Contaminated water refers to any water that is polluted with harmful compounds. It may be polluted with any of the following types of contaminants including sewage:
- Biological: Also known as microbiological contaminants or microbes, biological contaminants refer to harmful organisms in water. Common biological contaminants include bacteria, protozoa, parasites, viruses, and mold (fungi).
- Chemical: These contaminants are elements or compounds that may be man-made or naturally occurring. Chemical contaminants include arsenic, bleach, nitrogen, and salts.
- Physical: Physical contaminants impact the physical appearance and properties of water. They may include sediment or organic material that moves into a body of water due to soil erosion.
- Radiological: Cesium, plutonium, uranium, and other radiological contaminants are chemical elements that include an unstable number of protons and neutrons.
Some Categories of Water Pollution
When rain falls and seeps deep into the earth, filling the cracks, crevices, and porous spaces of an aquifer (basically an underground storehouse of water), it becomes groundwater one of our least visible but most important natural resources. Most Countries rely on groundwater, pumped to the earth’s surface, for drinking water.
For some folks in rural areas, it’s their only freshwater source. Groundwater gets polluted when contaminants from pesticides and fertilizers to waste leached from landfills and septic systems make their way into an aquifer, rendering it unsafe for human use. Ridding groundwater of contaminants can be difficult to impossible, as well as costly.
Once polluted, an aquifer may be unusable for decades, or even thousands of years. Groundwater can also spread contamination far from the original polluting source as it seeps into streams, lakes, and oceans.
Eighty percent of ocean pollution (also called marine pollution) originates on land whether along the coast or far inland. Contaminants such as chemicals, nutrients, and heavy metals are carried from farms, factories, and cities by streams and rivers into our bays and estuaries; from there they travel out to sea. Meanwhile, marine debris particularly plastic is blown in by the wind or washed in via storm drains and sewers.
Our seas are also sometimes spoiled by oil spills and leaks big and small and are consistently soaking up carbon pollution from the air. The ocean absorbs as much as a quarter of man-made carbon emissions.
When contamination originates from a single source, it’s called point source pollution. Examples include wastewater (also called effluent) discharged legally or illegally by a manufacturer, oil refinery, or wastewater treatment facility, as well as contamination from leaking septic systems, chemical and oil spills, and illegal dumping.
The EPA regulates point source pollution by establishing limits on what can be discharged by a facility directly into a body of water. While point source pollution originates from a specific place, it can affect miles of waterways and ocean.
Nonpoint source pollution is contamination derived from diffuse sources. These may include agricultural or storm-water runoff or debris blown into waterways from land. Nonpoint source pollution is the leading cause of water pollution in U.S. waters, but it’s difficult to regulate, since there’s no single, identifiable culprit.
It goes without saying that water pollution can’t be contained by a line on a map. Transboundary pollution is the result of contaminated water from one country spilling into the waters of another. Contamination can result from a disaster like an oil spill or the slow, downriver creep of industrial, agricultural, or municipal discharge.
The Most Common Types of Water Contamination
Not only is the agricultural sector the biggest consumer of global freshwater resources, with farming and livestock production using about 70 percent of the earth’s surface water supplies, but it’s also a serious water polluter.
Around the world, agriculture is the leading cause of water degradation. In the United States, agricultural pollution is the top source of contamination in rivers and streams, the second-biggest source in wetlands, and the third main source in lakes. It’s also a major contributor of contamination to estuaries and groundwater. Every time it rains, fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste from farms and livestock operations wash nutrients and pathogens such bacteria and viruses into our waterways.
Nutrient pollution, caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water or air, is the number-one threat to water quality worldwide and can cause algal blooms, a toxic soup of blue-green algae that can be harmful to people and wildlife.
Sewage and wastewater
Used water is wastewater. It comes from our sinks, showers, and toilets (think sewage) and from commercial, industrial, and agricultural activities (think metals, solvents, and toxic sludge). The term also includes storm-water runoff, which occurs when rainfall carries road salts, oil, grease, chemicals, and debris from impermeable surfaces into our waterways
More than 80 percent of the world’s wastewater flows back into the environment without being treated or reused, according to the United Nations; in some least-developed countries, the figure tops 95 percent.
These facilities reduce the amount of pollutants such as pathogens, phosphorus, and nitrogen in sewage, as well as heavy metals and toxic chemicals in industrial waste, before discharging the treated waters back into waterways.
Big spills may dominate headlines, but consumers account for the vast majority of oil pollution in our seas, including oil and gasoline that drips from millions of cars and trucks every day. Moreover, nearly half of the estimated 1 million tons of oil that makes its way into marine environments each year comes not from tanker spills but from land-based sources such as factories, farms, and cities.
At sea, tanker spills account for about 10 percent of the oil in waters around the world, while regular operations of the shipping industry through both legal and illegal discharges contribute about one third. Oil is also naturally released from under the ocean floor through fractures known as seeps.
Radioactive waste is any pollution that emits radiation beyond what is naturally released by the environment. It’s generated by uranium mining, nuclear power plants, and the production and testing of military weapons, as well as by universities and hospitals that use radioactive materials for research and medicine. Radioactive waste can persist in the environment for thousands of years, making disposal a major challenge.
Signs/Symptoms of Drinking Contaminated Water
First, it’s important to know the health effects people experience may or may not present themselves immediately. Further, factors such as the overall health, age, and physical condition of the person determine the extent of the actual effects experienced.
Some of the more commonly reported problems experienced from drinking impure water include, but are not limited to, the following waterborne illnesses:
- Gastrointestinal Problems
- Intestinal or Stomach Cramping
- Intestinal or Stomach Aches and Pains
Keep in mind, just because no signs or symptoms are experienced, it does not mean there are no potential long term effects.
If you suspect something is wrong with your tap water, contact your public water utility immediately. You may also wish to have your household water tested.
Red Flags That Your Water May Be Contaminated
It Looks Funny
It Smells Strange
It Tastes Funny
If you have reason to believe your water supply is contaminated, switch to using bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing your teeth and making ice.
In some situations, boiling your water will make it safe to consume. If your water authority issues a boil water advisory, bring your water to a vigorous boil for one minute. This will ensure that all bacteria and other microbes are killed and will make the water safe for drinking, cooking and ice making.
Unfortunately, boiling water won’t get rid of other types of contaminants and may even make the water worse. Boiling water that contains PFAS, for instance, will actually concentrate the chemicals and increase your health risks
On a household basis, there are also a number of things you can do to reduce the pollution of our water.
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