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The Sources and Impacts of Water Pollution

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Alyssa is an environmental scientist who writes articles that put issues in terms so simple you can teach your kids.

Water Pollution: A Definition

Water pollution is any change in water quality that has a negative effect on living organisms and those who need to utilize the water supply. This pollution can affect any large mass of water - streams, ponds, lakes, oceans, etc. Freshwater streams have the ability to recover from small amounts of pollution due to their continuous motion. They can, however affect small portions of the stream, deemed the septic zone where "trash" fish reside carp and leeches).Lakes, on the other hand, are not as effectively self-monitored. "Dilution" does not work as a "solution" to this type of water pollution. Due to the little movement, toxins settle to the bottom, killing the organisms and disrupting the food chain. Previously thought of as a large, replenishing body, the ocean, just like any other body of water, can only tolerate so much. The major source of ocean pollution is oil spills, not to mention the overpopulation of coastal regions which contributes to the decay of the ocean. Currently, 40% of the world lives within 63 miles of the ocean.


Sources of Water Pollution

In the past we have taken on the view, "dilution is the solution to pollution." Meaning, if we simply dump into water, and turn our backs, it'll all mix together - since the ocean and other large bodies of water are so massive. Unfortunately, we have learned this is not the case. Many pollutants contribute to the overall water pollution, pushing these bodies of water past their breaking points. The sources of water pollution are broken down into two categories: point and non point sources. Point sources are direct sources, such as factory and sewage sludge. Non point sources are pollutant that indirectly find their way to the ocean, usually by rain or ground water. Let's examine these more closely.


Point Sources of Water Pollution

Developed countries are greatly reduced their point sources over the years as stringent policy has been enforced. At the same time, point source water pollution does still exist, especially in still developing countries who do not have the money to completely treat waste and eliminate waste. China, for example, only treats 10% of their sewage waste. Let that sink in for a moment. Where is all that untreated waste going? Rivers and eventually, oceans. It can be difficult to monitor factory waste which can result in this excessive pollution. In India's Ganges River, which allows millions to bathe and drink from, is not only polluted with waste, but also with dead bodies that are tossed into the water.


Non-Point Sources of Water Pollution

Non point sources are a result of a multitude of places - urban streets, suburbia, homes, and most importantly, agriculture. Agriculture is the leading cause of water pollution, as its fertilizers, pesticides, salts, sediments and wastes make their way into the water through run-off or groundwater. These nutrients from agriculture can have adverse affects on the water in which they come into contact. Eutrophication is just one of these problems. This process results as nitrate and phosphates run into the lakes, causing an explosive algae bloom. As the algae rapidly grow, they block off the light from reaching underwater, causing mass amounts of organism death.

Groundwater can also become affected, which in turn, can negatively impact drinking water. Mining, pesticides, road salt, spills, sewers- all of these can seep into the ground. There, the water makes its way through spaces between rocks until coming into contact with the local water supply. This is an extremely difficult issue, as the pollutants are out of sight and therefore nearly impossible to clean.

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Ocean Pollution

Every drain leads to the ocean. Most pollutant will make their way into the ocean. As previously mentioned, the ocean can only tolerate so much. Several large clumps of garbage have already claimed stake in the ocean. One is estimated to be roughly the size of Texas, a circulating in the middle of the Great Pacific. Some sources of ocean pollution include:

  • Industry: chemicals, oxides
  • Farms: run-off pesticides and wastes
  • Cities: toxic metals, waste, sewage, oil
  • Urban sprawl: sewers and septic tanks
  • Dredging: sediment is displaced on the ocean floor which can kill the bottom-dwellers

Who Is Impacted by Water Pollution?

First and for most, the creatures residing in the water sources are impacted. Microscopic, non-biodegradable plastics alone make their way through the food chain beginning with phytoplankton. At the same time, bacteria from septic systems destroys shellfish beds and oxygen depleted areas create "dead zones" in which no animal can thrive, or even live. Rising nitrogen levels can lead to red tides - poisoning fish and marine mammals. Large, non-biodegradable plastics (such as can ties and plastic bags) can kill or suffocate animals whom mistake these for food and become trapped.

We, humans, are adversely affected as well. If contaminants make their way into the groundwater, and they local water supply, it could poison many. Just this past winter 2014, 300,000 were affected in West Virginia when a chemical spill occurred, threatening the safety of all and the quality of their water. Not only is drinking water impacted, mercury poisoning in fish can lead to extreme illness. During the 1950s, Japan experienced the worst of it. Minimata, as they named it, resulted from dangerously high levels of mercury poison in the fish supply. Industrial waste water was to blame.


What Are the Solutions?

Laws are currently in place to protect the many from water pollution and contamination. The first of which is the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This act requires the EPA to set standards for water drinking since 1974. Privately owned wells are exempt; while, at the same time, bottled water companies conduct their own studies to determine water quality. The SDWA requires that the public be notified of any possible contamination of water supply.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) also sets standards for pollutants that are placed into the water. This law dictates how wastes are discharged. Waste goes through an extensive process of purification before discharge into water. In a similar manner, the Ocean Dumping Act of 1972 works to regulate intentional material dumping. While this act has good intentions, it can be difficult to completely monitor as the the ocean constitutes 70% of the globe, and much goes unseen.

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.

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