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Water Pollution


Polluted River
The pollution of rivers and streams with chemical contaminants has become one of the most critical environmental
problems of the century. Chemical pollution entering rivers and streams can be classified according to the nature of
its sources: point pollution and nonpoint pollution. Point pollution involves pollution from a single concentrated
source that can be identified, such as an outfall pipe from a factory or refinery. Nonpoint pollution involves
pollution from dispersed sources that cannot be precisely identified, such as runoff from agricultural or mining
operations or seepage from septic tanks or sewage drain fields.
Ben Osborne/Oxford Scientific Films
Water Pollution, contamination of streams, lakes, underground water, bays, or oceans by substances
harmful to living things. Water is necessary to life on earth. All organisms contain it; some live in it;
some drink it. Plants and animals require water that is moderately pure, and they cannot survive if
their water is loaded with toxic chemicals or harmful microorganisms. If severe, water pollution can
kill large numbers of fish, birds, and other animals, in some cases killing all members of a species in
an affected area. Pollution makes streams, lakes, and coastal waters unpleasant to look at, to smell,
and to swim in. Fish and shellfish harvested from polluted waters may be unsafe to eat. People who
ingest polluted water can become ill, and, with prolonged exposure, may develop cancers or bear
children with birth defects.


Industrial Water Pollution
Industrial pollutants that run into streams, rivers, or lakes can have serious effects on wildlife, plants, and humans.
In the United States there are strict rules for the amount and composition of substances that factories can release
into bodies of water. These rules are not always enforced, and much industrial water pollution comes from
accidental chemical or oil spills.
The major water pollutants are chemical, biological, or physical materials that degrade water quality.
Pollutants can be classed into eight categories, each of which presents its own set of hazards.
Petroleum Products

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Cleanup
Workers wash the shoreline on Latouche Island, Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989,
dumping more than 38 million liters (more than 10 million gallons) of oil into Prince William Sound. The resulting
environmental damage prompted the United States Congress to pass federal safety requirements for oil tankers
and barges and to assign the principal cost of spill cleanup to oil companies.
Vanessa Vick/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Oil and chemicals derived from oil are used for fuel, lubrication, plastics manufacturing, and many
other purposes. These petroleum products get into water mainly by means of accidental spills from
ships, tanker trucks, pipelines, and leaky underground storage tanks. Many petroleum products are
poisonous if ingested by animals, and spilled oil damages the feathers of birds or the fur of animals,
often causing death. In addition, spilled oil may be contaminated with other harmful substances, such
as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Pesticides and Herbicides

Pest Control or Pollution?
Pest control has become a difficult issue for farmers because of its potential environmental impact. Although the
insecticide being sprayed on this potato field will eliminate a generation of Colorado potato beetles, it may also
contaminate local food and water sources.
Blair Seitz/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Chemicals used to kill unwanted animals and plants, for instance on farms or in suburban yards, may
be collected by rainwater runoff and carried into streams, especially if these substances are applied
too lavishly. Some of these chemicals are biodegradable and quickly decay into harmless or less
harmful forms, while others are nonbiodegradable and remain dangerous for a long time.
When animals consume plants that have been treated with certain nonbiodegradable chemicals, such
as chlordane and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), these chemicals are absorbed into the tissues
or organs of the animals. When other animals feed on these contaminated animals, the chemicals are
passed up the food chain. With each step up the food chain, the concentration of the pollutant
increases. This process is called biomagnification. In one study, DDT levels in ospreys (a family of fish-
eating birds) were found to be 10 to 50 times higher than in the fish that they ate, 600 times the level
in the plankton that the fish ate, and 10 million times higher than in the water. Animals at the top of
food chains may, as a result of these chemical concentrations, suffer cancers, reproductive problems,
and death.
Many drinking water supplies are contaminated with pesticides from widespread agricultural use. More
than 14 million Americans drink water contaminated with pesticides, and the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) estimates that 10 percent of wells contain pesticides. Nitrates, a pollutant often derived
from fertilizer runoff, can cause methemoglobinemia in infants, a potentially lethal form of anemia that
is also called blue baby syndrome.
Heavy Metals
Heavy metals, such as copper, lead, mercury, and selenium, get into water from many sources,
including industries, automobile exhaust, mines, and even natural soil. Like pesticides, heavy metals
become more concentrated as animals feed on plants and are consumed in turn by other animals.
When they reach high levels in the body, heavy metals can be immediately poisonous, or can result in
long-term health problems similar to those caused by pesticides and herbicides. For example,
cadmium in fertilizer derived from sewage sludge can be absorbed by crops. If these crops are eaten
by humans in sufficient amounts, the metal can cause diarrhea and, over time, liver and kidney
damage. Lead can get into water from lead pipes and solder in older water systems; children exposed
to lead in water can suffer mental retardation.
Hazardous Wastes
Hazardous wastes are chemical wastes that are either toxic (poisonous), reactive (capable of
producing explosive or toxic gases), corrosive (capable of corroding steel), or ignitable (flammable). If
improperly treated or stored, hazardous wastes can pollute water supplies. In 1969 the Cuyahoga
River in Cleveland, Ohio, was so polluted with hazardous wastes that it caught fire and burned. PCBs,
a class of chemicals once widely used in electrical equipment such as transformers, can get into the
environment through oil spills and can reach toxic levels as organisms eat one another.
Excess Organic Matter
Fertilizers and other nutrients used to promote plant growth on farms and in gardens may find their
way into water. At first, these nutrients encourage the growth of plants and algae in water. However,
when the plant matter and algae die and settle underwater, microorganisms decompose them. In the
process of decomposition, these microorganisms consume oxygen that is dissolved in the water.
Oxygen levels in the water may drop to such dangerously low levels that oxygen-dependent animals in
the water, such as fish, die. This process of depleting oxygen to deadly levels is called eutrophication.
Sediment, soil particles carried to a streambed, lake, or ocean, can also be a pollutant if it is present
in large enough amounts. Soil erosion produced by the removal of soil-trapping trees near waterways,
or carried by rainwater and floodwater from croplands, strip mines, and roads, can damage a stream
or lake by introducing too much nutrient matter. This leads to eutrophication. Sedimentation can also
cover streambed gravel in which many fish, such as salmon and trout, lay their eggs.

Infectious Organisms

Giardia lamblia
The parasite Giardia lamblia is shown in its active, free-swimming trophozoite stage. Giardia lamblia enters the
body of a human or other host as a cyst. The hard, outer coating of the cyst is dissolved by the action of digestive
juices to produce a trophozoite, which attaches itself to the wall of the small intestines, where it reproduces.
Offspring quickly encyst and are excreted out of the host's body. Drinking water that has been polluted by fecal
matter often provides the offspring with a route back into a new host.
Dr. Stanley L. Erlandsen
A 1994 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that about 900,000
people get sick annually in the United States because of organisms in their drinking water, and around
900 people die. Many disease-causing organisms that are present in small numbers in most natural
waters are considered pollutants when found in drinking water. Such parasites as Giardia lamblia and
Cryptosporidium parvum occasionally turn up in urban water supplies. These parasites can cause
illness, especially in people who are very old or very young, and in people who are already suffering
from other diseases. In 1993 an outbreak of Cryptosporidium in the water supply of Milwaukee,
Wisconsin, sickened more than 400,000 people and killed more than 100.
Thermal Pollution
Water is often drawn from rivers, lakes, or the ocean for use as a coolant in factories and power
plants. The water is usually returned to the source warmer than when it was taken. Even small
temperature changes in a body of water can drive away the fish and other species that were originally
present, and attract other species in place of them. Thermal pollution can accelerate biological
processes in plants and animals or deplete oxygen levels in water. The result may be fish and other
wildlife deaths near the discharge source. Thermal pollution can also be caused by the removal of
trees and vegetation that shade and cool streams.


Liquid Industrial Waste
Liquid waste that runs into a stream from a factory can kill wildlife and cause health problems for humans. In the
United States the amount and quality of wastewater a factory can discharge is strictly regulated.
Simon Fraser/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Water pollutants result from many human activities. Pollutants from industrial sources may pour out
from the outfall pipes of factories or may leak from pipelines and underground storage tanks. Polluted
water may flow from mines where the water has leached through mineral-rich rocks or has been
contaminated by the chemicals used in processing the ores. Cities and other residential communities
contribute mostly sewage, with traces of household chemicals mixed in. Sometimes industries
discharge pollutants into city sewers, increasing the variety of pollutants in municipal areas. Pollutants
from such agricultural sources as farms, pastures, feedlots, and ranches contribute animal wastes,
agricultural chemicals, and sediment from erosion.
The oceans, vast as they are, are not invulnerable to pollution. Pollutants reach the sea from adjacent
shorelines, from ships, and from offshore oil platforms. Sewage and food waste discarded from ships
on the open sea do little harm, but plastics thrown overboard can kill birds or marine animals by
entangling them, choking them, or blocking their digestive tracts if swallowed.

Pollution: From Air to Water
Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, especially oxides of sulfur, nitrogen, or carbon, combine with water
vapor in the air to form acids. These acids fall to earth as acid rain, acid snow, and acid deposition. Flowing water
carries these acids into streams and lakes, where they can damage delicate lake ecosystems.
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Oil spills often occur through accidents, such as the wrecks of the tanker Amoco Cadiz off the French
coast in 1978 and the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1992. Routine and deliberate discharges, when tanks
are flushed out with seawater, also add a lot of oil to the oceans. Offshore oil platforms also produce
spills: The second largest oil spill on record was in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979 when the Ixtoc 1 well
spilled 530 million liters (140 million gallons). The largest oil spill ever was the result of an act of war.
During the Gulf War of 1991, Iraqi forces destroyed eight tankers and onshore terminals in Kuwait,
releasing a record 910 million liters (240 million gallons). An oil spill has its worst effects when the oil
slick encounters a shoreline. Oil in coastal waters kills tidepool life and harms birds and marine
mammals by causing feathers and fur to lose their natural waterproof quality, which causes the
animals to drown or die of cold. Additionally, these animals can become sick or poisoned when they
swallow the oil while preening (grooming their feathers or fur).
Water pollution can also be caused by other types of pollution. For example, sulfur dioxide from a
power plants chimney begins as air pollution. The polluted air mixes with atmospheric moisture to
produce airborne sulfuric acid, which falls to the earth as acid rain. In turn, the acid rain can be
carried into a stream or lake, becoming a form of water pollution that can harm or even eliminate
wildlife. Similarly, the garbage in a landfill can create water pollution if rainwater percolating through
the garbage absorbs toxins before it sinks into the soil and contaminates the underlying groundwater
(water that is naturally stored underground in beds of gravel and sand, called aquifers).
Pollution may reach natural waters at spots we can easily identify, known as point sources, such as
waste pipes or mine shafts. Nonpoint sources are more difficult to recognize. Pollutants from these
sources may appear a little at a time from large areas, carried along by rainfall or snowmelt. For
instance, the small oil leaks from automobiles that produce discolored spots on the asphalt of parking
lots become nonpoint sources of water pollution when rain carries the oil into local waters. Most
agricultural pollution is nonpoint since it typically originates from many fields.

Oil Spill Clean-up
Workers use special nets to clean up a California beach following an oil tanker spill. Tanker spills are an increasing
environmental problem because once oil has spilled, it is virtually impossible to completely remove or contain it.
Even small amounts spread rapidly across large areas of water. Because oil and water do not mix, the oil floats on
the water and then washes up on broad expanses of shoreline. Attempts to chemically treat or sink the oil may
further disrupt marine and beach ecosystems.
Spencer Grant/Photo Researchers, Inc.
In the United States, the serious campaign against water pollution began in 1972, when Congress
passed the Clean Water Act. This law initiated a national goal to end all pollution discharges into
surface waters, such as lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and coastal waters. The law required those
who discharge pollutants into waterways to apply for federal permits and to be responsible for
reducing the amount of pollution over time. The law also authorized generous federal grants to help
states build water treatment plants that remove pollutants, principally sewage, from wastewater
before it is discharged.
Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, most of the obvious point sources of pollution in the
United States have been substantially cleaned up. Municipal sewage plants in many areas are now
yielding water so clean that it can be used again. Industries are treating their waste and also changing
their manufacturing processes so that less waste is produced. As a result, surface waters are far
cleaner than they were in 1972. In 1990 a survey of rivers and streams found that three-quarters of
these waters were clean enough for swimming and fishing. Cleaning up the remainder of these rivers
and streams will require tackling the more difficult problems of diffuse, nonpoint source pollution.
Congress first took up the nonpoint source problem in 1987, requiring the states to develop programs
to combat this kind of pollution. Since interception and treatment of nonpoint pollution is very difficult,
the prime strategy is to prevent it.
In urban areas, one obvious sign of the campaign against nonpoint pollution is the presence of
stenciled notices often seen beside storm drains: Drains To Bay, Drains To Creek, or Drains To Lake.
These signs discourage people from dumping contaminants, such as used engine oil, down grates
because the material will likely pollute nearby waterways. Householders are urged to be sparing in
their use of garden pesticides and fertilizers in order to reduce contaminated runoff and
eutrophication. At construction sites, builders are required to fight soil erosion by laying down tarps,
building sediment traps, and seeding grasses.

Wastewater Treatment
Raw sewage includes waterborne waste from sinks, toilets, and industrial processes. Treatment of the sewage is
required before it can be safely buried, used, or released back into local water systems. In a treatment plant, the
waste is passed through a series of screens, chambers, and chemical processes to reduce its bulk and toxicity. The
three general phases of treatment are primary, secondary, and tertiary. During primary treatment, a large
percentage of the suspended solids and inorganic material is removed from the sewage. The focus of secondary
treatment is reducing organic material by accelerating natural biological processes. Tertiary treatment is necessary
when the water will be reused; 99 percent of solids are removed and various chemical processes are used to
ensure the water is as free from impurity as possible.
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In the countryside, efforts are underway to reduce pollution from agricultural wastes, fertilizers, and
pesticides, and from erosion caused by logging and farming. Farmers and foresters are encouraged to
protect streams by leaving streamside trees and vegetation undisturbed; this practice stabilizes banks
and traps sediment coming down the slope, preventing sediment buildup in water. Hillside fields are
commonly plowed on the contour of the land, rather than up and down the incline, to reduce erosion
and to discourage the formation of gullies. Cows are kept away from streamsides and housed in barns
where their waste can be gathered and treated. Increasingly, governments are protecting wetlands,
which are valuable pollution traps because their plants absorb excess nutrients and their fine
sediments absorb other pollutants. In some places, lost wetlands are being restored. Despite these
steps, a great deal remains to be done.
In the United States, the EPA is in overall charge of antipollution efforts. The EPA sets standards,
approves state control plans, and steps in (if necessary) to enforce its own rules. Under the Safe
Drinking Water Act (SDWA), passed in 1974 and amended in 1986 and 1996, the EPA sets standards
for drinking water. Among other provisions, the SWDA requires that all water drawn from surface
water supplies must be filtered to remove Cryptosporidium bacteria by the year 2000. The law also
requires that states map the watersheds from which drinking water comes and identify sources of
pollution within those watersheds. While Americas drinking water is among the safest in the world,
and has been improving since passage of the SDWA, many water utilities that serve millions of
Americans provide tap water that fails to meet the EPA standards.
The EPA has equivalents in many countries, although details of responsibilities vary. For instance, the
federal governments may have a larger role in pollution control, as in France, or more of this
responsibility may be shifted to the state and provincial governments, as in Canada. Because many
rivers, lakes, and ocean shorelines are shared by several nations, many international treaties also
address water pollution. For example, the governments of Canada and the United States have
negotiated at least nine treaties or agreements, starting with the Canada-U.S. Boundary Waters
Treaty of 1909, governing water pollution of the many rivers and lakes that flow along or across their
common border.
Several major treaties deal with oceanic pollution, including the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of
Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter and the 1973 International Convention for
the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (known as MARPOL). International controls and enforcement,
however, are generally weak.

Contributed By:
John Hart
Microsoft Encarta 2008. 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.