Water pollution in the United States continues to be a pressing environmental and public health issue. While the implementation of U.S. water quality laws and regulations have significantly improved drinking water quality, agricultural and industrial processes combined with runoff from continued urban growth still lead to contaminated water. The EPA has set legal limits on over 90 different contaminants, but many local jurisdictions still struggle to meet federal and state water quality standards. Water pollution is both harmful to human health and to the environment. Read on to learn more about the consequences of exposure to water pollution and how to limit your exposure.
Human Health Impacts
Water intake is a critical component of life, and not drinking enough water can lead to a host of problems associated with dehydration, including impaired cognitive function, confusion, fatigue, shock, and eventual death (in around three days) if no water has been consumed at all. When someone drinks contaminated water, they avoid dehydration but open themselves up to a new host of health problems. Harmful bacteria or parasites, chemical waste, and microplastics can all be found in contaminated water, and each has different health consequences on the human body.
Bacteria or Parasite Ingestion
According to the World Health Organization, over two billion people around the world currently drink from a water source contaminated with feces. Poor sanitation in combination with contaminated water leads to the transmission of diseases like hepatitis A, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and diarrhea. Globally, over 220 million people in 2017 underwent preventative treatment for the disease schistosomiasis, which is caused by exposure to parasitic worms in contaminated water. Algae blooms, particularly blue-green algae, are another bacterial water contaminant that can create illness in humans when ingested or exposed to and are a fairly common problem in U.S. water sources. Many of these bacteria and associated diseases are a larger problem in underdeveloped countries, and U.S. water quality regulations have helped minimize these problems. Nevertheless, sewage runoff is a primary cause of bacterial spread and bacterial contamination is still an issue in the U.S.
Chemical water pollutants can come from a variety of sources, including pesticides, fertilizers, and heavy metals. These chemical pollutants typically enter the drinking water system from agricultural or industrial runoff, but can come from a variety of sources. In 2014 in Flint, Michigan, this source was the town’s service pipes and solder corroding. This corrosion in combination with insufficient treatment resulted in the drinking water being contaminated with lead, which caused some Flint residents to experience hair loss, itchy skin, and rashes. Lead levels increased in residents, particularly in children in which it doubled. Ingestion of chemical pollutants can also lead to hormone disruptions, impaired brain function, immune and reproductive system damage, cardiovascular and kidney problems, and the potential onset of cancer. Just swimming in water contaminated with chemicals can lead to respiratory infections, pink eye, rashes, or even hepatitis.
Another contaminant that is rapidly increasing and that scientists are continuing to learn about are microplastics. These microplastics come from all the plastics we use for purposes like bottled water, food products, and packaging. There are currently limited studies available on the negative impacts of ingestion due to the relatively recent discovery and awareness of microplastics in water, but initial outcomes of studies show that ingestion of microplastics may lead to inflammatory reactions, metabolic disorders, and oxidative stress, which leads to cell and tissue damage. Continued research in microplastics is needed to fully understand the harmful impacts of microplastic ingestion on the human body.
Water is not only a necessity for human life, but also for plants, animals, and the environment. Animals are also negatively impacted by water contaminants and experience decreased quality of life and even death when coming into contact with polluted water. Harm to any organisms in an ecosystem can create a chain effect that in turn harms an entire environment. Eutrophication, the death of oxygen, occurs when water pollution leads to algae blooms that reduce oxygen levels in the water, which effectively suffocates the plants and animals living within the water. This creates “dead zones” in water, where there is no plant or animal life. Chemicals can also shorten aquatic life spans and impact reproductive systems. Animals that eat other animals or plants that have ingested chemicals will also effectively be exposed to the same chemicals and can accumulate these chemicals and heavy metals over time. This accumulation leads to impaired animal health. Many animals are ingesting plastics, or even getting stuck or strangled within the mass amount of plastic waste in the ocean.
How to Mitigate Exposure
U.S. laws and regulations to control drinking water quality are successful in many areas and have greatly reduced the chance of exposure to water pollutants. However, despite water treatment systems and regulations in place, we recommend regularly referring to your local jurisdiction’s drinking water quality report. These reports are mandatory and are created annually to provide information on contaminant levels in the area’s drinking water. Investing in a water filter is an additional layer of protection from contaminants, as water treatment systems catch most but not all possible water contaminants. Filters exist for your refrigerator, faucet, water pitcher, shower, and even your whole house. If you’re worried about your area’s water, you can utilize a reverse osmosis water purification system to be 100% sure your water supply is pure. Understanding your area’s water quality and utilizing water filtration can better protect you from exposure to water pollutants and keep you healthy.