What are the Causes of Water Pollution?

It is common knowledge that around two-thirds of the world is made up of water, which means that taking care of the Earth’s water should be a priority for everyone around the globe. When harmful microorganisms and chemical substances contaminate bodies of water, they cause the water quality to decrease and potentially make it toxic. Water pollution can have negative effects on our health, the environment and the economy.  

When discussing the issues that can arise due to water pollution, there are three major areas to consider:

  • Health: According to the United Nations, every year there are more deaths caused by polluted water than all types of violence combined, including war. Waste from humans and animals that contaminates water carries bacteria and viruses that cause the spread of diseases such as typhoid, cholera and giardia. 
  • Environment: All the species in an ecosystem rely on each other in order to survive. Outside substances, such as pollutants found in wastewater, can disrupt the complicated relationships between species that an ecosystem needs in order to thrive.
  • Economy: Polluted water can have many negative effects on the economy. It directly impacts sectors such as commercial fishing, recreational businesses, tourism and even property values, all of which rely heavily on clean water. Polluted drinking water can also cause treatment costs to rise, which in turn makes the cost of drinking water rise as well. 

But what are the causes of water pollution, and what can we do about them?

The Causes of Water Pollution

Water is one of the most important elements on Earth when it comes to sustaining life. Unfortunately, it is also extremely susceptible to pollution. This is largely because water is a universal solvent that can dissolve many substances. While this is a wonderful quality that we take advantage of for everyday tasks such as cooking, cleaning and taking medication, it is also the exact quality that causes water to become polluted so easily. 

There are many causes of water pollution. Below, we will focus on seven of the major ways that water can become polluted.

1. Industrial Waste

Industries and industrial sites across the world are a major contributor to water pollution. Many industrial sites produce waste in the form of toxic chemicals and pollutants, and though regulated, some still do not have proper waste management systems in place. In those rare cases, industrial waste is dumped into nearby freshwater systems. When industrial waste is not treated properly (or worse, not treated at all), it can very easily pollute the freshwater systems that it comes into contact with. 

Industrial waste from agricultural sites, mines and manufacturing plants can make its way into rivers, streams and other bodies of water that lead directly to the sea. The toxic chemicals in the waste produced by these industries not only have the potential to make water unsafe for human consumption, they can also cause the temperature in freshwater systems to change, making them dangerous for many water dwelling organisms.

2. Marine Dumping

The process of marine dumping is exactly what it sounds like, dumping garbage into the waters of the ocean. It might seem crazy, but household garbage is still collected and dumped into oceans by many countries across the world. Most of these items can take anywhere from two to 200 years to decompose completely.

3. Sewage and Wastewater

Harmful chemicals, bacteria and pathogens can be found in sewage and wastewater even when it’s been treated. Sewage and wastewater from each household is released into the sea with fresh water. The pathogens and bacteria found in that wastewater breed disease, and therefore are a cause of health-related issues in humans and animals alike. 

4. Oil Leaks and Spills

The age-old phrase “like water and oil” is used when describing two things that do not mix easily or at all. Just as the saying states, water and oil do not mix, and oil does not dissolve in water. Large oil spills and oil leaks, while often accidental, are a major cause of water pollution. Leaks and spills often are caused by oil drilling operations in the ocean or ships that transport oil.  wildlife. 

5. Agriculture

In order to protect their crops from bacteria and insects, farmers often use chemicals and pesticides. When these substances seep into the groundwater, they can harm animals, plants and humans. Additionally, when it rains, the chemicals mix with rainwater, which then flows into rivers and streams that filter into the ocean, causing further water pollution. 

6. Global Warming

Rising temperatures due to global warming are a major concern in terms of water pollution. Global warming causes water temperatures to rise, which can kill water-dwelling animals. When large die-offs occur, it further pollutes the water supply, exacerbating the issue. 

There are many everyday ways you can help reduce global warming, which will in turn help lower water pollution. These methods include recycling, carpooling and using CFL bulbs in your home.

7. Radioactive Waste

Radioactive waste from facilities that create nuclear energy can be extremely hazardous to the environment and must be disposed of properly. This is because uranium, the element used in the creation of nuclear energy, is a highly toxic chemical. 

Unfortunately, accidents still occur at these facilities, and toxic waste is released into the environment. The coal and gas industries are, in many ways, no better. This is one of the major impetuses behind the development of alternative, clean sources of energy, including solar and wind.

Combatting Water Pollution

Water pollution is a major issue across the world and is caused by many contributing factors. It can greatly disrupt entire ecosystems and be extremely harmful to our health and economy. Water is an extremely valuable resource, and proper water treatment policies and management are imperative in the fight to keep the world’s water supply clean.

There are numerous ways that each of us can help reduce water pollution, and the Natural Resources Defense Council has outlined a few, including:

  1. Don’t flush trash. Being mindful not to flush non-degradable products, such as plastic, down your toilet is one small but great way to stop contributing to the problem and start becoming part of the solution. 
  2. Pick up after your pets. Waste from animals is full of bacteria, and if not disposed of properly, that bacteria can find its way into the water supply through storm drains and runoff. The recommended disposal method is to use a bag made from recycled plastic to throw it in the trash.
  3. Maintain your car. Antifreeze, oil, coolant and other chemicals can leak out of your car if it’s not properly cared for. Then, rainwater washes those chemicals into the groundwater supply. Regular maintenance can reduce the amount of pollutants emitted by your car, and it enhances the vehicle’s performance as well.

These are just a few ways to start the process of combatting water pollution, and they are contained to the actions you carry out in your home. There are bigger issues that need to be addressed, though, and that’s where leaders come in. Changes to policy and advances in science can help tackle the larger issues contributing to water pollution, such as marine dumping and offshore oil spills. Earning a water resources master’s degree online will prepare you with an advanced understanding of the growing complexity of water issues impacting the state, nation and globe. East Central University’s online M.S. Water Resource Policy and Management trains students for leadership roles that make water policy decisions that impact various communities. Our program integrates knowledge from multiple disciplines to address the complex challenges of water resource decisions and to develop solutions that are socially acceptable, politically and economically viable and environmentally sustainable. Because our program is fully online, you’ll be able to earn your degree on a schedule that works for you.