We live on a planet that is unique in our solar system because of a precious layer of water – most of it saltwater – covering about 71 percent of its surface. Look in the mirror. What you see is about 60 percent water, most of it inside your cells.
Water is an amazing chemical with unique properties that help to keep us and other species alive. You could survive for several weeks without food, but for only a few days without freshwater, or water that contains very low levels of dissolved salts. We have no substitute for this vital form of natural capital.
It takes huge amounts of water to supply us with food and with most of the other things that we use to meet our daily needs and wants. Water also plays a key role in determining and moderating the earth’s climates and in removing and diluting some of the pollutants and wastes that we produce.
Water is an environmental issue because excessive withdrawal of freshwater from rivers and aquifers (porous, water-saturated layers of sand, gravel, or bedrock that can yield a significant amount of water) has resulted in falling water tables, dwindling river flows, shrinking lakes, and disappearing wetlands. This, in combination with water pollution in many areas has degraded water quality, reduced fish populations, hastened the extinction of some aquatic species, and degraded aquatic ecosystem services (Miller and Spoolman, 2016).
The Earth’s Water
There are three main sources of water in the world (Miller and Spoolman, 2016). These are:
Ocean Water - The vast majority of water in the world is the ocean’s salt water. Ocean water accounts for about 96.5 percent of the water in the world.
Ground Water - Most of the world’s liquid fresh water (about 1.7 percent of all water) is contained in underground chambers. This ground water is essentially precipitation that infiltrates the ground and seeps downward into spaces in rock, gravel, and soil. Deeper down are geological layers called aquifers – caverns and porous layers of sand, gravel, or rock through which ground water flows until encountering watertight layers of rock or clay which prevent deeper seepage. Most aquifers are replenished naturally by precipitation, but this cannot occur in urban areas that have been paved over or in areas where there is little precipitation.
Surface Water - Most available drinking water comes from fresh surface water. This water comes from rain and melted snow and is found in lakes, reservoirs, rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. Unfortunately, readily available surface water accounts for less than ¼ of 1 percent of all water on earth. The world’s freshwater supply is, of course, continually recycled, purified, and distributed in the earth’s hydrologic cycle (that is, from the environment to living organisms back to the environment). An additional 1.7 percent of water is found in frozen polar ice caps and glaciers.
Precipitation that does not infiltrate the ground or evaporate is referred to as surface runoff.
The land from which surface runoff drains into a steam or lake or other body of water is called a watershed or drainage basin.
Key Water Problem #1: Overuse of Ground Water
Worldwide, as human population has grown and per capita use of water has increased, greater and greater demand has been placed on fresh water supplies. By far, the greatest use of fresh water is made in agriculture, especially in irrigation. In the United States, according to the United States Geologic Survey, the major uses of surface water and ground water are:
41% - cooling electric power plants
37% - irrigation
13% - public water supplies
5% - industry
4% - livestock production
The average American each day directly uses 69 gallons of fresh water. The most common uses are:
27% - flushing toilets
22% - washing clothes
17% - taking showers
16% - running faucets
14% - leaking plumbing
Indirectly, however, many times more water is used. For example, producing and delivering a hamburger takes about 640 gallons of fresh water (most used to grow grain fed to cattle), making a t-shirt requires 680 gallons, and making a small car requires 104,000 gallons (Miller and Spoolman, 2016).
Today, there are more people drawing more water than ever before, and in many ways they are doing so less efficiently. One way this shows up is that we are using up water from aquifers faster than it can be replenished. Aquifers provide the drinking water for almost half of the world’s population. In the United States, aquifers provide all of the drinking water for people in rural areas (through wells) and about 20 percent of the drinking water for people in urban areas. More than 1/3 of the water used in irrigation comes from aquifers. Water from aquifers is, of course, renewable unless the ground water becomes contaminated or it is removed faster than it can be replenished (Miller and Spoolman, 2016).
Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening. The rate at which aquifers are being pumped (mostly for irrigation) is faster than it can be replenished by rainfall and melted snow. The world’s three largest producers of grain – China, the United States, and India – as well as many other countries - are overpumping the aquifers. In the United States alone, water from aquifers is being withdrawn four times faster than it can be replenished (Miller and Spoolman, 2016; United States Geological Survey, 2016). What are the specific harms?
1. Limits on food production. As water tables drop, it costs more to pump water from lower depths. This drives many smaller farms out of business and increases food costs for everyone. This limits the amount of food that less wealthy families can afford and can increase hostility between countries with enough water and those without.
2. Damage to aquifers. When too much water is withdrawn from aquifers, it increases the possibility that the rock or sand around the aquifer collapses. This is called land subsidence – a loss of support below ground (United States Geological Survey, 2016). This makes it impossible for the aquifer to be renewed. Land subsidence is most often caused by human activities, mainly from the removal of subsurface water.
3. Reduction of water in streams and lakes. Some, and often a great deal, of the water flowing in rivers and streams and some of the water in lakes comes from seepage of ground water into the streambed. Ground water pumping can alter how water moves between an aquifer and a stream, lake, or wetland by either intercepting ground water flow that discharges into the surface-water body under natural conditions, or by increasing the rate of water movement from the surface-water body into an aquifer. Ground water pumping can lower ground water levels below the depth that streamside or wetland vegetation needs to survive.
3. Contamination of ground water. In coastal areas, depleting aquifers increases the likelihood of salt water being drawn into the aquifers. This salt water is undrinkable and unusable for irrigation. Under natural conditions the boundary between the freshwater and saltwater tends to be relatively stable, but pumping can cause saltwater to migrate inland and upward, resulting in saltwater contamination of the water supply.
4. Increased harm from dams. Dams are structures designed to create artificial reservoirs to capture and store surface runoff water to be controlled and used as needed over time. The world’s dams provide water for nearly half of the world’s irrigated croplands and supply more than half of the needed electricity in more than 65 countries. But, there are downsides. Many fresh water fish and plant species are endangered or have become extinct due to the decreased water flows of rivers that are dammed and the ecosystems which are harmed. Over time, the reservoirs behind dams fill up with mud and silt and are no longer able to function as intended. (In the United States, this is expected to become a more serious problem within the next ten years.) Costs for using water that is available significantly increase.
5. Greater use of inefficient and environmentally harmful water transfers. As available water in some areas decreases to a serious level, efforts are often made to transfer water through canals and pipelines from water-rich areas to water-poor areas. This process has provided some important benefits. However, it is very expensive and has often created serious environmental degradation to the originating location and to areas along the way that are destroyed for the pipe insertion.
6. Greater use of costly and environmentally harmful desalination techniques. Desalination is the process of removing salt from ocean water or from brackish water in aquifers or lakes. It is a way to try to increase fresh water supply. But, use of this technique also carries serious problems. It is extremely expensive. It requires use of chemicals that kill marine life. It produces huge quantities of salty wastewater that must be dumped somewhere thus threatening marine life and food supplies.
Using Fresh Water More Sustainably
One effective and efficient way to increase fresh water availability is to consume less of it by using it in a more sustainable fashion. The world Resources Institute estimates that half of the fresh water used in the United States is lost through evaporation, leaks, and inefficient use. If this lost amount could be significantly reduced – experts say that it can – we would greatly expand water availability. How could this reduction be made (Miller and Spoolman, 2016)?
Use of more efficient (and already available) irrigation techniques
Use of more efficient (and already available) water techniques in industries (for example, recycling water) and in homes (for example, low-flow toilets and showerheads, front-loading washers, and drip-irrigation techniques for lawns)
Use of less water to remove wastes (for example, reusing gray water from homes and businesses for cleaning equipment and watering lawns)
Reducing human contributions to flooding (for example, stopping the narrowing of rivers, stopping the removal of water-absorbing vegetation, and stopping the draining of wetlands)
Key Water Problem #2: Water Pollution
Sooner or Later, we will have to recognize that the earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia
Water pollution refers to “any change in water quality that can harm living organisms or make the water unfit for human uses such as drinking, irrigation, and recreation.” Pollutants are discharged into bodies of surface water in one of two ways.
Point sources (that is, a single point or entity such as a factory or a sewage treatment plant or an underground mine or an oil well or oil tanker) discharge pollutants through a drain pipe or ditch or sewer line. When point-source pollution enters the environment, the place most affected is usually the area immediately around the source. For example, when a tanker accident occurs, the oil slick is concentrated around the tanker itself.
Nonpoint sources are “broad and diffuse areas where rainfall or snowmelt wash pollutants off the land into bodies of surface water. Examples include runoff of eroded soil and chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides from cropland, feedlots, logged forests, urban streets, parking lots, lawns, and golf courses. Because they are so disperse and so difficult to identify, our communities have done much less well controlling discharges from nonpoint sources (Miller and Spoolman, 2016).
There are two main ways of measuring the quality of water. One is to take samples of the water and measure the concentrations of different chemicals that it contains. If the chemicals are dangerous or the concentrations are too great, we can regard the water as polluted. Measurements like this are known as chemical indicators of water quality. Another way to measure water quality involves examining the fish, insects, and other invertebrates that the water will support. If many different types of creatures can live in a river, the quality is likely to be very good; if the river supports no fish life at all, the quality is obviously much poorer. Measurements like this are called biological indicators of water quality (Woodford, 2017).
Interesting Facts about Water Pollution
Fact 1: About 71% of the earth is covered in water.
Fact 2: Fresh water in the world is only 2.5% of the total water available on this planet.
Fact 3: Around 70% of industrial waste is dumped into the water bodies where they pollute the usable water supply.
Fact 4: Fourteen billion pounds of garbage mostly plastic, is dumped into the ocean every year.
Fact 5: 15 million children under the age of five die each year due to diseases caused by drinking water.
Fact 6: According to the WHO (World Health Organization) and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), around 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation.
Fact 7: In America, 40% of the rivers and 46% of the lakes are polluted and are considered unhealthy for swimming, fishing or aquatic life.
Fact 8: The EPA estimates that 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage from household, industry and restaurants are dumped in to U.S. waters annually.
Fact 9: Asia has maximum numbers of polluted rivers than anywhere else in the world. Most of it contains bacteria created from human waste.
Fact 10: Plastic waste being a major water pollutant, is causing huge destruction of marine life and is believed to be responsible for deaths of more than 100,000 sea mammals, sea birds and various types of fishes.
Fact 11: Aquatic animals face an estimated extinction rate five times more than that of terrestrial animals.
Fact 12: Cruise ships are a major source of water pollution. They produce over 200,000 gallons of sewage which is mostly released in the ocean. They also leak enough oil to contaminate at least 35,000 gallons of water annually (Conserve Energy Future, 2018).
Fact 13: Every year almost 25% of U.S. beaches are closed at least once because of water pollution.
Fact 14: Americans use over 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides every year, which eventually washes into our rivers and lakes. Over 73 different kinds of pesticides have been found in U.S. groundwater that eventually ends up in our drinking water - unless it is adequately filtered.
Fact 15: Pollution of surface water is a problem for over half of our planet’s population. Each year 250 million documented cases of water-borne diseases are documented, with roughly 5 to 10 million deaths (Hearn, 2018).
Major Causes of Water Pollution
1. Agriculture. The biggest issues with the agricultural sector are pollutants from pesticides (made with incredibly harsh chemical ingredients) and fertilizers (even when made of natural substances, can be packed with nitrates). Pesticides are used regularly in order to keep crops healthy and free from insects and other pests. Although there are many natural ways to do this that don’t involve the use of harsh chemicals, these are often more expensive and many companies won’t entertain the idea. Fertilizers are also used to help crops grow.
Pesticides are washed into ground and surface water sources as part of toxic runoff that is created at many agricultural sites. When they’re sprayed over crops, it doesn’t take long for them to seep into the soil or find their way to nearby rivers or lakes. The same is true of fertilizers, although they’re much more likely to percolate into the groundwater than to be carried as runoff.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Groundwater is most heavily affected by agricultural pollution, and this pollution may be carried for long distances before ending up in the drinking water of humans. Fertilizer pollution causes nitrates to build up in the environment, and especially in surface water. When this happens, fish life is choked out and plants start to die off. Mammals and birds that rely on those fish for food sources quickly become endangered. Pesticide pollution can severely harm humans and animals who drink this polluted water, and sometimes humans have even died from this type of pollution (All-About-Water-Filters, 2018).
2. Mining. Mining causes many types of pollutants (including lead, mercury, Sulphur, arsenic, and other heavy metals) to make their way into water sources. Most of these heavy metals are present naturally in the rock that can be found below the surface of the earth. Normally, they would stay underground and might only find their way into water in trace amounts. However, when blasting and other types of mining occur, they are exposed to the water at much higher levels.
Water pollution caused by fracking is a major concern with relation to the mining industry. Fracking involves drilling down into the earth beside a rock and then directing a high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals mixture at the rock to force the gas inside to flow out the head of the well. The term fracking refers to how the rock is fractured apart by the high pressure mixture. Fracking allows heavy metal pollutants to seep into groundwater sources below the surface of the earth. If fracking takes place near drinking water sources, these may become laced with heavy metals that can cause poisoning.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Heavy metal poisoning can lead to death in some cases for both humans and animals. Most of the time, however, it causes severe illness and may lead to lasting brain damage. The environment suffers as bodies of water become too polluted to sustain fish and animal life (All-About-Water-Filters, 2018).
3. Fishing. The fishing industry doesn’t necessarily cause pollutants, but it can help introduce them into the water by (a) increasing the presence of gasoline and oil in water from regular use of fishing boats, and (b) upsetting the balance in water environments making pollution from bacteria and nutrients more likely by overfishing bodies of fresh water. Overfishing occurs when some freshwater sources are too polluted to sustain enough fish life, thus forcing those who fish for a living to rely on the same few bodies of water.
Most of the time, oil and gasoline find their way into water through the regular use of boats. Sometimes spills and accidents occur, but this isn’t too common in smaller bodies of water (although it is very common in the ocean). The pollution caused by overfishing occurs over time as fish populations dwindle and insects, bacteria, and nitrate numbers rise. This pollution almost solely affects surface water sources, although pollution that affects fish life can come from groundwater.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Pollution caused by the fishing industry causes the widespread death of fish. This may affect fish that are used by the fishing industry as well as those considered unwanted or “garbage fish.” As fish die, mammals and birds do as well, while insects and other creatures that are eaten by the fish usually increase in number.
4. Nuclear. Although all sources of energy have the potential to cause pollution, nuclear energy is much more serious in terms of pollutants. Nuclear power plants produce radon gas as well as substances like strontium and cesium, both of which are radioactive. Thermal pollution is also a big problem surrounding nuclear power plants. Any byproduct of a nuclear power plant is potentially dangerous and likely to be radioactive.
Most nuclear power plants use a lot of water as part of their regular processes. The wastewater that is then expelled from these locations is full of pollution, which washes into ground and surface water nearby. Most nuclear power plants are also located on or near bodies of freshwater, which means there’s almost nothing keeping this wastewater from finding its way into lakes and rivers nearby. Surface bodies of water are most seriously affected by this type of pollution, although groundwater can also harbor this type of pollution and carry it to drinking water supplies nearby. Anyone who lives downstream from a nuclear power plant should never drink, fish from, or swim in the water from the river in question.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Radioactive waste is very carcinogenic. Repeated exposure to high levels of radiation in the water can lead to many different types of cancer. This type of pollution can also cause damage to the environment and serious mutations in animals and plants that live in the area.
5. Fuels. Petrochemicals like gasoline and oil are the most common problem arising from water pollution in the fuel industry. They are used to operate vehicles, machinery, and pretty much anything that needs a type of fuel in order to run. Most of the time, pollution problems come from spills and leaks - especially from small leaks in vehicles and machinery that may go unnoticed or unrepaired for a long time. Improper disposal of oil and gas used at home may cause buildup in landfills, too. But the regular normal use of gasoline and oil can lead to both groundwater pollution and air pollution that, in turn, carries pollutants to surface water sources around the world.
Surface and groundwater sources are both equally affected by this type of pollution, although somewhat differently. Oil spills and leaks are more likely to affect surface water, and oil slicks are common, especially in the ocean. Groundwater is more likely to be affected by the slow buildup of oil and gasoline in the soil surrounding residential communities and big cities.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Drinking water that is heavily polluted with oil or gasoline can cause digestive upset and serious damage to the stomach and intestines. It can also cause poisoning when the levels are very high. The environment may never completely recover from a bad oil spill, and many species of animals have been wiped out because of these events.
6. Plastics. There are dozens of harsh chemicals used in the production of plastics (such as plastic water bottles and plastic children’s toys). Plastics themselves and the substances used to create them are harsh enough to cause pollution when they build up in landfills around the world. Chemical byproducts always occur in the production of plastics. Wastewater from the plastic industry is often dumped into surface freshwater sources, and sometimes even when it’s stored or disposed of, it leaks into the groundwater because of poor maintenance conditions.
When plastic items are left in landfills for years instead of being recycled, they are allowed to seep into the soil and cause their chemical components to break down into the groundwater below. Sometimes, wastewater is dumped directly into rivers, where it’s carried downstream to drinking water sources. Surface and groundwater sources are equally affected by this type of pollution. Factories located on or near rivers contribute to surface water pollution through dumping and accidental leaks, while plastics that sit in landfills cause groundwater pollution to occur.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Pollution from plastic chemicals can cause neurological problems in humans and animals both. It can also lead to headaches, nausea, and serious diarrhea in humans. These pollutants throw off the balance of the environment and cause fish and animal death.
7. Textile Manufacturing. Textile manufacturing is responsible for one of the biggest pollutants faced by the modern world. Asbestos – a harsh carcinogenic substance - is a common byproduct and waste product from many textile manufacturing locations. In the past, it was even created purposefully and used for a wide variety of purposes. We have since learned of its dangers, but its existence as a byproduct is still widespread.
As in the plastic industry, the textile manufacturing industry usually introduces pollutants into the environment either through dumping or through accidents. Asbestos may be present in wastewater dumped from factories into rivers and lakes (affecting surface water) and be present in wastewater that leaks from underground storage containers and seeps into groundwater surrounding the factories.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Asbestos is a serious carcinogen. In humans, it can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, intestinal cancer, liver cancer, and organ failure. This doesn’t even have to occur from drinking water polluted with asbestos. These terrible effects can happen from just breathing it in. This is why it is so incredibly dangerous to ingest this pollutant in water.
8. Cleaning. “Cleaning” is a broad term that includes sectors such as dry cleaning (which produces harsh chemical waste that is sometimes laced with chromium, a harsh carcinogenic substance) and home and commercial cleaning products (which are made of harsh chemicals, such as bleach and ammonia). Water pollution caused by sewage may also fall into this category.
Pollutants from cleaning are created in different ways. For example, the harsh chemicals used in dry cleaning and harsh cleaning substances used in homes or hotels may be thrown away as part of regular waste disposal or simply dumped into surface water or poured on the ground. Groundwater is much more commonly affected by this type of pollution than surface water is. These chemicals seep into the groundwater and they percolate from landfills and dumps across the country.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Humans who drink water polluted with these types of chemicals may suffer from serious types of cancer as well as digestive issues. These chemicals may also cause organ failure when ingested at high levels.
9. Auto Manufacturing. Auto manufacturing companies use a lot of harsh chemicals and metals in their production processes, and they create byproducts (such as mercury and lead) that can be potentially very toxic if not disposed of properly. These products can be very dangerous and potential pollutants.
As with most other types of factory-related pollution, the most common reason these pollutants find their way into water is through dumping. Surface water is more commonly affected by pollution caused by dumping from auto manufacturers, and rivers are more likely to be affected than other surface bodies of water.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Depending on the type of pollutant, effects can range from slightly damaging to lethal. Humans who regularly drink water polluted with too much mercury and lead will eventually suffer from poisoning related to one or both substances and that can be fatal. Animals and the environment suffer significantly as well, and mercury poisoning can even be carried in fish that are then caught and used to feed humans.
10. Recreation. Many recreational bodies of water contain bacterial pollutants and parasites. These can range from relatively harmless to very severe, including the bacteria that causes necrotizing fasciitis, or “flesh-eating bacteria.” These bacteria are often byproducts of water where humans and animals both are frequently present. In lakes and ponds, the most common culprits come from animals; in human-made bodies of water like water parks and swimming pools, human presence creates the pollutants.
Humans and animals both can carry bacteria, viruses, and parasites into recreational bodies of water on their own bodies or clothing. However, the most common way pollutants are introduced is through waste. Animal waste almost always pollutes (or at least contaminates) natural bodies of water used for recreation. Human waste may pollute the water in swimming pools and water parks. Although the water in swimming pools, hot tubs, and water parks is often very heavily treated with cleaning chemicals, these bodies of water are often affected due to the number of people who enter them every day.
What are the effects of these pollutants on humans, animals, and the environment? Bacterial pollutants can lead to all sorts of problems for humans: from diarrhea and vomiting that goes away after a little while to diseases as serious as hepatitis, cholera, and typhoid. They may also cause open wounds to become infected with opportunistic bacteria that can be life-threatening. Parasites like cryptosporidium can cause much harm to humans, many parasites can also damage animals, and when parasites and bacteria build up in natural recreational water sources, even the environment suffers from the overabundance of these creatures.
More than 1.4 billion pounds of trash per year enters our oceans. Where does all that trash come from?
Referred to as marine pollution, the majority of pollutants (an estimated 80 percent) going into the ocean come from activities on land. Natural processes and human activities along the coastlines and far inland affect the health of our ocean. As discussed above, this pollution may be considered nonpoint source pollution (occurring as a result of runoff from many small sources, like septic tanks, cars, trucks, and boats, plus larger sources, such as farms, livestock ranches, and timber harvest areas) or point source pollution (occurring from a single source like an oil or chemical spill or discharge from faulty or damaged factories or water treatment systems) (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2018). What are the pathways by which are oceans become polluted?
Direct Discharge. Pollutants can enter the ocean directly (from urban sewerage, offshore oil and gas drilling, coal-burning power plants, industrial waste discharges, and mining, for example, sometimes in the form of hazardous and toxic wastes), or indirectly (through the same kinds of discharge but into rivers and other bodies of water which in turn empty into the ocean).
2. Land (Surface) Runoff Due to Rain. Runoff from land can occur in a variety of ways including polluted runoff from paved roads and highways, driveways, rooftops, yards, and other developed land, from farming, and from urban areas. The runoff can carry soil and particles laden with carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and minerals. This nutrient-rich water can cause fleshy algae and phytoplankton to thrive in coastal areas; known as algal blooms, which have the potential to create hypoxic conditions by using all available oxygen.
3. Pollutants Released from the Atmosphere. Wind-blown dust, pesticides, and debris, including plastic bags, are often blown seaward from landfills and other areas. Climate change is raising ocean temperatures and raising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These rising levels of carbon dioxide are acidifying the oceans. This, in turn, is altering aquatic ecosystems and modifying fish distributions, with impacts on the sustainability of fisheries and the livelihoods of the communities that depend on them. Healthy ocean ecosystems are also important for the mitigation of climate change.
4. Pollutants Released from Ships. Ships can pollute the ocean in several ways, including oil spills, tankers discharging ballast water from oil tanks on return trips (which can spread harmful algae and other invasive species), discharge of cargo residues, through noise pollution that disturbs wildlife.
5. Deep Sea Mining. A relatively new process, deep sea mining involves the retrieval of sulfide deposits, which contain precious metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and zinc (Clasby, 2000). The deposits are mined using either hydraulic pumps or bucket systems that take ore to the surface to be processed. As with all mining operations, deep sea mining raises questions about environmental damages to the surrounding areas. Experts are concerned that removal of parts of the sea floor will result in disturbances to the benthic layer, increased toxicity of the water column, and sediment plumes from tailings. Removing parts of the sea floor disturbs the habitat of benthic organisms, possibly, depending on the type of mining and location, causing permanent disturbances. Aside from direct impact of mining the area, leakage, spills, and corrosion would alter the mining area’s chemical makeup.
6. Marine Debris. Marine debris is another persistent pollution problem in our ocean. Marine debris injures and kills marine life, interferes with navigation safety, and poses a threat to human health. Our oceans are polluted with a wide variety of marine debris ranging from soda cans and plastic bags to derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels. A majority of the trash and debris that covers our beaches comes from storm drains and sewers, as well as from shoreline and recreational activities. Abandoned or discarded fishing gear is also a major problem because this trash can entangle, injure, maim, and drown marine wildlife and damage property (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2018).
Brunswick County, GenX, and Our Drinking Water
What is GenX?
GenX (the commonly used name for perfluoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid, a chemical compound) is a member of the human-made fluorochemical family that is used in making Teflon and a wide range of consumer products. It is a much under-studied compound, but it is known that it is resistant to decomposition in the environment and to elimination from our bodies, and it cannot be removed from water by most water treatment techniques. It is not regulated and there are no national standards for determining a threshold when it can be dangerous.
The risks to health of GenX are not well understood, but it is known that it becomes concentrated in our tissues which could lead to chronic health problems. Its family of chemicals has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, impaired fetal development, and effects on the liver, thyroid, and immune system. Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist and associate professor at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, states: “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that developing organisms are most susceptible and established drinking water health advisory levels to protect developing organisms, such as embryos and infants who are breast feeding or formula feeding. Other health agencies have determined they are carcinogens and immune hazards to humans. Taken together, these assessments demonstrate that a certain level of exposure to these compounds is associated with a risk of developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and/or cancer.”
There may be additional effects. Mike Giles, a coastal advocate with the North Carolina Coastal Federation said, “I don’t think anyone is considering the whole picture yet. There’s a concern about drinking the water, but we do much more with it. We water our gardens with it, we cook with it. And what about the environment? What’s the impact on wildlife and pets?” "The chemical could have a profound effect on animals," Larry Cahoon, Professor of Biology and Marine Biology at UNCW, said. “Pets don’t have the detox mechanisms that we do” (Ballard, 2017). In addition, there is some early evidence that GenX can contaminate the air.
In 2017, The Wilmington StarNews discovered that GenX was being discharged into the Cape Fear River by Chemours, a spinoff company of DuPont, which manufactures chemicals in a plant on the river in Fayetteville (about 90 miles northwest of Wilmington). This followed on the heels of a 2016 article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society which showed elevated levels in the river. DuPont and Chemours have previously been assessed huge fines for illegally discharging contaminants into other rivers.
The immediate concern was that the Cape Fear River provides the drinking water for approximately 300,000 people in New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender Counties. Moreover, the GenX discharge had been going on since 1980, had never been reported by the company as required, and had not even been reported after the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) (the water treatment system for the river) conducted a three-year study on the chemical’s elevated presence in the water. (The Vice Chair of the CFPUA coincidentally had formerly worked as a chemical engineer at DuPont.)
Chemours denied that the GenX had negatively impacted the water quality, but the company agreed in June, 2017 to begin capturing, removing, and disposing of wastewater that contains GenX from the manufacturing plant.
So, does that solve the problem? No. Among the additional concerns are:
The Cape Fear River and more than 100 private wells near the plant still contain GenX contaminated water. More private wells will be tested during 2018. The state Department of Health and Human Services has set a health goal of 140 parts per trillion based on studies of the chemical and formulas that might determine the potential danger, but the actual threshold level of danger is still not known and must be determined in future research. Dr. Cahoon states, “I think legitimate discharge for all this stuff is zero. We’ve got to make sure that our elected representatives and our state regulators don’t ignore it. We’ve got to make sure they take this seriously.”
Tests show that the level of GenX in the water spikes for a day or so after large rains. Research is still needed to determine the reason.
Research is still needed on the amount of GenX being distributed through the air and the effects of this dispersal.
GenX is only one of several chemical compounds being discharged into our waters. Others may be as dangerous or even more so, and additional research is needed on these.
Chemours has on at least one additional occasion violated its legal reporting responsibilities at the Fayetteville plant.
Is there confidence that the commitment exists to deal directly with this issue? The gubernatorial administration of Roy Cooper has emphasized the importance of environmental issues, has put together an impressive staff, and has the determination to correct the problems. The North Carolina House has stepped up in a bipartisan way on the GenX issue (one important bill passed 116-0). Some impressive research studies are underway. However, the North Carolina Senate has continued its efforts to drastically reduce the size of the staff in the Department of Environmental Quality, block efforts to oversee plants like Chemours, and block efforts to hold manufacturers accountable for endangering the public. One state senator indicated he did not consider dealing with the GenX issue as being urgent.
What Can Be Done?
The starting points for doing something about the pollution of our waters is the same as with all of the environmental issues covered in this section of the website:
Become more knowledgeable about this issue.
Discuss this issue with others; learn from them and help them learn from you.
Join forces with groups and organizations that are knowledgeable about environmental issues in general (BEAT!) and about this issue in particular. Organizations have greater access to scientific expertise, have larger budgets, have more contacts with the media, and have the force of combining many voices into one.
Advocate for maintaining high water quality and against permitting any agent – industries, agriculture, municipalities (stormwater runoff, sewage), ships (including cruise ships) and boats of all sizes, oil and gas drilling rigs, etc. – to be able to dump polluted water, marine debris, and toxins of any type into the ocean or other bodies of water. Advocate for your local government to support and facilitate clean water programs in whatever ways it can.
Become a role model for personal commitment to clean water. Advocate for individuals and families in your community to commit to take steps to prevention of our water. Consider how many of the “10 Ways to Reduce Plastic” that you and others can incorporate into your life. Lobby for beneficial laws. Support education programs and wildlife preserves. Identify sources of pollution and notify authorities and public. Volunteer to cleanup polluted areas.
Examine the values and political position on this issue of candidates running for political office. Federal support for a strong Environmental Protection Agency is very important. Support for a meaningful Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina is very important. Support by North Carolina’s governor and state legislature for taking a scientific approach to consideration of water issues is absolutely critical. Look for candidates that emphasize the importance of environmental impact in making decisions about what to do or not do.
Ten Ways to Reduce Plastic
(From Sarah Engler. 2016 “10 Ways to Reduce Plastic Consumption.”
There are millions of tons of debris floating around in that water—and most of it is plastic. This constant barrage (the equivalent of 136 billion milk jugs each year, estimates a study published in the journal Science) poses a serious danger to marine life. Animals can get tangled up in this trash or ingest it—either because they mistake it as prey or because the plastic has been broken down into tiny particles by seawater.
Plastic, of course, is uniquely problematic because it’s nonbiodegradable and therefore sticks around for a lot longer (up to 1,000 years longer) than other forms of trash. And we're not just talking about people dumping their garbage overboard. Around 80 percent of marine litter actually originates on land—either swept in from the coastline or carried to rivers from the streets during heavy rain via storm drains and sewer overflows.
So the best thing we can do to protect our waterways is try to keep as much plastic as possible out of the waste stream in the first place. The good news? There are many small ways you can have a big impact.
1. Wean yourself off disposable plastics. Ninety percent of the plastic items in our daily lives are used once and then chucked: grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Replace them with reusable versions. It only takes a few times of bringing your own bags to the store, silverware to the office, or travel mug to Starbucks before it becomes habit.
2. Stop buying water. Each year, close to 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed in the trash. Carry a reusable bottle in your bag, and you’ll never be caught having to resort to a Poland Spring or Evian again. If you’re nervous about the quality of your local tap water, look for a model with a built-in filter.
3. Boycott microbeads. Those little plastic scrubbers found in so many beauty products—facial scrubs, toothpaste, body washes—might look harmless, but their tiny size allows them to slip through water-treatment plants. Unfortunately, they also look just like food to some marine animals. Opt for products with natural ex-foliants, like oatmeal or salt, instead.
4. Cook more. Not only is it healthier, but making your own meals doesn’t involve takeout containers or doggy bags. For those times when you do order in or eat out, tell the establishment you don’t need any plastic cutlery or, for some serious extra credit, bring your own food-storage containers to restaurants for leftovers.
5. Purchase items secondhand. New toys and electronic gadgets, especially, come with all kinds of plastic packaging—from those frustrating hard-to-crack shells to twisty ties. Search the shelves of thrift stores, neighborhood garage sales, or online postings for items that are just as good when previously used. You’ll save yourself a few bucks, too.
6. Recycle (duh). It seems obvious, but we’re not doing a great job of it. For example, less than 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled. Confused about what can and can’t go in the bin? Check out the number on the bottom of the container. Most beverage and liquid cleaner bottles will be #1 (PET), which is commonly accepted by most curbside recycling companies. Containers marked #2 (HDPE; typically slightly heavier-duty bottles for milk, juice, and laundry detergent) and #5 (PP; plastic cutlery, yogurt and margarine tubs, ketchup bottles) are also recyclable in some areas. For the specifics on your area, check out Earth911.org’s recycling directory.
7. Support a bag tax or ban. Urge your elected officials to follow the lead of those in San Francisco, Chicago, and close to 150 other cities and counties by introducing or supporting legislation that would make plastic-bag use less desirable.
8. Buy in bulk. Single-serving yogurts, travel-size toiletries, tiny packages of nuts—consider the product-to-packaging ratio of items you tend to buy often and select the bigger container instead of buying several smaller ones over time.
9. Bring your own garment bag to the dry cleaner. Invest in a zippered fabric bag and request that your cleaned items be returned in it instead of sheathed in plastic. (And while you’re at it, make sure you’re frequenting a dry cleaner that skips the perc, a toxic chemical found in some cleaning solvents.)
10. Put pressure on manufacturers. Though we can make a difference through our own habits, corporations obviously have a much bigger footprint. If you believe a company could be smarter about its packaging, make your voice heard. Write a letter, send a tweet, or hit them where it really hurts: Give your money to a more sustainable competitor.
All-About-Water-Filters.com. 2018 “The 10 Worst Industrial Causes of Water Pollution (A Man-Made Crisis?)” www.all-about-water-filters.com/worst-industrial-causes-of-water-pollution/#tab-con-4
Allison Ballard. July 3, 2017 “GenX Unknowns Frustrate Folks at Forum.” Coastal Review Online.
G. P. Clasby. 2000 “Economic Geology: Lessons Learned from Deep-Sea Mining.” Science 289:551-3.
Conserve Energy Future. 2018 “10 Interesting Facts about Water Pollution.”
Sarah Engler. 2016 “10 Ways to Reduce Plastic.”
Merlin Hearn. 2018 “20 Water Pollution Facts for the U.S. and the World.”
Benjamin Holt, Rebecca Trinh, Michelle M. Gierach. 2017 "Stormwater Runoff Plumes in the Southern California Bight: A Comparison Study with SAR and MODIS Imagery." Marine Pollution Bulletin 118:141–154.
G. Tyler Miller and Scott E. Spoolman. 2016 Environmental Science (15th Edition). Boston: Cengage Learning.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2018 “Ocean Pollution.”
The Ocean Portal Team of The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. 2018 “Ocean Acidification.” www.ocean.si.edu/ocean-acidification
United States Geological Survey. 2016 “USGS Groundwater Data for the Nation.”
Wikipedia. 2018 “Marine Pollution.” www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marine_pollution
Chris Woodford. June 4, 2017 “Water Pollution: An Introduction.”
Read and See More on Use of Water and Water Pollution
Jeff Akst. December 15, 2014 “An Ocean of Plastic.” The Scientist.
A new study surveys the extent of the plastic problem in the world’s oceans, estimating more than 5 trillion pieces weighing nearly 250,000 tons.
Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich. February 12, 2018. “Here are the Places That Struggle to Meet the Rules on Safe Drinking Water.” www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/climate/drinking-water-safety.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FWater%20Pollution&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection
To ensure that tap water in the United States is safe to drink, the federal government has been steadily tightening the health standards for the nation’s water supplies for decades. But over and over again, local water systems around the country have failed to meet these requirements.
Environmental Protection Agency. 2018 “Water Topics.”
A compendium of information on water-related topics.
Brian Schutmaat. January 6, 2016 “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” The New York Times Magazine. www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html
The story of an attorney who battled DuPont’s long history of chemical pollution.
Megan Scudellari. August 1, 2015 “Drugging the Environment.” The Scientist.
Humans have spiked ecosystems with a flood of active pharmaceuticals. The drugs are feminizing male fish, confusing birds, and worrying scientists.
(Sample Scholarly Article) Susanna A. Bassi, Thomas A. Christiansen, and Anders Damgaard. 2017 “Environmental Performance of Household Management in Europe – An Example of Seven Countries.” Waste Management 69:545-557.
Study examines factors that influence participation in household environmentally sound waste management activities. Among other findings, it is determined that the quality and usage of recovered materials and energy is a more motivating factor than the quantity of the management.
(Sample Scholarly article) Gabriella Caruso. 2015 "Microplastics in Marine Environments: Possible Interactions with the Microbial Assemblage " Journal of Pollution Effects and Control 3:e111. doi:10.4172/2375-4397.1000e111. www.omicsonline.org/open-access/microplastics-in-marine-environments-possible-interactions-with-the-microbial-assemblage-2375-4397-1000e111.php?aid=57239
Litter represents one of the most important problems threatening all the marine environments. Among litter, 40-80% is represented by plastics, whose amount has significantly increased in the last years. The global annual production of plastics is estimated to be around 280 million tons, the vast majority being for disposable use. The main sources of plastics are land or marine-based (i.e. fishing nets) and the highest pollution levels are generally reached close to heavy urbanized areas, from which plastic debris are dispersed depending on hydrodynamic patterns.
(Video) DiveIn. “How Ocean Pollution Affects Humans.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTXh9SKgv98&feature=youtube
A startling look at the effect of ocean pollution.
(Video Kiro. “Water Pollution.”
Demonstrates the importance of water and the battle to keep it clean.
Sample of Scholarly Journals:
Hydrology: Current Research
International Journal of Water Resources Development
Journal of Marine Biology and Oceanography
Journal of Pollution Effects and Control
Ocean Science Journal