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6 Major Causes of River & Ocean Pollution

Updated on August 17, 2017
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Susette has a Masters degree in wise use of natural resources. She leads the Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.

I first became interested in water pollution in the mid 1990's when I was studying for a masters degree in sustainable development. I was reading up on the results of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and discovered that, ten years after passage, water pollution in Mexico had increased by almost 30%. The Rio Grande River was so polluted from local maquiladora plants and their workers that babies born in the area increasingly had deformities ranging from spina bifida, cleft palate, or blocked aural tubes (ears) to a complete lack of a brain or skull.

Studies began to link the birth defects with industrial pollution along the river, both stateside and in Mexico. Since a couple of members of my family had been born with a cleft palate and I had often wondered what caused it, this caught my attention. I decided to investigate the issue of water pollution further.

Similar to the Rio Grande River, raw sewage and industrial waste makes its way along the New River from Mexico to California.
Similar to the Rio Grande River, raw sewage and industrial waste makes its way along the New River from Mexico to California. | Source

Ocean Pollution

Nearly all water pollution ends up in the ocean. We used be told that polluting the ocean was OK, that the vastness of the ocean diluted the pollution, but that was before we understood the nature of tides. Now we know that tides are like giant brooms that sweep floating solids, including pollution, to certain areas in all five oceans known as gyres, where they circle around and around until they decompose . . . if they do. On the way to these gyres, the pollution humans generate destroys ocean life.

For example, the mouths of major rivers used to host some of the most lively and diverse marine populations. Now there is a paucity of sea life. Further out, coral reefs and the lives fed by them are dying. In both places, the major source of pollution is chemicals being discarded or rain-washed into the rivers and thence to the oceans.

An analysis of public beaches, the stomach contents of sea life, and the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean garbage patches (gyres), shows that most of the pollution in the open oceans consists of plastics. Chemicals and plastics, exacerbated by rising ocean temperatures.

Bleached branching coral (foreground) and normal branching coral (background) - Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef. Coral is killed by chemicals and warming oceans. When it dies, there is nothing to feed the life around it.
Bleached branching coral (foreground) and normal branching coral (background) - Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef. Coral is killed by chemicals and warming oceans. When it dies, there is nothing to feed the life around it. | Source

Because humans are so focused on creating new things (our lives and our products), by the time we notice problems like water pollution the resulting destruction has become disastrous enough to require immediate action - not just by the originators, but by every human being.

The bad news is that we may lose too much by the time we gear up. The good news is that there is action we can each take, including making lifestyle changes, and each bit makes a difference. Collectively, we can make a major difference. The first section of this article will discuss causes of water pollution, the second the changes we can make.

" . . . stop polluting the ocean, because once we kill the coral reefs and the rain forest, this earth is toast."

— Michael Berryman

Water Pollution Cause #1: Discarded Trash & Chemicals

One of the reasons so much plastic and other trash ends up in the ocean gyres is because humans are too focused on making and buying too many products . . . without providing an adequate disposal system for those we've used up. Factories also dump their used chemicals and dyes in rivers, instead of developing alternative systems of disposal. The gyre in the North Pacific has become a 7,000,000–9,000,000 square mile convergence of trash (i.e. discards), brought there by four ocean currents that move in a giant circle where they meet.

The trash comes from a variety of sources:

  • Manufacturers and their transporters dumping discards in the most convenient places.
  • From trash in the streets washed down by rain.
  • From people and ships dumping it directly into the ocean.
  • From floods carrying articles out of houses it washes through.
  • People on beaches leaving trash for others to pick up.
  • People on vacation at lakes and rivers dropping trash there.

All of this we can change, person by person, community by community.

This patch of ocean harbour is so cluttered you can barely see the rowboat in the middle of it.
This patch of ocean harbour is so cluttered you can barely see the rowboat in the middle of it. | Source
And look at this lakeshore. It's actually a reclamation pond with ducks, geese, wood hens, and all kinds of other birds. Families and loners like me come to feed the animals and fish. But . . . look at the trash they leave behind. It hurts everyone.
And look at this lakeshore. It's actually a reclamation pond with ducks, geese, wood hens, and all kinds of other birds. Families and loners like me come to feed the animals and fish. But . . . look at the trash they leave behind. It hurts everyone. | Source

Pollution Cause #2: Careless Handling & Dumping

Manufacturers of tiny, raw plastic pellets bundle them up into giant plastic bags and ship them off to other manufacturers via truck and/or train. The handlers of these bags commonly drop one or two enroute, or stack them carelessly, so the bags roll off the vehicle onto the ground, where they break open. The bag and its scattered plastic pellets are left there to be washed down to the ocean when it rains. These tiny pellets are one of the most common types of plastic found in the bellies of sea life and their predators.

Plastic Resin Pellets - Fish "food" in the open oceans that ends up killing fish and their predators.
Plastic Resin Pellets - Fish "food" in the open oceans that ends up killing fish and their predators. | Source

Container ships that transport raw materials and finished products overseas are often overloaded, such that containers stacked on deck (themselves overloaded) slide off into the ocean in rough seas, where they sink to the bottom and release their bounty, as the container fasteners break down. Container ships have even been known to tip over in port when offloading too heavy a cargo, dumping contents into the bay.

Container ships also have a habit, now illegal but still widely practiced, of dumping waste water into the sea. This bilge water is usually contaminated with oil, which collectively outweighs the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez incident off the coast of Alaska in 1989. The oil coats everything it touches, including seaweed and plankton - the primary food for fish and many sea mammals (like the baleen whale).

Oil spills end up coating and often killing everything for miles around.
Oil spills end up coating and often killing everything for miles around. | Source

Cause #3: Unused Pharmaceuticals

Leftover medications are increasingly contaminating our urban wastewater and downstream waterways. Instead of throwing extra medications and hormones in the trash where they could be recovered by scavengers many users, including hospitals, are throwing them down the toilet or pouring them down the sink. This includes veterinary hormones and health treatments discarded by animal hospitals and factories. In addition, the body excretes any extra drugs it doesn't need, which also goes down the toilet (presumably).

Eighty percent of our streams are showing contamination by medications now, according to a study by the US Geological Survey. The Associated Press reported in 2008 that 46 million Americans were drinking water containing psychiatric, cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, heart and pain drugs as well as antibiotics. Even in areas where household water is primarily obtained from wells, families are showing traces of drugs and hormones they haven't taken themselves.

Tossing leftover drugs down the toilet affects the entire water supply system, and way too many people do it. Although water companies do filter some of the drugs, the newer ones are often missed.
Tossing leftover drugs down the toilet affects the entire water supply system, and way too many people do it. Although water companies do filter some of the drugs, the newer ones are often missed. | Source

Cause #4: Losing Possessions

Many parents take their children on vacation without teaching them how to keep track of their possessions and without checking for their own. Beach lifeguards and cleanup crews have found watches, sunglasses, balls, clothes, tanning lotion, and other such accidental left-behinds that are washed out into the oceans. Most of these same items have also been found floating in all five ocean gyres (North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean).

Cause #5: Building in the Wrong Places

We build our houses in flood plains, then wonder why they get caught and destroyed in floods. While homeowners may rationalize that an occasional flood does not warrant buying somewhere else, since insurance will cover it, they end up contributing mightily to water pollution when the flood does come ­– possessions, furniture, crushed building materials, medications and household toxic cleaners, plastic and more plastic washing down to the oceans. Comparatively little flood debris is ever recovered.

Open Floodplain (Hahamongna Watershed) - The community in the hills beyond is built above the floodplain. This lets the floodplain do its job of absorbing rainwater into the aquifer. Not so the City of Los Angeles, devastated by the flood of 1934.
Open Floodplain (Hahamongna Watershed) - The community in the hills beyond is built above the floodplain. This lets the floodplain do its job of absorbing rainwater into the aquifer. Not so the City of Los Angeles, devastated by the flood of 1934. | Source

The City of Los Angeles was built in a floodplain. In 1934 a huge flood washed out many of the shops in the city. The majority of debris ended up in the ocean. Instead of acknowledging a mistake and moving their shops elsewhere, the angry and frightened shop owners demanded that the city do something to prevent another flood. So the city spent millions of dollars designing a storm drain system (aka Los Angeles River), which they then made part of the building code, which has now become standard for all cities worldwide.

Cause #6: Sending Runoff to the Ocean

In areas like Los Angeles, nearly all of our rainwater washes out to the sea through storm drains, carrying surface pollutants with it - away from the earth's own cleanup processes that could be preventing the pollution. Fertilizers, pesticides, and other farm applications also wash out to the sea, causing algae blooms at the mouths of rivers and drainage outlets, and killing local ocean life.

Storm Drain Algae Bloom - This green scum is algae that grows on urban and agricultural runoff. The role it plays in the oceans is to clean up biological and chemical toxins. It also breathes oxygen, so competes with oxygen-breathing fish.
Storm Drain Algae Bloom - This green scum is algae that grows on urban and agricultural runoff. The role it plays in the oceans is to clean up biological and chemical toxins. It also breathes oxygen, so competes with oxygen-breathing fish. | Source

Earth's natural systems, which we have seriously disturbed, would have let rainwater sink down into healthy, living soils, taking surface toxins with it. There the existing mycelium and other soil organisms would break the toxins down into usable plant food and harmless leftover substances, at the same allowing the cleaned water to sink further down into groundwater storage.

Unintentionally, with a combination of construction, compacting the earth, laying down impermeable concrete and asphalt surfaces, and seasonal plowing and fertilizing, we have blocked the surface of the earth, killed off many of its decomposing organisms, and rendered the earth sterile. This can be reversed.

Water Pollution Solutions: What can individuals do to stop water pollution?

There are really two sides to the solution issue: Cleanup and prevention. I have written other articles on both, but here are a few ideas for prevention to get you started, if you haven't already:

  • Recycle or reuse everything you can, instead of trashing it.

  • Buy local goods and food (or grow it yourself) to minimize shipping.

  • Teach your kids to respect and keep track of their possessions. Even make checklists for outings, until it's habit to come home with everything they took there.

  • Instead of buying bottled water, buy a kitchen water filter and a strong BPA-free water bottle for going places. The cheap plastic bottles from bottled water are some of the worst pollution culprits.
  • Make it a point to locate and use the trash bins on beaches, public parks, and city streets.
  • Change your car's oil at a facility that recycles oil, or do it yourself and take the old oil to an oil collection place. This reduces oil in the streets and storm drains.

  • Find a drug return center like Walgreens or Rite Aid to dispose of unwanted prescription medications.
  • Keep an eye out for dumped raw materials and report them to the manufacturer, the city or county, and/or the press, especially if it's a regular occurrence.
  • Help teach the next generation to be cleaner than we have been. Get them involved with you in cleaning up pollution and developing a cleaner family lifestyle.

Taking Action: What would make it worthwhile?

This may seem like a lot of work, but it's perfectly doable if you take it one step at a time. I started recycling in the early 90's. Every year or so I added another practice. More than half of these are now an inherent part of my lifestyle and I like it. Even my giveaways feel valuable, as they spark the lives of those I give them to just a little.

The reward, of course, is knowing that you are part of the solution, not the problem. Dreaming of a better world and seeing yourself as helping to create it, walking your talk and drawing others to you as you do, over time you will see a new world emerging from the collective efforts of all - a clean world, healthy and beautiful.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better. It's not."

— Dr. Seuss, from The Lorax

How well are you helping to curb water pollution?

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    • watergeek profile image
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      watergeek 5 years ago from Pasadena CA

      Thanks Philanthropy 2012! I appreciate it.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Great hub! So great that I created a link from one of my French Pollution hubs to this one :)

    • watergeek profile image
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      watergeek 5 years ago from Pasadena CA

      Don't we wish! If we talk about it and let people know about the changes we're making in our own lives, perhaps more will take action like we are.

    • FiltersFastLLC profile image

      FiltersFastLLC 5 years ago from Monroe, North Carolina

      Great article! Good tips on how to reduce water pollution. If more people followed the advice given, our water supply would be much better off