Susette has a Master's degree in Sustainable Development. She leads her local Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.
What Causes Water Pollution?
I first became interested in water pollution in the mid-1990s, when I was studying for a master's degree in sustainable development. I was reading up on the results of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and discovered that ten years after its 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.
- What is poisoning border babies? — High Country News
In April 1991, three babies born in Brownsville, Texas, had anencephaly, a rare birth defect marked by the failure of the fetus to develop a skull or brain. By the end of the following year, 30 more had been born that way.
Nearly all water pollution ends up in the ocean. We used to be told that polluting the ocean was OK because 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. The problem is exacerbated by rising ocean temperatures.
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 the causes of water pollution, and the second section will point out the changes we can make.
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.
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 en route 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.
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 wastewater 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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 a 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. 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 '90s. 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.
- The World's Largest Dump: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch | Ocean | DISCOVER Magazine
This rubbish-strewn patch floats within the North Pacific Gyre, the center of a series of currents several thousand miles wide that create a circular effect, ensnaring trash and debris.
- Freight Industry Big Guns Come Out Against Container Overloading - Latest industry shipping news fro
Guide to freight transportation and logistics.
- Federal authorities crack down on sea-borne oil polluters | NJ.com
The M/V Snow Flower, a 568-foot refrigerated container ship, was outbound from Los Angeles when it began experiencing serious problems in the engine room. A faulty valve had caused waste oil and water levels in the bilge holding tank to begin rising,
- County of Los Angeles Environmental Resources
L.A. County Recycling and Waste Reduction; AB 939; and Environmental Programs
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.