When toxic substances enter lakes, streams, rivers, oceans, and other water bodies, they get dissolved or lie suspended in water or get deposited on the bed. This results in the pollution of water whereby the quality of the water deteriorates, affecting aquatic ecosystems. Pollutants can also seep down and affect the groundwater deposits.
Water pollution has many sources. The most polluting of them are the city sewage and industrial waste discharged into the rivers. The facilities to treat waste water are not adequate in any city in India. Presently, only about 10% of the waste water generated is treated; the rest is discharged as it is into our water bodies. Due to this, pollutants enter groundwater, rivers, and other water bodies. Such water, which ultimately ends up in our households, is often highly contaminated and carries disease-causing microbes. Agricultural run-off, or the water from the fields that drains into rivers, is another major water pollutant as it contains fertilizers and pesticides.
Domestic sewage refers to waste water that is discarded from households. Also referred to as sanitary sewage, such water contains a wide variety of dissolved and suspended impurities.
It amounts to a very small fraction of the sewage by weight. But it is large by volume and contains impurities such as organic materials and plant nutrients that tend to rot. The main organic materials are food and vegetable waste, plant nutrient come from chemical soaps, washing powders, etc. Domestic sewage is also very likely to contain disease-causing microbes. Thus, disposal of domestic waste water is a significant technical problem. Sewage generated from the urban areas in India has multiplied manifold since 1947.
Today, many people dump their garbage into streams, lakes, rivers, and seas, thus making water bodies the final resting place of cans, bottles, plastics, and other household products. The various substances that we use for keeping our houses clean add to water pollution as they contain harmful chemicals. In the past, people mostly used soaps made from animal and vegetable fat for all types of washing. But most of today’s cleaning products are synthetic detergents and come from the petrochemical industry. Most detergents and washing powders contain phosphates, which are used to soften the water among other things. These and other chemicals contained in washing powders affect the health of all forms of life in the water.
Agricultural Run off
The use of land for agriculture and the practices followed in cultivation greatly affect the quality of groundwater. Intensive cultivation of crops causes chemicals from fertilizers (e.g. nitrate) and pesticides to seep into the groundwater, a process commonly known as leaching. Routine applications of fertilizers and pesticides for agriculture and indiscriminate disposal of industrial and domestic wastes are increasingly being recognized as significant sources of water pollution.
The high nitrate content in groundwater is mainly from irrigation run-off from agricultural fields where chemical fertilizers have been used indiscriminately.
Waste water from manufacturing or chemical processes in industries contributes to water pollution. Industrial waste water usually contains specific and readily identifiable chemical compounds. During the last fifty years, the number of industries in India has grown rapidly. But water pollution is concentrated within a few subsectors, mainly in the form of toxic wastes and organic pollutants. Out of this a large portion can be traced to the processing of industrial chemicals and to the food products industry. In fact, a number of large- and medium-sized industries in the region covered by the Ganga Action Plan do not have adequate effluent treatment facilities. Most of these defaulting industries are sugar mills, distilleries, leather processing industries, and thermal power stations. Most major industries have treatment facilities for industrial effluents. But this is not the case with small-scale industries, which cannot afford enormous investments in pollution control equipment as their profit margin is very slender.
Effects of Water Pollution
The effects of water pollution are not only devastating to people but also to animals, fish, and birds. Polluted water is unsuitable for drinking, recreation, agriculture, and industry. It diminishes the aesthetic quality of lakes and rivers. More seriously, contaminated water destroys aquatic life and reduces its reproductive ability. Eventually, it is a hazard to human health. Nobody can escape the effects of water pollution.
The individual and the community can help minimize water pollution. By simple housekeeping and management practices the amount of waste generated can be minimized.
Causes of Water Pollution
The specific contaminants leading to pollution in water include a wide spectrum of chemicals, pathogens, and physical or sensory changes such as elevated temperature and discoloration. While many of the chemicals and substances that are regulated may be naturally occurring (calcium, sodium, iron, manganese, etc.) the concentration is often the key in determining what is a natural component of water, and what is a contaminant.
Oxygen-depleting substances may be natural materials, such as plant matter (e.g. leaves and grass) as well as man-made chemicals. Other natural and anthropogenic substances may cause turbidity (cloudiness) which blocks light and disrupts plant growth, and clogs the gills of some fish species.
Many of the chemical substances are toxic. Pathogens can produce waterborne diseases in either human or animal hosts. Alteration of water’s physical chemistry include acidity (change in pH), electrical conductivity, temperature, and eutrophication. Eutrophication is the fertilization of surface water by nutrients that were previously scarce.
Coliform bacteria are a commonly-used bacterial indicator of water pollution, although not an actual cause of disease. Other microorganisms sometimes found in surface waters which have caused human health problems include:
- Cryptosporidium parvum
- Giardia lamblia
- Novovirus and other viruses
- Parasitic worms (helminths).
High levels of pathogens may result from inadequately treated sewage discharges. This can be caused by a sewage plant designed with less than secondary treatment (more typical in less-developed countries). In developed countries, older cities with aging infrastructure may have leaky sewage collection systems (pipes, pumps, valves), which can cause sanitary sewer overflows. Some cities also have combined sewers, which may discharge untreated sewage during rain storms.
Pathogen discharges may also be caused by poorly-managed livestock operations.
Chemical and other Contaminants
Contaminants may include organic and inorganic substances.
Organic water pollutants include:
- Disinfection by-products found in chemically disinfected drinking water, such as chloroform
- Food processing waste, which can include oxygen-demanding substances, fats and grease
- Insecticides and herbicides, a huge range of organohalides and other chemical compounds
- Petroleum hydrocarbons, including fuels (gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuels, and fuel oil) and lubricants (motor oil), and fuel combustion byproducts, from stormwater runoff
- Tree and bush debris from logging operations
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as industrial solvents, from improper storage. Chlorinated solvents, which are dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs), may fall to the bottom of reservoirs, since they don’t mix well with water and are denser.
- Various chemical compounds found in personal hygiene and cosmetic products
Inorganic water pollutants include:
- Acidity caused by industrial discharges (especially sulfur dioxide from power plants)
- Ammonia from food processing waste
- Chemical waste as industrial by-products
- Fertilizers containing nutrients–nitrates and phosphates–which are found in stormwater runoff from agriculture, as well as commercial and residential use
- Heavy metals from motor vehicles (via urban stormwater runoff) and acid mine drainage
- Silt (sediment) in runoff from construction sites, logging, slash and burn practices or land clearing sites
Macroscopic pollution-large visible items polluting the water-may be termed “floatables” in an urban stormwater context, or marine debris when found on the open seas, and can include such items as:
- Trash (e.g. paper, plastic, or food waste) discarded by people on the ground, and that are washed by rainfall into storm drains and eventually discharged into surface waters
- Nurdles, small ubiquitous waterborne plastic pellets
- Shipwrecks, large derelict ships
Thermal pollution is the rise or fall in the temperature of a natural body of water caused by human influence. A common cause of thermal pollution is the use of water as a coolant by power plants and industrial manufacturers. Elevated water temperatures decreases oxygen levels (which can kill fish) and affects ecosystem composition, such as invasion by new thermophilic species. Urban runoff may also elevate temperature in surface waters.
Thermal pollution can also be caused by the release of very cold water from the base of reservoirs into warmer rivers.
Types of Water Pollution
Disease-causing (pathogenic) microorganisms, like bacteria, viruses and protozoa can cause swimmers to get sick. Fish and shellfish can become contaminated and people who eat them can become ill. Some serious diseases like polio and cholera are waterborne.
A whole variety of chemicals from industry, such as metals and solvents, and even chemicals which are formed from the breakdown of natural wastes (ammonia, for instance) are poisonous to fish and other aquatic life. Pesticides used in agriculture and around the home– insecticides for controlling insects and herbicides for controlling weeds– are another type of toxic chemical. Some of these can accumulate in fish and shellfish and poison people, animals, and birds that eat them. Materials like detergents and oils float and spoil the appearance of a water body, as well as being toxic; and many chemical pollutants have unpleasant odors. The Niagara River, between the US and Canada, even caught fire at one time because of flammable chemical wastes discharged into the water.
Many wastes are biodegradable, that is, they can be broken down and used as food by microorganisms like bacteria. We tend to think of biodegradable wastes as being preferable to non-biodegradable ones, because they will be broken down and not remain in the environment for very long times. Too much biodegradable material, though, can cause the serious problem of oxygen depletion in receiving waters.
Like fish, aerobic bacteria that live in water use oxygen gas which is dissolved in the water when they consume their “food”. (The oxygen in the compound H2O, water, is chemically bound, and is not available for respiration (breathing)). But, oxygen is not very soluble in water. Even when the water is saturated with dissolved oxygen, it contains only about 1/25 the concentration that is present in air. So if there is too much “food” in the water, the bacteria that are consuming it can easily use up all of the dissolved oxygen, leaving none for the fish, which will die of suffocation.
Once the oxygen is gone (depleted), other bacteria that do not need dissolved oxygen take over. But while aerobic microorganisms– those which use dissolved oxygen– convert the nitrogen, sulfur, and carbon compounds that are present in the wastewater into odorless– and relatively harmless– oxygenated forms like nitrates, sulfates and carbonates, these anaerobic microorganisms produce toxic and smelly ammonia, amines, and sulfides, and flammable methane (swamp gas). Add in the dead fish, and you see why we don’t want large amounts of biodegradable materials entering lakes and streams.
The elements phosphorus and nitrogen are necessary for plant growth, and are plentiful in untreated wastwater. Added to lakes and streams, they cause nuisance growth of aquatic weeds, as well as “blooms” of algae, which are microscopic plants. This can cause several problems. Weeds can make a lake unsuitable for swimming and boating. Algae and weeds die and become biodegrable material, which can cause the problems mentioned above (and below). If the water is used as a drinking water source, algae can clog filters and impart unpleasant tastes and odors to the finished water.
Some pollutants are dissolved in wastewater, meaning that the individual molecules or ions (electrically charged atoms or molecules) of the substance are mixed directly in between the molecules of water. Other pollutants, referred to as particulate matter, consist of much larger– but still very small– particles which are just suspended in the water. Although they may be kept in suspension by turbulence, once in the receiving water, they will eventually settle out and form silt or mud at the bottom. These sediments can decrease the depth of the body of water. If there is a lot of biodegradable organic material in the sediment, it will become anaerobic and contribute to problems mentioned above. Toxic materials can also accumulate in the sediment and affect the organisms which live there and can build up in fish that feed on them, and so be passed up the food chain, causing problems all along the way . Also, some of the particulate matter may be grease– or be coated with grease, which is lighter than water, and float to the top, creating an aesthetic nuisance.