how bad water contamination can really be, you’re probably wondering how it happens. The process by which water contamination is carried into various bodies of water is not the same thing as the causes of water contamination, but even so, it’s important to understand this. To fully grasp how contamination can get so out of hand so quickly, you first need to know a few things about the hydrologic cycle. But don’t worry! This may sound very scientific, but it’s actually quite a simple process with a few steps.
- Water begins on the surface of the earth. This may be water that exists in lakes, ponds, rivers, and oceans, or it might be water that’s present as dew on soil or plants. The ocean is responsible for most of the water on the surface of the earth, but it’s definitely not the only source.
- As this water heats up, it begins to evaporate. It’s carried into the atmosphere as condensation, and eventually, it forms into clouds. The clouds carry this water all around the world as part of natural weather patterns.
- At some point, these clouds become very heavy with condensation and they create precipitation. This may be in the form of rain, snow, sleet, hail, or freezing rain. This is how the surface of the planet is rehydrated naturally.
- When precipitation falls on the land, some of it is soaked into the soil where it recharges the groundwater supply below the surface of the planet. The rest of it rolls into surface water sources as runoff.
- The process begins again as surface water sources evaporate and continue the cycle over and over.
Understanding the hydrologic cycle is an important step in learning about water contamination. It’s easy to see how all of the water on the planet is connected through this cycle and how easily it can be moved from one place to another. Unfortunately, this simple process poses a lot of potential for contamination around the globe.
When water is contaminated, the contamination is carried along with it as part of this process. Contaminated groundwater that makes its way to the surface evaporates just like regular water, but it doesn’t lose its contaminants during the process. Clouds carry it across the planet, and then it falls as rain or snow on the land, still carrying its contaminants. This is one way in which the problem spreads.
Another way is through groundwater contamination. Groundwater is any water that exists below the surface of the earth. You can’t see it, but it’s there, flowing through soil, sand, and rocks in a part of the earth called the water table. Eventually, the water in the water table reaches surface water, which includes any water you can see on the planet’s surface.
While surface water is easily threatened by dumping and other causes of contamination, groundwater can contaminate surface water without any visible signs. When groundwater is contaminated, it carries that contamination through the water table until it finally reaches surface water sources. As it recharges the surface water, it introduces the contaminants into the water supply. Since groundwater is often used for wells and other drinking water facilities around the world, it’s a big deal when it becomes contaminated.
There are many different ways water contamination can spread, and it’s important to know a little bit about them all in order to really see just how easily this problem can get out of hand. Water is all connected, and when one source is contaminated, it isn’t long until others are, too. This is why it’s crucial to keep contamination problems under control and stop them before they have a chance to really get started.
Who is Affected by Water Contamination?
Different types of water contamination can have vastly different effects on the world. However, the one thing they all have in common is that they all cause some kind of problem. In this section, you’ll learn about the different ways water contamination can affect different parts of your life and the lives of those around you. You might be surprised at how far-reaching this issue can be.
This one might go without saying, but drinking water is largely affected by water contamination. At the very least, a contaminated source of water is sure to smell strange, taste odd, or even feel a little wrong when you have it in your mouth. However, the potential effects of contaminated water go much further than this. Sometimes, water can be so severely contaminated with bacteria that it spreads illness even from just a few sips. It might also carry parasites or even be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. Some of these contaminants show almost no signs.
Other Daily Use
Water is used for almost every part of our daily lives. If you use your water for cooking, cleaning, washing your skin and hair, and washing your food, you’re sure to notice a problem if you end up using contaminated water. For example, if your water is contaminated with E. coli bacteria and you use it to wash your food before you eat it, you’re going to ingest E. coli with every bite. If your water is contaminated with lead and you take a shower in it, you might notice rashes and other irritation from exposure to this heavy metal.
Agriculture is a vicious cycle when it comes to water contamination. As you’ll learn about in the following section, this industry contributes the most to water contamination, and yet it also suffers greatly from the effects of this widespread problem. When contaminated water is used to help grow crops and raise animals, any contamination present in this water can be easily spread to the food produced by the agricultural site in question. This is how food contamination outbreaks occur, and it’s very bad for the industries involved. For example, if lettuce suddenly starts showing up contaminated with listeria, people are going to stop buying lettuce for a while. A lot of money will be lost, and agriculture will suffer as much as the people who might get sick from eating the bad lettuce.
Nutrient contamination is one of the leading causes of damage to the fishing industry, but other types of contamination are still a problem for this sector too. Obviously, when fish start to die off in huge numbers, the people who rely on those fish to sustain their way of living also suffer. They may have to move to find new fishing sources, and they may even be stuck fishing waters that are almost empty. If they do happen to find fish, those fish could easily be contaminated from the water they’ve been swimming in, and this leads to a problem not unlike the example in the previous section about agriculture. The fishing industry suffers a lot when contaminated fish end up sold to restaurants and grocery stores.
When water contamination really gets out of hand, even real estate suffers. Places that see a lot of water contamination regularly often see a decline in their population, especially when contamination issues go for years without being cleaned up. The housing market in those areas crashes and the overall economy suffers, too. Although it can be quite affordable to buy a home in a place where contamination is a problem, treating your own water can be so costly that it often isn’t worth it.
Last but not least, recreational water is also seriously affected by water contamination. Lakes and rivers that were once used for family vacations or as part of day hiking and camping trips are seeing less and less traffic as people grow more afraid of contracting some sort of illness from exposure to the water. Even water parks have seen their fair share of problems related to bacterial contamination. Several have had to close down in the wake of illness and even death associated with exposure to their water.
As you can see, the problem of water contamination is a huge one, and its impacts are still being discovered even today. Only in recent decades did we really begin to be concerned about the potential for contamination in our drinking water, and it’s been even less time since we started to be more focused on the issues that might be arising in water used for fishing, agriculture, recreation, and more. Moving into the future, it is vital that we all work together to create safer water habits and better practices that will ensure the preservation of the environment as well as our drinking water resources.
Wherever you live, you can easily find some ways to start making a difference right away. If you use harsh chemical cleaners in your home or treatments in your garden, discontinue the use of these right away and be sure to dispose of them properly—don’t just dump them out in the sink or yard. Keep a composting pile instead of throwing away all your solid waste, and definitely don’t put it down the garbage disposal. Be mindful of the quality of water in your home and be sure to report any potential problems to your local water company.
When we all combine our efforts, even small changes can make a huge difference. Remember this as you encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to start working toward safer practices in their homes as well. The more we all do, the better off our water will be, and we will all be healthier for it.
5 Essential Tips to Avoid Water Contamination
- Check your local water report for any contaminants that may be present in the water.
- Avoid using pesticides and fertilizers near bodies of water, as they can seep into the water and contaminate it.
- Be mindful of what you flush down your toilet or sink, as this can also lead to contamination.
- Regularly inspect your plumbing system for any leaks or cracks that could allow contaminants to enter the water supply.
- Be aware of any industrial activities in your area that could be polluting the water supply.
ALSO: Consider investing in a home filtration system to ensure that your drinking water is safe from contaminants!
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About The Author
Carolyn Rodriguez works at AllAboutWaterFilters as a content research writer, specializing in content resources regarding water pollution, contamination, and treatment. She has previously worked as an editing assistant, content production assistant, research assistant, and ghost writer for a range of websites, with a particular concentration on water pollution. She is currently writing regularly for AllAboutWaterFilters as well as her own water safety essays across the web.