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How Water Pollution Affects the Environment and Your Health

Marcy lives in Austin, Texas and has written about environmental issues and conservation for more than a decade.

This article will take a look at how water pollution affects the environment and, consequently, our health.

This article will take a look at how water pollution affects the environment and, consequently, our health.

Keeping our rivers, lakes, and streams clean is not just a matter of beauty; it’s a serious health priority for the humans who swim or play in the waters and for wildlife that depend on bodies of water for their habitats.

Over the decades, humans have damaged (and in some cases, nearly destroyed) waterways through thoughtless actions that now harm the environment and jeopardize the health and safety of those who rely on these lakes and rivers for drinking water or recreation.

If each person adds just one or two carelessly tossed bottles or cans into the ecosystem, the effect on the environment and the wellbeing of fish and other wildlife is huge. Other waste products are even more damaging.

Some Causes of Water Pollution

For some reason, rural streambeds often become dumping grounds for old cars, bags of trash, junk items, and other unsightly discards.

Aside from damaging the beauty of the area, the runoff from such items sends oil, chemicals, hazardous waste, and other elements into the watershed. A heavy rain falling on a few junk cars can wash petroleum products into streams or add it to the ground water through percolation.

Families picnicking downstream (with their kids playing in the water) may not know that poison has leaked into the water their children are splashing in while they munch on potato salad and chicken legs. And if they don’t clean up after their picnic, they may be adding plastic cups, paper products, and additional waste into the system when they leave.

Worse yet, waterways are often sources for drinking water. The same chemicals that spill into a river miles away from a city’s water plant can survive (perhaps in smaller quantities) the processing stages and be used for drinking water.

Water Pollution From Run-Off

Do you wash your car in the driveway? You’re probably sending oil-laced water into the drainage system. Even if you aren’t washing the under-carriage of the car, the dust and dirt on your roof, doors and fenders has pollutants picked up from road use.

This doesn’t mean you should stop washing your car, it just means you can be aware of how our ground water can become polluted from many everyday actions we take.

If you use chemicals and fertilizers for lawn care, you’re also adding dangerous substances to the watershed through leaching. You can prevent that easily by adapting greener methods for your landscaping upkeep.

Damage to Water from Waste and Chemicals

If a chemical is found above the ground, it can get into our streams and water supplies. Aside from the very real danger to the water we drink or swim in, the harm to fish and wildlife can be deadly.

Plants and fish living in waterways rely on a healthy mix of oxygen and nutrients to reproduce and survive, and they need harmful bacteria to be kept at low levels. Natural waterways that are unsullied already have the right mix and balance. But waterways that have been polluted cause mutations and low survival rates for fish and other creatures, and this can kill off the plants needed to help supply nutrients and maintain the oxygen balance.

Human waste and fecal bacteria cause even more damage (to humans, as well as wildlife). If a dirty diaper is left near a stream and washes into the water, every germ, bacteria, and other harmful substance is injected into the system.

With millions of people hitting the lakes and streams each year for swimming or boating, inappropriate waste is introduced into the environment at even greater rates.

Health Risks from Water Pollution

Aside from contamination of drinking water and the stomach and intestinal distress it can cause, a dangerous amoeba can infect humans who swim or play in polluted water, causing primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).

Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM)

Although it’s a rare infection, it is almost always fatal. The deadly condition happens when the amoeba Naegleria fowleri (which is found in freshwater bodies such as lakes and rivers all across the world) is introduced into the human body, typically through the nose, while someone is swimming or water skiing. The amoeba is also found in geothermal waters, such as hot springs or in water that has been artificially warmed through industrial waste discharged into a waterway. Even a swimming pool can carry the ameba if it is not properly chlorinated.

Once the amoeba enters the body, it can travel to the spinal cord and to the brain, where it destroys important cerebral tissues. The infection can show up anywhere from one day to two weeks after exposure, and the initial symptoms will be fever, vomiting, nausea, headache, and a stiff neck. All of those can seem like flu or other conditions. But as the amoeba takes hold and damages brain tissue, the victim will become disoriented, lose balance, feel confusion, and even experience hallucinations and seizures.

Sadly, there are no solid track records of successful treatment of PAM, although some drugs have been shown effective in lab tests. One problem in tackling the deadly disease is its rapid progression. Few victims survive long enough for even experimental drugs to be tried; death usually occurs in a week or less. The disease is not, however, spread through human contact.

To prevent such an infection, avoid swimming in polluted waters, and avoid those rapid, forceful jumps kids are so fond of if swimming in warm waters. Encourage your children to hold their noses while they jump (there’s a safety reason for it now!) and provide nose clips. They may not like the way nose clips look or feel, but the risk isn’t worth it without them.

Avoid “No Swimming” areas—there could be dangers in the water that you may not know about. If you’re swimming in shallow streams, don’t stir up the mud or sediment on the bottom. Tiny particles of bacteria-laden mud can get into the water and enter your system.

Neti-Pots and Risks

In recent years, this amoeba has also been found in tap water used for Neti-Pots (small teapot-shaped devices used to flush out sinus and nasal cavities). Be sure to use distilled water if you use a Neti-Pot or a nasal syringe; the risk from tap water is generally low, but still deadly. Most water treatment plants do not treat for amoebas.

How You Can Prevent Water Pollution

Common sense, with a bit of education, is the best way to combat water pollution.

  • Dispose of Waste Properly: When you're out enjoying a swim or picnic in a natural environment, treat it with respect. Don't leave trash on the ground or in open containers where it can blow away with a swift breeze. Any waste materials that can contaminate, in particular, should be carefully disposed of the proper way.
  • Dirty Diapers: In particular, avoid letting fecal matter get into natural waterways. If you change a diaper while you're out, wrap it in a plastic bag and dispose of it later at home (or in a safe container provided by the park or recreation area, if there is one available).
  • Don't Flush Pills!: Consult your local solid waste guidelines for tips on how to dispose of medications in your areas. Pills and other medications dissolve in ground water and leach into the system that supplies our drinking water. Some pharmacies will dispose of unused medications for you, and some public health departments have a process for disposing of them.
  • Watch for Run-Off: If you wash your car in the driveway, the run-off will likely run down the driveway and into storm drains, which generally directly pipe waste into waterways. If the run-off goes into your yard, it can percolate into the ground water if you're in an area with a water table near the surface. Use buckets rather than hoses to reduce the amount of water being polluted.
  • Use Organic Fertilizers: Every chemical you put on your lawn will be flushed into the ground the next time it rains. You can have a beautiful lawn without polluting if you buy organic or green lawn care products.

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.


Nilesh oza from Mumbai on June 18, 2014:

Nice very good article....Vote up.V..now its time to take the steps to keep clean our river & lakes........everyone is responsible for this.

first we have to stop using Plastic bags, Almost every market that you go today, you will see people carrying their shopping items in plastic bags. Right from food items to clothes to shoes, there is hardly any item that we do not use a plastic bag to carry. However, before stuffing your home with different styles, colors and shapes of plastic bags, have you every considered the dangers that are inherent in using them? No?

Here in article write very nicely how we can prevent water from pollution...

stop using plastic and buy less packing products ........Thxsssssss

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on July 13, 2012:

Hi, Vinaya - you are so right about the scarcity of potable water. And we also need safe sources (free from disease and harmful chemicals) to grow crops for food. I think we may face some serious issues in the future. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on July 13, 2012:

I agree, Randy - just yesterday, I had lunch at a restaurant overlooking a creek bordered by trees - and there was a styrofoam cup, spoiling the view. It's particularly sad when you find that garbage in remote areas - it means pollution has crept far beyond the urban boundaries. Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting. I know your love for the outdoors, and I'm honored you found the hub useful.

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on July 12, 2012:

Though one-third of the earth is covered by water, drinkable water is present in small volume. Water pollution is making drinking water scare. Water pollution not only puts the life of sea animals in danger, but also effects the human beings.

Marcy,thanks for sharing this useful and informative article.

Randy Godwin from Southern Georgia on July 12, 2012:

A very important subject these days, Marcy. Even when I go deep into the isolated swamps and woods I find things which shouldn't be there. It makes me ill to think of all of the trash being thrown away today, not to mention the agricultural run-off of chemicals we cannot see with the naked eye. It does not bode well for the future of our country, especially our water supply.


Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on July 12, 2012:

Hi, Billy - thanks for being such a staunch advocate for our environment. It's sickening to me, too, when I see the trash and pollution in what used to be pristine waterways. Thanks for reading and commenting, and for all you do!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 11, 2012:

Of course, having taught about the environment, I have a love of anything written about it. We were at the river the other day and I was blown away by the amount of garbage that had been left behind by other people....cans, cardboard, plastic ties...it made me sick quite frankly. Great hub my friend; keep spreading the word.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on July 09, 2012:

Thanks, Margie! So glad you enjoyed the hub. It's pretty sobering to realize our earth will never have any more water than it has now. What a precious and fragile resource we have. Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!

Mmargie1966 from Gainesville, GA on July 09, 2012:

Wow, Marcy, this hub is terrific! I never thought about the car wash and run off water issue.

Voted up, awesome, and shared!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 27, 2012:

What an interesting take on the algae problem, Watergeek! I like the way you pointed out that it sort of serves as a canary-in-the-coal-mine alert system. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts on our water pollution issues!

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on June 26, 2012:

Speaking of agricultural runoff, the main "problem" with it seems to be the algae blooms it causes, which use up oxygen in the water and make it hard for other organisms to live there. Looked at from that perspective it's really a bad thing. But I've been looking at life lately from the perspective of what the earth does to balance itself, and I think the algae is really cool. It's a basic breaker down of toxins into nutrients for other forms of life. Yes, it uses up oxygen in that area, but then it becomes food in turn. Plus it's an indicator for us that we're unbalancing the system.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 26, 2012:

Thanks so much, Melovy, for reading and for your kind comments! It's hugely sad that your beautiful shores in the UK get polluted from fertilizer run-off, and it's dangerous, too. Junk cars are a big problem in the U.S. - I think the society here goes through vehicles and discards them at a really scary rate of consumerism. Thanks for your thoughts here!

Yvonne Spence from UK on June 26, 2012:

Wow, this is a great hub Marcy. Fertilizer run-off is a big issue in the UK because when we have wet winters it makes many beaches below standard. This has happened a few times lately.

All the information you provided about amoebas is quite scary! And I had never thought about the dangers of old cars being left in streams - but I don't think I've ever seen that.

We really do need to take care of the environment if we want it to take care of us.

Voted up and sharing.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 25, 2012:

Thanks for reading and commenting, TFScientist - I especially value your opinion and background on these types of things. Please feel free to link, and if you're okay with it, I'd like to link to yours as well. The more we can expand available information to people, the more likely they are to get involved.

Rhys Baker from Peterborough, UK on June 25, 2012:

A strong, scientific hub here. Good advice to follow and very well explained consequences if it is not. Many nasties and beasties live in more polluted water and they are a nightmare to kill. If they can survive in sewage they are more difficult to kill off!

The greatest pollutant of water, however, is and will always be agriculture. The surface runoff from fertilisers used to sustain unrealistic monocultures across vast acerage is obscene. The resulting eutrophication is devastating. I will be writing a hub about vertical farming soon that I would like to link to this!

Voted up and interesting. Thanks for sharing!

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on June 24, 2012:

At the risk of offending, there is a photo of one of the ocean gyres here:


Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 24, 2012:

Thanks, Summerberrie - it really brings home the importance of conserving water when you realize there's no more available. If we pollute our supply beyond repair, we face serious issues. Thank you for reading and commenting!

summerberrie on June 23, 2012:

What a valuable hub. I have flushed pills before. Now, I know not to do it again. Thanks for this educational awareness to keeping our water clean and free of pollutants.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 23, 2012:

So sad, isn't it Nettlemere.

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on June 23, 2012:

Yes it's such a pity - it's right through the middle of pastureland, so the farmer is going to have a job to clear it up before he can move his cattle on to the land.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 23, 2012:

Oh, what a sad image that paints, Nettlemere! I've seen similar things in urban areas, and even in more remote places - the nasty stuff washes downstream and pollutes the water for many miles. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on June 23, 2012:

I think you must be psychic with your choice of topic. In Lancashire we had a month's rain in one day yesterday. I went down to the Calder (my local river) yesterday evening when it was over its banks and all across the flood plain and then back again this morning when it had receded - the flood plain is full of silt, as you'd expect, but also of bottles and plastic bags left by the water.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 23, 2012:

Hi, Watergeek - I've seen photos of the floating trash - it collects and forms islands that are solid watse matter. And it's deadly for fish who get caught in it. Thanks for reading and commenting - water pollution is such a hazard to our environment.

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on June 22, 2012:

Good tips, Marcy. A lot of the trash you mention here goes into the oceans to collect in the gyre areas, where ocean currents converge. The size of the trash in those gyres doesn't even begin to show the extent of the pollution you describe. And then there's pollution released illegally by the bilges of ocean transport. Sigh. With the chemical pollution . . someday I'd like to know the size of related hospital bills! Voted up and useful.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 22, 2012:

Many thanks, Aviannnovice - I think you see plenty of natural areas when you're out with your hobbies, and I can't imagine some of the things you may have seen over the years in terms of pollution. I hope people embrace our need to protect this important resource. Thanks, again, for commenting here!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on June 22, 2012:

Voted up, useful, and awesome. These wise words should start becoming infectious the more that we read and write about them. Repetition is the key to solid and good, healthy living. Great job.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 22, 2012:

That's so (tragically) true, alocsin - if you have a chance, watch the video posted with the hub. It's a bit long (about 30 minutes), but very well produced and educational. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on June 22, 2012:

I think the biggest inadvertant pollutant is runoff. We just don't think whenever we use the hose outside about what things we acccidentally wash into the sewer system. Thanks for the reminder. Voting this Up and Useful.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 21, 2012:

Oh, gosh, Dan - I so well know the problems Lake Erie has had (I grew up in Columbus). It's so sad to see those beautiful, amazing bodies of water become deadly and polluted. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Dan Human from Niagara Falls, NY on June 21, 2012:

A sobering Hub for a very real problem. I live in between Lakes Ontario and Erie; it is a battle to keep the Great Lakes clean. Great tips!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on June 21, 2012:

Thanks, Imogen - I appreciate your comments here. It's sobering to think that we have only one water supply on the planet, and we've been using it for many centuries.

Imogen French from Southwest England on June 21, 2012:

Great hub - some very good points well made here. Water is the stuff of life, and we should do all we can to preserve our fresh water supplies, not just for our own health and safety, but for the sake of aquatic and marine wildlife too.

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