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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 well-being 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. Heavy rain falling on a few junk cars can wash petroleum products into streams or add it to the groundwater 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 of 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 have 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 groundwater 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 washed 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 groundwater 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 groundwater 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.