How Drinking Polluted Water Impacts Our Physical Health

Water pollution is a global health and environmental problem. It may not feel urgent because it has taken a back seat to climate change. However, this issue continues to affect billions of people, sealing their fate. Learn about water quality importance, how contamination occurs, the most common causes and water pollution effects to understand this matter deeply.

Why Is Water Quality Important?

Water quality matters because H2O plays a vital role in various bodily functions. This substance helps regulate your temperature, brings nutrients to cells, flushes waste, lubricates your joints, aids proper kidney function and more.

Water comprises most of your body. It’s one of the building blocks of blood, saliva, tears, urine, sweat, digestive juices and other biofluids. Your bones, lean muscle and fat contain it, too.

All living organisms need water. Although proper hydration is essential for survival, drinking water does more harm than good when polluted. Drinking or eating food cooked with unsafe water can be detrimental to your health.

Swimming in a contaminated ocean, sea, river, creek, lake or pond can be hazardous, too. You can get sick from accidentally swallowing or inhaling a pollutant. Your body can absorb contaminants through your skin when bathing in unsafe water.

Questioning a source’s quality before exposing yourself to water — especially in a foreign environment. Tap water outside the United States can get you sick, so you may have to stick with bottled beverages to stay hydrated.

How Does Water Pollution Affect Human Health?

Water pollution effects vary from contaminant to contaminant. Some pollutants are more harmful than others, but all negatively impact human health in one way or another. They can affect specific organs, causing painful, uncomfortable and potentially fatal medical conditions.

Cholera, dysentery, Escherichia coli infection, giardiasis, hepatitis A, polio, salmonellosis and typhoid fever are usual illnesses linked to dirty water. However, diarrhea is the most common.

You can get diarrhea due to dirty water ingestion, poor hand hygiene and inadequate sanitation. About 1 million people die yearly because of it. Access to clean water could mitigate the risk factors and save the lives of the 395,000 children below five who succumb to it each year.

What makes diarrhea more menacing is it causes dehydration. It increases the infected’s need for fluids when there may already be limited access to clean water. A person with this illness swimming in recreational water can cause an outbreak.

If an illness related to water pollution doesn’t kill you, you can experience malnutrition, skin discoloration and long-term organ damage. Extended exposure to dirty water can also impair your nervous system, jeopardize your reproductive abilities and compromise your development.

Water pollution-related illnesses are more prevalent in the developing world. About 90% and 57% of wastewater in low-income and lower-middle-income countries goes uncollected, respectively. You can only treat what you can intercept. Therefore, reusing polluted water is highly likely to happen in the developing world.

How Does Water Pollution Happen?

Water pollution happens when a contaminant mixes with it. Water impurities can be biological, physical, chemical and radiological.

Biological contaminants are pathogens — disease-causing microorganisms. Bacteria, viruses, protozoa and some parasites are pathogenic microbes. Physical pollutants affect water’s physical properties or appearance. An animal carcass is an excellent example of a biological and physical water contaminant, for it can shed skin, feathers and other debris and cause waterborne illnesses through bacteria.

Chemical contaminants are hazardous wastes. They can be naturally occurring — like lead — or artificial — like synthetic pesticides. Radiological impurities are elements with an unbalanced proton and neutron count. They release ionizing radiation because of their unstable atoms. Uranium is a terrific case in point.

Water pollution can be point-source, nonpoint-source or transboundary. Point source pollution is when contamination originates from a single point. Nonpoint source pollution is when contaminants come from diffuse sources. Transboundary pollution is when a compromised body of water crosses international borders.

Water pollution scenarios can be endless. Investigating how it began, keeping it in check and preventing it from recurring can be challenging. The water cycle itself can’t always remove pollutants from about 336 million cubic miles of water as it moves between various states.

For instance, sewage produced by a community without access to a sewer system can render creeks, streams, rivers and other surface water types unfit for drinking, fishing, cooking and swimming. An oil spill can compromise ocean water for marine life. Fertilizer runoff can cause nitrates and phosphates to leach into and spoil an aquifer for millennia. Pollutants can also be found in certain organic chemicals found in drinking water.

Reversing water pollution is an enormous task. Although the planet can fix itself, natural processes can take forever. Technology-based methods — such as wastewater treatment and stormwater management — can speed up things, but they may cost lots of money and can’t make contaminated water fresh overnight. 

What Is the Main Cause of Water Pollution?

Wastewater is the leading cause of point-source water pollution, whereas stormwater runoff is usually behind nonpoint-source pollution. Either can result in transboundary pollution and have adverse water pollution effects on various populations.

1. Wastewater

Wastewater can come from residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial activities.

Residential wastewater — or sewage — contains nitrogen and phosphorus from human feces and other contaminants. Commercial wastewater comes from businesses outside the agricultural and industrial sectors. Think of car washes and laundromats.

Agricultural wastewater is a byproduct of farming and animal husbandry practices, including compositing, livestock feeding operations, manure and milking center and slaughterhouse activities. Industrial wastewater stems from factories.

Wastewater must undergo a filtration process before reaching clean freshwater sources for reuse. Everyone is responsible, but local governments do most of the heavy lifting. American treatment plants handle 34 billion gallons of it daily. The authorities also monitor treated water quality to ensure every facility’s discharge meets standards.

Septic systems treat sewage at the source in about one-fifth of households nationwide. They can fail due to aging, improper maintenance, poor design and overloading. Malfunctioning septic systems can result in backups, directing sewage to go where it shouldn’t and wreak havoc on human health.

Treatment methods aim to keep specific impurities at low concentrations to ensure wastewater quality is good enough for particular uses. For instance, using treated wastewater for crop irrigation can naturally add nutrients to the soil and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. 

The key is reclaiming treated wastewater so it doesn’t contaminate freshwater sources whose uses require them to be as clean as possible. Unfortunately, treatment plants typically release discharges to local bodies of water despite still having some nitrogen and phosphorus.Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus amounts encourage algae growth. Unchecked algae proliferation can diminish water quality, compete with other marine creatures for oxygen, cause ecological imbalance and threaten food security. Limited food resources can keep you from getting the nutrients you require to stay healthy.

2. Stormwater Runoff

Precipitation transports pollutants from hard surfaces — such as roofs and roads — to local waterways. The bigger the flood, the more contaminants it can carry.

Stormwater runoff is the main culprit in water pollution in the U.S. It’s challenging to manage since the volumes of contaminated water in some inundation incidents are too massive to contain. It’s also demanding to regulate, for nobody can point fingers at a single identifiable culprit.

Neutralizing Water Pollution Effects

A cup of prevention is worth a gallon of cure. Purifying dirty water can be lengthy, costly and inefficient, so do your best to minimize contamination. Pollution is inevitable, but being mindful of your water consumption and wastewater treatment system will make a difference in staying healthy.

Beth Rush
Author: Beth Rush

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