Fresh water pollution is a major concern for our environment, particularly because we have relatively little available fresh water.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, about being stuck in the middle of a windless ocean, “Water, water, everywhere / Nor any drop to drink.” Water covers over 70% of the earth’s surface, but only 3% of that water is fresh. Furthermore, only a minuscule 0.5% of that fresh water is available for human use — much of the rest remains trapped in inaccessible forms like glaciers and snowpacks. So, it’s imperative that we keep our small percentage of usable fresh water clean.
Unfortunately, pieces of plastic and debris are a sad but common sight in water bodies like lakes and rivers, and less apparent chemicals and pollutants also play a major role. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), almost half of U.S. rivers and streams are too polluted to use, and so are more than one-third of our lakes.
Fortunately, though water contamination is a major, complex global issue, you can take many steps at home to help mitigate the harmful effects of water pollution and help maintain clean water supplies.
What Causes Water Pollution?
Because our supply of available fresh water is so small, pollution becomes an even greater concern. Pollution gets into our water supply in a variety of ways. Legal discharge from industrial sources is one way — and illegal discharge is another. Pollutants can also leak out of water treatment facilities, oil pipelines, and fracking operations. Windstorms and flooding also contaminate our water supply by washing pollutants and debris into it.
In the United States, industrial pollution is relatively tightly regulated. So although direct industrial pollution is still a problem, our main source of fresh water pollution is nonpoint source pollution. In nonpoint source pollution, rather than being dumped from a specific polluting source, contaminants seep into our groundwater from a variety of sources when rain or flooding brings pollutants into contact with our water supply. This type of runoff pollution is still toxic, though. It can contain contaminants like pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, oil, arsenic, other toxic chemicals, livestock and pet waste, bacteria and viruses, and so forth. Lead pollution can also seep into our water through older plumbing infrastructure like lead pipes.
In the United States, agricultural runoff is the single biggest source of contamination in rivers and streams. The United States uses about a billion pounds of pesticides per year, much of that in agricultural applications. Herbicides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals contribute to pollution as well. When it rains or floods, runoff from farms carries these pollutants into rivers, streams, lakes, and groundwater, and from there it’s easy for them to end up in municipal water supplies and well water. If workers do not handle animal waste properly or practice good personal hygiene, bacterial infections such as giardia, cryptosporidium, E. coli, salmonella, and others can accumulate and run off into our water as well.
Water pollution has a variety of adverse effects on human health and our environment. One of these has to do with algae overgrowth. Chemical concentrations such as nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff diminish water oxygen levels in water in a process known as eutrophication. In eutrophication, nitrogen and phosphate act like algae fertilizer, creating flourishing algae blooms in surface water such as lakes and rivers. These blooms stifle populations of fish and other aquatic organisms and sicken other animals all the way up the food chain.
Nutrient pollution from phosphates and nitrogen is the number one threat to water quality the world over. As many as 30 million to 48 million Americans get their water from aquifers that are susceptible to algae contamination, and these citizens could develop health issues from gastrointestinal ailments to kidney and liver damage if the contaminated water did not receive proper treatment.
2. Wastewater Dumping and Overflow
Developed countries typically treat about 70% of the wastewater they generate. The rest is dumped back into waterways without treatment. In middle-income and developing countries, the amount of treated wastewater drops substantially to between 28 and 38% for middle-income countries and 8% for many developing countries. Overall, around the world, about 80% of all wastewater is released back into the environment without first undergoing treatment.
In most areas of the United States, we are lucky to have robust wastewater treatment programs. Nevertheless, our aging wastewater infrastructure is far from perfect. The National Resources Defense Council reports that unsafe contaminants, from arsenic to lead, have been found in the tap water of every state in the country.
A couple of the primary causes of water contamination are industrial waste and city sewage.
Industrial waste contains heavy metals and toxic chemicals, and as we have seen, not all wastewater ends up getting treated, much less 100% purified. Mining industries use water to separate ore from rock and can end up sweeping small particles of heavy metals into our water supply. And industries like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to produce shale gas create enormous quantities of wastewater, much of it contaminated with heavy metals, radionucleotides, and other pollutants. Or gasoline or oil may spill into our oceans and rivers, potentially contaminating our water supply.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 2 billion people worldwide drink water contaminated with fecal matter. And this contaminated drinking water, which is likely to contain bacterial diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and even polio, is believed to cause at least 485,000 deaths annually. Unsafe water kills more people globally each year than all forms of violence combined, including war.
This issue is not confined to developing nations. In the United States, according to the EPA, sewer overflows release 850 billion gallons of raw sewage and stormwater annually, spewing bacterial toxins into our fresh waterways. Sewer line breaks also release harmful toxins from human waste into the environment. In America, 3.5 million people a year contract bacterial diseases from swimming in sewage-contaminated water.
3. Water's Solvent Properties
Water is known as the “universal solvent” because it dissolves more substances than any other liquid. But water’s solvent properties also increase its likelihood of becoming polluted.
Water is a polar molecule. To form water, oxygen bonds covalently with two hydrogen atoms. This covalent bonding means the oxygen and hydrogen atoms share electrons so they can each fill their outermost electron shells.
Oxygen is more electronegative than hydrogen, so it tends to pull the electrons closer, giving itself a slightly negative charge and giving the two hydrogen atoms a slightly positive charge. These charged areas of water molecules are electrically attracted to other charged substances and can pull them apart, dissolving them easily. Ionic compounds such as salts, in particular, dissolve readily in water. But this property also means water readily dissolves pollutants into itself, rather than refusing to mix with them.
How We Can Prevent Water Pollution
Homeowners can lessen their impact on water pollution in many ways. Below are twelve ideas for how to prevent water pollution at home and in your community.
1. Avoid Hardscaped Surfaces
Hard materials lead to runoff because they do not absorb water. And streams of runoff can carry away harsh chemicals like detergents and pesticides and dump them into our water supply. For landscaping features or pathways in your yard, try to use porous materials like gravel, wood, and paving stones rather than hard concrete. Some hard home surfaces like driveways are unavoidable, but we can take steps to diminish runoff from these surfaces. For example, planting shrubs along the side of a driveway creates a root system that can trap and hold water.
2. Pick Up After Pets
Pet waste in yards, parks, and trail systems is unsightly, but it’s also harmful to our environment, particularly our water supply. Pet waste is laden with bacteria that can easily contaminate groundwater and make us ill if we ingest it. Though municipal water receives treatment for these contaminants, there’s always a possibility that some bacteria could slip through. And well-water users do not get the benefits of such treatments. By picking up after pets, we can significantly diminish the public health issue of bacteria-contaminated water. It’s also helpful to walk dogs in grassy areas rather than near streams or rivers.
3. Don't Put Nondegradable Products Down Your Toilet or Sink
Try not to dump paints, motor oil, harsh cleaners, or unused medicines directly into a drain or flush them down a toilet. These substances contain harmful contaminants such as ammonia and formaldehyde, and the contaminants can sometimes make it through wastewater treatment facilities and end up in our water supply. Many pharmacies will take back old medicines and dispose of them safely. Search online or contact your sanitation company to find out where you can safely dispose of other hazardous products.
It’s also a good idea not to put solid objects like baby wipes or other garbage down the toilet. Baby wipes often contain plastic, which does not degrade well over time. Instead, it can end up collecting in sewer systems and leaching plastic chemicals into the water. Or, if they make it through the sewage system, these items end up contaminating our lakes, rivers, and other waterways.
4. Minimize Garbage Disposal Use and Liquid Grease Disposal
Do your part for the environment by keeping food and grease out of pipes, as well. Many food products can form blockages, causing sewer pipes to back up or burst. When they do, they spill contaminated water into the surrounding environment. Grease is a particular culprit — if you pour hot grease down the drain, it often solidifies as it cools and causes plumbing headaches.
Instead of using your garbage disposal, try creating a compost pile, and remember to pour hot grease into a can to cool and solidify before throwing it away.
5. Reduce Pesticide Use
Reducing home pesticide use is crucial for keeping waterways and groundwater contaminant-free. Pesticides can easily run off into waterways, seep into groundwater and end up in our water supply. Most of us don’t want to consume pesticides with our food, so why would we want to ingest them with our drinking water? The National Pest Information Center recommends using an integrated approach by monitoring, deterring, and excluding pests from your property, tolerating harmless pests, and using pesticides sparingly and only as a last resort.
6. Conserve Water
Most of us know conserving water helps preserve essential wildlife habitats, but conserving water can help reduce water pollution, as well. When we use less water, less energy is necessary to treat, supply, and heat our water. A lower energy burden means less use of fossil fuels. Reduced use of fossil fuels has numerous benefits, and one of them is that it spews fewer pollutants into the atmosphere that can eventually make their way into waterways and groundwater and from there into our water supply.
7. Plant Trees
Planting trees helps reduce water pollution in a couple of critical ways. For one thing, trees’ extensive root systems create a barrier to runoff and help keep contaminants from running into our water supply. A typical tree can soak up as much as 2,380 gallons of rainwater a year. For another thing, trees can also act as natural water purifiers. Their root networks filter contaminants out of the water as it soaks through the soil, keeping those contaminants from reaching our water supply. Planting trees has an abundance of benefits, from increasing biodiversity to providing wildlife habitats to diminishing carbon dioxide concentrations in the air, and helping to reduce water pollution is unquestionably one of those benefits.
8. Install Water-Efficient Appliances
Installing water-efficient appliances helps reduce water pollution because the water from appliances carries contaminants out of homes and into our water supply. Dishwashers flush dish detergent into the water system, and washing machines do the same with laundry detergent, along with any chemical residues that may be clinging to your dirty clothes. Reducing your water use also allows you to use about one-third less detergent, so you’re putting fewer potential contaminants into your water.
9. Use Phosphate-Free Detergent and Dish Detergent
In those appliances, it’s also a good idea to use a detergent that’s gentle on the environment. The EPA recommends using a phosphate-free detergent in your laundry machines and dishwashers. They help keep the water supply free from phosphate contaminants, which diminish oxygen levels in lakes and rivers and contribute to algae blooms. These phosphate-free detergents typically contain relatively gentle surfactants that break down quickly into non-polluting compounds, so they help you minimize chemical pollution from your home.
10. Run Only Full Loads
Every time you run your dishwasher or laundry machine, it discharges contaminated water into the sewer system. Though the discharged water undergoes treatment at a water treatment plant, some contaminants from sewage and wastewater may slip through to the environment.
Running only full loads helps you mitigate these environmental harms. You'll do fewer loads of laundry, run fewer dishwasher cycles, and discharge less contaminated water from your home.
11. Reduce Plastic Consumption
Chemicals in plastic bottles and containers can easily leach into groundwater and contaminate our drinking water. And because plastic does not degrade well, it provides an exceptionally long window for contamination to occur. Especially in unlined landfills, it’s incredibly likely for contamination to seep into the soil and contaminate the groundwater. Forever chemicals such as PFAS, which is found in many fast-food and takeout containers because it keeps them from breaking down upon contact with fats and grease, can live on for many years in both our environment and our bodies.
12. Experiment With Organic Foods and Vegetarian Options
Organic foods help keep pollutants out of the water because their growing methods use no pesticides. When you wash a non-organic apple at the kitchen sink, lingering pesticide residue could transfer to the water. When you wash organic fruits and vegetables, you'll likely transfer fewer pesticides, keeping the water clean.
Additionally, agricultural operations that produce meat use large quantities of water, and the fertilizers, pesticides, and manure often run off into the water supply. Diminished meat consumption would mean less meat production and smaller volumes of contaminated water to run off.
How Carbon Filters Can Help Avoid Water Pollution
We must take care of our water to ensure a clean and healthful water supply. It’s also essential that we take care of ourselves, our families, and our drinking, bathing, and cooking water by reducing water pollution’s effects.
Carbon block filters help prevent water contamination from reaching your home. Advanced carbon block filter technology, such as that used in Multipure products, is the most effective treatment available for reducing the number of contaminants that enter your home’s water, particularly contaminants from runoff. Some of the most advanced carbon block water treatment systems are NSF-certified to be able to remove a variety of contaminants.
Solid carbon block filters contain activated carbon that performs several useful functions to help keep harmful contaminants — including lead, chlorine, benzene, and many more — out of your home’s water. The combination of these different functions allows a single filter to be effective against an enormous spectrum of water pollutants.
- Mechanical filtration: Because the carbon in these filters is so dense and compact, it filters out exceptionally minuscule particles as small as 0.5 microns in size. This filtration helps keep harmful contaminant particles out of your home’s water supply.
- Electrokinetic adsorption: Adsorption is the process of collecting solute molecules on a surface — in this case, collecting dissolved contaminants on the carbon block filter. Carbon block filters have a prefilter that acquires a positive charge as water flows through it. In contrast, most pollutants found in water are negatively charged. The positively charged filter attracts these negatively charged particles and allows for the filtration of even smaller contaminants than mechanical filtration alone.
- Physiochemical adsorption: Carbon block filters also have a large surface area to facilitate the adsorption of harmful pollutants. The large surface area of carbon block filters creates a sustained contact time between the filter and the water, facilitating the effective adsorption of many pollutants, including heavy metals, herbicides, and pesticides.
For the most effective protection, shop around for different options and see what type of carbon filtration system would work best for your home.
Prevent Water Pollution in Your Home With a Multipure Filtration System
When you’re looking for a home water filtration system, make Multipure your trusted source. We have an extensive catalog of drinking water filtration systems and home essential filtration systems. So you can get anything from a whole-house filtration system to a water purification system specifically designed to remove waterborne viruses and bacteria.
We want to help you get the best, safest, cleanest, and best-tasting water you can. Contact us today.